Mitt’s strategic malpractice

Why did the Romney campaign wait until the last minute to try to expand the electoral map?

Topics: Mitt Romney, Opening Shot, 2012 Elections,

The national horse race remains a dead heat, but that’s a bad way of understanding where the presidential contest stands. At this point, it’s not that hard to imagine President Obama surpassing 300 electoral votes – far more than he needs to win a second term – but it is difficult (though hardly impossible) to see Mitt Romney reaching 270.

Romney’s path to an Electoral College victory can be broken into two phases. The first involves getting within striking distance of 270, and it requires him to lock down five traditionally Republican states that Obama won in 2008: Indiana, North Carolina, Florida, Colorado and Virginia. Sweep those states and Romney will have 257 electoral votes. Then, if he can pull that off, comes phase two, which involves winning either a) Ohio and its 18 electoral votes; or b) some combination of Wisconsin (10 electoral votes) and New Hampshire (4), Iowa (6) or Nevada (4). Either of these routes would take Romney past 270. (He could also theoretically win just Iowa and Nevada to create a 269-269 tie, which the Republican House would presumably break in his favor.)

Romney’s margin for error, as you can see, is quite small – and there’s an awful lot that can go wrong for him. At this point, the only one of those states he’s truly secured is Indiana. He’s well positioned in North Carolina, but it’s not yet a lock, and Florida is practically a toss-up, with Romney only enjoying a very slight edge in polling. And Virginia and Colorado are dead even. Remember, he needs all of these just to be within range of 270. And in the next group of states – Ohio, Wisconsin, Nevada, Iowa and New Hampshire – he’s running behind Obama.

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This is why a sizable Electoral College victory for Obama is plausible, even if the popular vote ends up being razor-thin (or if Romney actually wins it). And it’s why forecasters agree that the odds of a Romney triumph next Tuesday are long. It also raises the question of why so few states are in play.

After all, if Romney were positioned (at least potentially) to pick off more Obama ’08 states, his path to 270 wouldn’t be nearly as narrow as it now is. Of course, according to his campaign, he is right now in the process of expanding the playing field, with late pushes in Minnesota, Michigan and Pennsylvania.

If Romney could win even one of these states, it would change the electoral math dramatically, and there’s at least some reason to think he has a chance. The Real Clear Politics polling average shows Romney within 5 points in Pennsylvania, a state Obama won by double-digits four years ago, and polls in Michigan point to a mid-single digit lead for Obama, down sharply from the 16-point landslide he earned in ’08. In Minnesota, Obama’s RCP edge is 5 points, half of his ’08 margin over John McCain. (There’s also polling showing a similar spread in Oregon, which Obama carried by 16 points last time around.)

In the final days of the race, Romney’s campaign and pro-Romney super PACs will air ads in these three states, and Romney himself will make a campaign swing through Pennsylvania. Which raises an obvious question: What took them so long?

It was clear months ago that Michigan, Minnesota and Pennsylvania would all be within reach for Romney if he were running even with or ahead of Obama in the national horse race. All three tend to vote Democratic in presidential elections (Pennsylvania and Michigan have done so since 1992, and Minnesota has since 1976), but the margins can be close. In 2004, when George W. Bush bested John Kerry by 2.5 points in the national popular vote, he fell just 2.5 points short in Pennsylvania and 3.5 points in the other two. Each of these states contains a large number of white working-class voters, a group that Obama has struggled with across the country during his presidency.

So it would have made sense for Romney to target these three states (and maybe Oregon too, for that matter) early in this race, to invest in television ads, devote personal campaign time, and – perhaps most important – to build real campaign infrastructures. Instead, his campaign and its super PAC allies are essentially mounting an effort from scratch in the last week of the campaign. Romney doesn’t even appear to have a campaign office in Minnesota, where Obama has a dozen.

It’s baffling why the Romney campaign left these states until the last minute. When the campaign began, everyone knew that they would be the best targets for Romney outside of the obvious battleground states. And it’s not as if he – and more specifically, his super PAC friends – didn’t have the resources to make an early play. If Romney had been going after these states aggressively, the odds of picking off one of them at the wire would be better.

Instead, he’s left trying to create last-minute traction in places he’s ignored all year. That he’s scrambling to compete in Pennsylvania, Michigan and Minnesota is, at this point, a sign of desperation, not confidence. But it didn’t always have to be this way.

Steve Kornacki

Steve Kornacki writes about politics for Salon. Reach him by email at SKornacki@salon.com and follow him on Twitter @SteveKornacki

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