Political campaigns have a lot of tools for determining targets of opportunity in the electorate. The real difficulty comes in assessing the weight to assign to each. In the end, a vote is a vote, and for all the talk of Romney needing X percent of this demographic or Obama needing X percent of that one, all either needs are the votes necessary to win 270 EVs, and with the relatively rare exception of certain voters who are genuinely undecided, there’s no real bonus for winning “swing voters.”

I say all this by way of background to the growing belief of political observers that the key demographic in the presidential contest is non-college-educated white women in the battleground states, among whom Mitt Romney is tangibly struggling. National Journal‘s Ron Brownstein explains:

The biggest divergence between…battleground-state polls and national surveys is Obama’s performance among white women without a college education. These women have tilted Republican in every presidential election since 1980 except 1996, and in 2008, Obama won only 41 percent of them. The three recent national surveys showed Obama attracting between 35 percent (Heartland Monitor) and 44 percent (Pew) of their votes.

But in the battleground states, especially in the Midwest, Obama’s performance is stronger. Among these women, the state-level polls show Obama drawing 46 percent in Michigan, 48 percent in Florida, 49 percent in Nevada, 50 percent in New Hampshire and Wisconsin, 51 percent in Pennsylvania, and 52 percent in Ohio and Iowa. Obama still lags badly among them only in North Carolina and Virginia, where many blue-collar whites are also evangelical Christians, and to a lesser extent Colorado.

Brownstein quotes both Republican and Democratic insiders as attributing this anomaly to heavy anti-Romney messaging (mainly in ads, but you’d have to figure the Democratic Convention was a factor as well) exploiting Mitt’s background and personality to suggest that white working-class families are the last people on earth the GOP nominee knows or cares about. Some observers also feel Romney is paying a heavy price in this segment of the electorate for GOP attacks on contraception and women’s health services, a real complication since Republicans would normally double-down on their “war on religion” claims to maximize the white working-class vote. Here’s the money quote:

Both campaigns agree the Democratic ads have damaged Romney much more with blue-collar women than blue-collar men. But both sides also agree that these women are the least stable component of Obama’s emerging coalition. “I still say the noncollege white women are the moving piece of the electorate,” [Democratic pollster Geoff] Garin said. “But Romney is an imperfect vessel for them to say the least.”

That he is. There’s no obvious solution to the apparently widening gender gap within the white working-class vote. Republicans managed to hold down losses among white women in the first half of the last decade by fanning fears of terrorism; that could be one reason (other than reflexive opportunism) for Mitt’s heavy-handed attacks on Obama’s handling of the Libya situation. But this approach obviously runs the risk of distracting attention from Romney’s central economic theme. The same is true of a harsh “otherization” effort to trump perceptions of Romney as a corporate tycoon with renewed doubts about Obama’s background and character. So what we will probably see is a combo platter of frantic efforts to “humanize” Mitt along with the kind of big, bold lies about the impact on the middle class of the two candidates’ agendas that we are seeing in the latest Romney ad. Add in highly targeted messaging on energy policy aimed at coal-dependent regions in Ohio and Virginia, and you’ve got a blunt appeal for Mitt based on comparative economic fears, accompanied by efforts to secure a draw with Obama on the who-can-you-trust factor.

In a very stable election with a low undecided vote and relatively inflexible demographics, Romney may have little choice but to go after non-college educated white women as aggressively as he can, and will likely do so in a way that is designed to boost his already-strong numbers among non-college educated white men. The one thing we know for sure (just ask his primary opponents) is that he will not be inhibited by any moral or civic compunctions from pursuing any potentially effective tactic, no matter how horrifyingly divisive or mendacious his campaign has to become. Imperfect vessel that he is for any kind of positive appeal, the odds remain very high that he will leave no nastiness undeployed between now and November 6.

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Ed Kilgore is a political columnist for New York and managing editor at the Democratic Strategist website. He was a contributing writer at the Washington Monthly from January 2012 until November 2015, and was the principal contributor to the Political Animal blog.