FairVote's Presidential Campaign Tracker: Past, Present, and Future

by Andrea Levien, Presidential Tracker // Published September 18, 2012



The presidential campaign has entered its final weeks, when presidential candidates travel and campaign across the country almost every day (in swing states), advertise on television hundreds of times a day (in swing states), and thousands of volunteers devote their weekends and evenings to getting out the vote (in swing states). This election cycle,  FairVote is continuing our efforts to track the candidates’ travel and television ad spending, just as we did in the 2004 and 2008 campaigns and throughout President Barack Obama’s time in office.

In 2004, FairVote analysis underscored just how unequally different states were treated by George W. Bush and John Kerry’s campaigns. For example, CNN’s data showed that 52% of all ad money spent during the peak season of September 26, 2004 to November 2, 2004 was used in the country’s three largest swing states - Ohio, Florida, and Pennsylvania, while the country’s three largest states - California, New York, and Texas - received only seven ads combined. In contrast, of the 18 states with the smallest populations, 11 received neither a single visit nor ad dollar. In addition, while the campaigns spent more than $10 per voter in New Mexico and Nevada, and more than $1 per voter in 12 additional states, they spent a nickel or less per voter in 28 states, and less than a penny per voter in 25 of those 28 states.

The 11 states with the closest electoral margins in 2004 – Wisconsin, Iowa, New Mexico, New Hampshire, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Nevada, Michigan, Oregon, Colorado, and Florida – accounted for 92% of all candidate visits during peak election season, even though these states only contained 27% of the country’s population. In contrast, the lowest ranking 25 states on the list, home to 51% of the country’s population, received only three candidate visits combined. Those three visits were in New York and Texas. That means that the candidates did not visit 23 states at all.

The 2008 election was no better for most states. The fourteen closest states – with about one-third of the US population -- received 99% of the visits and 95.1% of all ad money spent in the peak season. New York, California, Texas, and Illinois, which also contain close to a third of the country’s population, had no campaign events by either party’s presidential or vice-presidential nominee and about 0.89% of ad money. The four largest swing states (Ohio, Florida, Pennsylvania and Virginia), representing fewer than one in six Americans, received 53.33% of ad money and 55.7% of all visits. 32 states received zero campaign visits and six did not get a single ad dollar.

Relying on Washington Post data, our Presidential Tracker recorded and categorized President Obama’s visits to states throughout his presidency and Romney’s since he became the presumptive Republican nominee in late April. Before the Republican National Convention at the end of August, Obama’s most visited states were a mix of states with his top donors in 2008, mostly larger swing states and White House neighbor Maryland.

New York had 71 visits, 35 of them fundraisers; California had 56 visits, 32 of them fundraisers; Illinois had 32 visits, 16 of them fundraisers; and Texas had 21 visits, 12 of them fundraisers. Maryland has had 31 events, two of which were fundraisers, and none of which were after the month of June. It can reasonably be assumed that these visits were due more to Maryland’s proximity to Washington, D.C. than to any role Maryland might have in the 2012 election – Obama won it in 2008 by a margin of over 25% and the state donated only about 3.37% of his campaign money in 2008.

Of the swing states, Virginia has had 46 events, four of them fundraisers; Florida also has had 46 events, 18 of them fundraisers; Ohio has had 44 events, four of them fundraisers; Iowa has had 30 events, none of them fundraisers; and Pennsylvania had 28 events, six of them fundraisers. As I reported last week, perhaps the starkest example was the 15 events in swing state North Carolina, compared to the zero events in neighboring South Carolina, where Obama’s 45% of the vote in 2008 was just low enough to make it an unlikely target in 2012.

Mitt Romney’s visits between April 24, when he became the presumptive Republican nominee, and the Republican National Convention, also showed a clear preference for donor and swing states. California received a total of 10 events, eight of them fundraisers; New York received seven events, six of them fundraisers; and Texas received six events, three of them fundraisers. Of potential swing states from this summer, Colorado and Michigan each had seven events, two of them fundraisers; Iowa had six, one of them a fundraiser; New Hampshire had seven, one of them a fundraiser; Ohio had eight, none of them fundraisers; Pennsylvania had four, one of them a fundraiser; and Virginia had five events, none of them fundraisers. Michigan has only had one Romney campaign event since June, while Pennsylvania has only had one since late May.

Post-conventions, we are categorizing the travel of all four major party presidential and vice-presidential nominees, using CNN’s ‘On The Trail’ reporting. The candidates are already heavily favoring swing states. President Obama has had eleven campaign events in the past ten days, all of them in the swing states of Colorado, Florida, Iowa, Nevada, New Hampshire, and Ohio; five of the eleven events were in Florida and two were in Ohio. Vice-president Biden has had nine events, three in Iowa, four in Ohio, one in Pennsylvania, and one in Wisconsin.

On the Republican side, Governor Romney has had nine campaign events, one each in Colorado, Iowa, Florida, and New Hampshire, two in Ohio, and three in Virginia. Congressman Ryan has had eight campaign events so far, one each in the swing states of Florida, Ohio, Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada, and Wisconsin, and two in Virginia.

For ad spending in 2012, we will be looking at spending by the individual campaigns and their allied interest groups, relying on the Washington Post’s ‘Mad Money’. Between April 24, when Romney became the presumptive Republican nominee, and the beginning of the Republican National Convention, Obama’s campaign spent $123.6 million in media markets in the swing states of Nevada, Colorado, Iowa, Ohio, Pennsylvania, New Hampshire, Virginia, North Carolina, and Florida, and their surrounding counties (for example, parts of Wyoming share media markets with Colorado). Romney’s campaign has spent $55.8 million on television ads between April 24 and the Republican National Convention, all of which was spent in the same nine states Obama targeted.

Supplementing Romney’s campaign are the three largest pro-Romney Super PACs, American Crossroads/Crossroads GPS, Restore Our Future, and Americans for Prosperity, which have spent a total of $61.8 million combined since Romney became the presumptive Republican nominee. Their spending was less targeted than the campaigns’, with former swing states such as Minnesota and New Mexico, and several Southern states also experiencing a barrage of pro-Romney ads. New York, California, and Texas have yet to experience any ads from any organization, campaign and Super PAC alike.

Making headlines in the past few weeks are the campaigns’ decisions to pull ad money from several former swing states. In the beginning of September, Romney’s campaign and several of his allied Super PACs pulled its ads from Pennsylvania and Michigan airwaves, though Romney’s campaign claims that this does not mean that they have given up on those two states, pointing to their continued robust ground efforts – and just this week, the-Romney Restore our Future is buying ad time in Michigan.

Likewise, Obama’s campaign has not spent any ad money in Pennsylvania in over a month, and one of the president’s allied Super PACs, Priorities USA Action, pulled its ad money from the state in early September. It seems that both Pennsylvania and Michigan, which are currently leaning towards Obama, may be heading to join the other 42 spectator states this campaign season.

In this era of fiercely contested campaigns between two major parties with fewer and fewer true swing voters working within “winner-take-all” state rules for allocating electoral votes, presidential candidates are giving preferential treatment to states they believe that have a chance of winning, but whose electoral outcomes are not certain. This campaign season is shaping up to potentially be focused on fewer states than ever. This should be troubling to those who believe that all Americans’ votes should be equally valued, and that voters should not be disregarded simply because of the partisanship of his or her state. It also creates further incentives for backers of the National Popular Vote plan to work for change for 2016.

Stay tuned as FairVote continues to track where the campaigns and their allied groups spend their resources and send their candidates in the next two months.