Yet Again, Just Three States Draw The Majority of Campaign Attention: Presidential Tracker Update, October 17, 2012

by Andrea Levien, Presidential Tracker // Published October 17, 2012


Facts in Focus:

  • Two states matter most: Florida and Ohio are among the three states that hosted about half of all presidential campaign events with major party ticket nominees in the fall campaigns of 2004, 2008, and 2012.
  • Jilted swing state: Pennsylvania hosted 13.4% of campaign events in the fall of 2008; it has hosted just 0.1% of events in the fall of 2012.
  • Spectator states of America: Nearly two-thirds of all states did not see a major party presidential or vice-presidential nominee even once in the peak seasons of the 2008 or 2012 campaigns.
  • Small states get no boost: During the 2012 general election campaign, Ohio has hosted the same number campaign events, 34, with the presidential and vice-presidential nominees as the 30 smallest states combined.


This election cycle, the three largest battleground states - Florida, Ohio, and Virginia, together representing about 12.5% of the nation - are receiving the majority of campaign attention as measured by both ad spending and campaign events with presidential and vice-presidential candidates. Florida and Ohio were among the three states in the same position in 2004 and 2008, but Virginia has displaced Pennsylvania as the third most coveted state.

From the end of the Democratic National Convention on September 7 until October 17, President Obama, Vice President Biden, Governor Romney, and Congressmen Ryan have held 61.3% of their campaign events in Florida, Ohio and Virginia. In addition, as reported by the Washington Post, these three states drew 54.3% of the $544 million in ad money spent by the Obama and Romney campaigns and their allies since April 11.

Focusing on just three large swing states is nothing new. During the 2004 election, the Gore and Bush campaigns held 62.5% of campaign events and spent 45.4% of their ad money in Ohio, Florida and Pennsylvania. In 2008, the Obama and McCain campaigns held 49.5% of campaign events and spent 44.8% of their ad money in the same three states.

Below is a chart with the percentages of all ad money spent and percentages of all campaign events held in Florida, Ohio, Virginia, and Pennsylvania in the peak seasons of the 2004 and 2008, as well as the percentages received by those states from the end of this year's Democratic National Convention to the present.


% visits to state (9/26/04-11/2/04)

% ad spending in state (9/26/04-11/2/04)

% campaign events held in state (9/5/08-11/4/08)

% ad spending in state (9/24/08-11/4/08)

% campaign events held in state (9/7/12-10/17/12)

% ad spending in state (4/11/12-10/7/12)






























As we can see, Pennsylvania has experienced a sharp drop in campaign attention. While in 2008, the candidates held 41 campaign events in Pennsylvania between September 5 and November 4, in 2012 the candidates have only held one event there since September 7, one with Governor Mitt Romney. If the candidates keep campaigning the way they are now, it is unlikely that Pennsylvania will see any of them more than a couple of times in the three weeks leading up to the election.

On the other hand, while Pennsylvania is still receiving a good chunk of ad money (11.9% of the money spent since April 11), the candidates are clearly prioritizing Virginia, which has received 17.6% of ad money and twenty campaign events, or 16.8% of events held this fall. This is in stark contrast to the election of 2004, during which Virginia did not receive a single campaign visit or dollar of advertising money.

This switch is not surprising, considering that according to Nate Silver's FiveThirtyEight blog, poll aggregates give Obama a 4.7% lead in Pennsylvania, even after the national shift towards Romney following his energetic debate performance on October 3. In Virginia, on the other hand, Romney leads Obama by 0.2%, making the state a toss up.

While Pennsylvanians may be disappointed that their state is no longer a primary target of the campaigns, what should really shock American voters is just how much attention is being showered on the three largest competitive states. If 61.3% of the 119 campaign events have been held in three states, that means that only 38.7% were held in the remaining 48 states (including DC). However, the other 38.7% of events were actually focused on in just eight states, meaning the candidates have not held a single campaign event in 40 states in the past six weeks.

What's more, all of the swing states this year were also swing states in 2008 - the only difference is that now there are fewer of them. This has meant that 32 states have not been host to a single campaign event in either the 2008 or 2012 fall campaigns. Putting it even more dramatically, this election season, the state of Ohio (with a total of 18 electoral votes) has hosted the same number campaign events as the 30 smallest states combined (with a total of 158 electoral votes). Every indication is that this will be the geographically narrowest campaign in modern American history.

For reformers, these developments highlight the problems with state statutes establishing a winner-take-all rule for allocating electoral votes - that is, awarding all of a state's electoral votes to the candidate who wins the most votes in that state. This rule makes it so that candidates have no reason to campaign in any state where they are clearly ahead or hopelessly behind. With today's degree of partisan polarization, it has become increasingly predictable which states will be swing states - and there are fewer of them now than ever before.

For more information on where the candidates are campaigning, see our Presidential Tracker page. For information on President Obama's travels from his inauguration to the end of the Democratic National Convention and for Governor Romney's travels from the time he effectively secured the Republican nomination on April 24, 2012 to the end of the Democratic National Convention, see the spreadsheets linked on our Presidential Tracker page.

Methodology and definitions:

* FairVote classifies campaign events has events held to sway voters in the areas in which the events are held. For example, a rally or town hall is considered a campaign event for that state, but a fundraiser or a national television appearance does not count as an event for the state in which is was held or filmed.

* At this point in the election cycle, the amount of money spent in each state and in total is not clear, as the various organizations tallying ad spending are using different methodologies. As of now, FairVote is using the Washington Post's ad spending aggregator 'Mad Money', which derives its data from Kantar Media. Kantar does not count ads bought on local cable stations in its tally.