President Obama’s Disproportionate Battleground State Focus Started Early, Echoed Predecessors’ Actions

As President Obama prepares to make campaign stops in Ohio, Virginia, and Florida this week, the logic driving his choice of destinations is clear.  With 18, 13, and 29 Electoral College votes, respectively, the outcome of the elections in these three battleground states this fall could easily be the key to determining who will sit in the Oval Office for the next four years.

No seasoned political observer should be surprised to see a president focus disproportionately on such key electoral states in August of a presidential election year.  Since 48 of the 50 states allocate their Electoral College votes on a winner-take-all basis, campaigns focus their scarce resources on states where the outcome is in doubt.  Both Democratic and Republican presidential candidates see no electoral benefit in turning out more voters in states they are sure to win or lose, such as New York or Texas in 2012.

Evidence from my new book, The Rise of the President’s Permanent Campaign, illustrates that Obama, like most of his recent predecessors, has focused disproportionately on battleground states throughout his term in office.  The following table details the percentage of first-term days of presidential public events that were held in states that the president’s reelection campaign would classify as battleground states.* Maryland and Virginia are excluded from this analysis.**  The highlighted years are those in which the percent of days of travel that the president spent in battleground states exceeded the percent of the population living in those states, indicating disproportionate attention:

A disproportionate focus on battleground states is not new, and it is not limited to reelection years.  Our two most recent presidents are the only ones who disproportionately targeted battleground states in every year of their first term as president. Though only 32 percent of the U.S. population lived in George W. Bush’s battleground states, he spent 42, 46, 42, and 73 percent of his days of travel in these states in each of the four years of his first term. Similarly, while only 36 percent of the U.S. population lives in Obama’s battleground states, he has spent 49, 50, 49, and 56 percent of his days of travel in those states in his first three and a half years as president.

While Bill Clinton spent a lower percentage of his travel in battleground states than their populations would have justified during his first three years, his totals for each year are close to the percentage of the population in those states. Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush both disproportionately targeted battleground states in every year but their second, when the electoral geography of their fellow Republicans drove much of their travel, but even in these years they spent almost as much time in battleground states as predicted by population. Only Jimmy Carter did not disproportionately target battleground states throughout his term in office.

We should not be surprised to see the incentives of the Electoral College reflected in patterns of travel throughout a president’s term in office. Presidents strive to be unifying national leaders, but the rules of our electoral system incentivize reelection-focused presidents to pay attention to certain states more than others.  The evidence here indicates that such disproportionate focus extends well beyond presidential election years.

*Note: The battleground states for President Obama are those highlighted by campaign manager Jim Messina in June 2012.  Battleground states for previous years are drawn from the research of Darshan Goux and Daron Shaw.

**Because a large number of public presidential events occur in the Washington, DC metropolitan area as part of the president’s regular activities that are not representative examples of a president traveling to the states, such as attending a ceremony at the Pentagon, events in Maryland and Virginia are not included in this analysis.

[Cross-posted at The Monkey Cage]

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Brendan Doherty

Brendan Doherty is a political scientist at the U.S. Naval Academy.