DELRAY BEACH, Fla. — The campaign sprint to Election Day began Tuesday, promising to follow a changing path to victory that’s winding through states where President Barack Obama’s once-healthy lead has been shrinking.
With 13 days left and the final debate over, 14 states could swing either way, according to polls and analysts. Obama carried 12 of them in 2008, and the issue most on voters’ minds is the economy, an issue where Republican challenger Mitt Romney has an edge.
A candidate needs 270 electoral votes to win, and two of the biggest prizes, Florida and North Carolina and their combined 44 electoral votes, are trending toward Romney. Five others Obama badly needs – Virginia, New Hampshire, Iowa, Colorado and Nevada, with 38 electoral votes – are too close to call.
The president is maintaining his lead in Ohio, which every president since 1964 has won. But his lead for its 18 electoral votes is shrinking. More troublesome for Obama could be tightening races in states with 56 electoral votes he counted heavily on winning: Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin and possibly Minnesota. Romney faces that kind of threat only in Arizona and Montana, which have 14 electoral votes.
Obama is still in a good position to win most or even all of these battlegrounds, but at the moment the Romney crowd is more upbeat. Senior Romney adviser Kevin Madden talks about how Pennsylvania is “coming into view,” and how Minnesota is “one we have to watch closely.”
In the Obama camp, senior adviser David Axelrod is almost defiant. “No, no, no,” he said when asked about Minnesota and Pennsylvania. “Will we win some states by the same margins as last time? No. But in about every case in those battleground states, you’ll find conflicting polls.”
Axelrod called the final days largely an organizational test. In Florida, for instance, Obama campaign officials note they have 106 offices throughout the state, up from 58 four years ago.
But Romney – and independent analysts – maintain that what also matters is an intangible: How do people feel about how things are going? Can they trust the new guy to do the job?
“You win by creating momentum,” said Sen. John McCain of Arizona, who failed to produce much momentum in the closing weeks of his 2008 Republican presidential campaign.
The biggest trouble sign for Obama is his job approval rating’s struggle to top 50 percent. That signals political danger, said David Paleologos, director of the Suffolk University Political Research Center in Massachusetts.
The economy is by far the campaign’s biggest issue, and “the economy has not changed significantly,” he said. The fight between Obama and Romney has become “the economy versus the other issues.”
So as long as the housing market remains dismal in Nevada, blue-collar workers in the Rust Belt remain insecure and middle-class voters in Iowa see their retirement nest eggs stagnant, Romney has a shot.
“The states in play are moving to Romney,” Paleologos said.
A look at the map:
– The toughest to predict: Virginia, New Hampshire, Iowa, Colorado and Nevada all fall into this category, and all except Iowa share one characteristic: They’re diverse states full of new voters who are scrambling the traditional political equations.
The influx of white-collar suburbanites into northern Virginia helped Obama win the state in 2008, the first time since 1964 that a Democrat has carried Virginia. In New Hampshire, a similar suburban influx has helped break the Granite State’s Republican lock.
Colorado and Nevada could depend on turnout by Hispanic voters, who polls show prefer Obama overwhelmingly.
In Iowa, the middle class is the group to watch.
“We have low unemployment. And it’s not farms, because Obama has been good for agriculture,” said Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa. “It has to do with the loss of wealth by the middle class, and that’s not unique to Iowa.”
– Slipping away from Obama? Florida and North Carolina. Privately, Obama supporters bemoan a struggling effort in Florida, though the president held a raucous rally Tuesday in Delray Beach that drew 11,000. Romney has been slowly gaining and was up 1.8 percentage points Tuesday in poll averages reported by RealClearPolitics, a nonpartisan website.
“Florida’s one of those states, it’s like a freight liner, and once it turns – and I think it’s turned – it’s hard to turn back,” Madden said.
North Carolina appears to be heading out of Obama’s reach. The campaign insists it has thousands of volunteers stumping hard, but Romney averages nearly a 6 percentage point lead in the latest polls.
– Ohio: A political world of its own, the state is always an election year puzzle and will be visited frequently by the canddiates because its diverse population largely mirrors America.
Analyst Peter Brown of the Quinnipiac University poll found that though Romney has cut Obama’s 10 percentage point lead last month in half, making up 5 more percentage points in such a short time is difficult.
– Big Obama states: Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin and Minnesota. Obama’s Pennsylvania lead in the Quinnipiac poll last week shrunk to 4 percentage points, down from 12 in September, as Romney’s favorability rating was up 5 percentage points.
Adding Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin to the Republican ticket has helped put that state in play, and Romney’s Michigan roots – his father was the state’s governor and his family is still active – gives him a boost. Minnesota remains a long shot – Republicans say they’re making a renewed effort; Democrats scoff.
– Big Romney states: Arizona and Montana could swing away from Republicans, at least in part because of tight U.S. Senate races that could draw more Democrats to the polls
A Rocky Mountain Poll earlier this month in Arizona found Obama and Romney in a statistical tie. The difference, wrote research director Earl de Berge, will depend on who best turns out their voters “and whether the Democrats can hang onto the Latino vote.”