It’s not just that the candidates are more or less attractive to the American people. It looks like they also pursue different strategies.

We examine county-level campaign appearances by the Republican and Democratic tickets during the 2008 general election. Our analysis reveals that the McCain-Palin ticket campaigned in a way that was quite different from the Obama-Biden ticket. McCain-Palin pursued a “base” strategy that was focused on counties where Bush-Cheney performed well in 2004. They also stayed away from counties that showed vote swings from 2000 to 2004 or population growth. On the other hand, the performance of the Kerry-Edwards ticket in 2004 was a very weak predictor of where Obama-Biden campaigned in 2008. They pursued a “peripheral” strategy that targeted counties that had experienced significant population growth. Their efforts to target peripheral, rather than base constituencies, have significant implications for our understanding of presidential campaign strategy.

From a new paper by Lanhee Chen and Andrew Reeves (gated; ungated).  The piece got some nice coverage here in US News’ Washington Whispers (hat tip to Jim Gimpel):

“In deciding where to go, Republicans privileged past partisan support and avoided geographic constituencies that had either experienced growth or seen electoral variability. For the Democrats, visits were targeted to counties that had seen population change, and therefore, places with the potential for new supporters,” write the authors.

For 2012, Reeves tells Whispers, it’s change or die for the Republicans: “Failure is a great motivator of change—or at least should be.”

And my guess is that it will be easier for Republicans to target new supporters in places that are growing.  The landscape in 2012 will be far less hospitable to Obama—currently, the forecasting models predict a toss-up—and this means that there will be more potential voters in play.

[Cross-posted at the Monkey Cage]

John Sides

John Sides is an associate professor of political science at George Washington University.