Presidential Visits: A Return to Ohio and the Influence of the Electoral System on Presidential Attention

by Katherine Sicienski // Published June 15, 2011

This blog is one of a series which tracks the movements of the President using data from the Washington Post's ‘POTUS Tracker' to examine the effect of battleground status on presidential attention. If you are interested in examining the data, a copy of our compiled data (as of June 14th, 2011) can be downloaded here.

  • What's new since our last blog: President Obama has held events for the first time in Puerto Rico, but still has yet to visit South Carolina, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Kansas, Utah, Nebraska, Idaho, North Dakota, South Dakota, or Vermont.
  • Ten states with the most presidential events, during the Obama presidency: New York, Virginia, Maryland, Florida, California, Ohio, Illinois, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Massachusetts. This remains unchanged since our last entry.
  • States with 5 or more visits in 2011: California, Florida, Illinois, Maryland, Massachusetts, New York, and Virginia. 

On Friday, June 3rd, President Barack Obama delivered remarks at the Chrysler Group Supplier Park in Toledo, Ohio. This was his 22nd event in the state of Ohio since assuming the presidency. Yet since his inauguration in 2009, the President has yet to hold a single event in ten states: South Carolina, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Kansas, Utah, Nebraska, Idaho, North Dakota, South Dakota, or Vermont. Of these 10 states, all but Vermont went strongly Republican in the 2008 presidential election.All but South Carolina (8.9%), North Dakota (8.6%), and South Dakota (8.5%) were decided by lopsided margins of 15% or greater.


Ranked 6th for the number of events attended by the president, Ohio is joined in the Top Ten for presidential attention by such 2008 swing states as Virginia (2nd), Florida (4th) and Pennsylvania (8th). These four states - each won by Obama in 2008 by less than 11% - are seen by some analysts as representing the key to the president's re-election bid in 2012, with a sweep for the president making it nearly impossible for a Republican to win. So far in the President's first term they account for 25% of his total events.


Carried by President Obama by only 2.5% in 2008, Florida continues to receive prominent attention in other ways as well. The New York Times notes that the 848,000 Puerto Rican residents of Florida may be the reason for the President's June 14th visit to Puerto Rico. This will be the first official Presidential visit to Puerto Rico since John F. Kennedy's in 1961, and it is possibly due to the fact that the Florida residents "are not avowed Democrats. This has turned them into pivotal swing voters in a crucial swing state."  Simon Rosenberg, president of the New Democratic Network , suggests that, "the large and growing Puerto Rican population in central Florida will be key to winning the state in 2012."

The other six states receiving the most attention from the President are New York (1st), Maryland (3rd), California (5th), Illinois (7th), Massachusetts (9th), and Wisconsin (10th). While won by Obama by 13% in 2008, Wisconsin remains a potential swing state.It is traditionally hard-fought, and Wisconsin's manufacturing economy was hit hard by the economic recession.  As to Maryland, it is within a few miles of the White House, making it an easy state for events showcasing new polices, while Illinois was represented by Obama in the Senate and is a relatively reliable fundraising source.  

So, you might ask, why has Obama been to the firmly Democratic states of New York, Massachusetts and California a combined 76 times? Notably, 23 of those 76 events were fundraisers and these three states donated a total of $276,896,336 during the 2008 election cycle, 34.3% of nationwide donations. This calculation for the entire top ten among presidential visits makes that percentage 60.9%.


The President's political team seems to be doing similar math to many political analysts, and has been allocating Presidential visits and prestige to areas based on whether its electoral votes are in play in 2012. In January 2011, the Cook Political Report narrowed down the highly competitive swing states to a list of just seven: Colorado, Florida, Iowa, Nevada, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin. Four of the seven are among the President's ten most visited states, and the other three are in the top 25. The visits to these seven states (only 14% of the states and 20% of the voting eligible population in 2008) amount to 99 visits or 26.8% of the total visits. The bottom 25 states received 34 presidential visits or 9.2% of the total visits. That works out to 1.36 visits for every state in the bottom 25, with each of the battleground states receiving an average of 14.14 visits.


As the 2012 election approaches, it is likely that President Obama will continue his electoral focus, visiting swing states where his 2008 margin of victory was within reach of Republicans. Our nation's previous president George Bush showed similar travel patterns in his first presidential term, and his senior strategist Matthew Dowd admitted that the 2004 re-election campaign had not polled a single American living outside of 18 potential swing states in the final two and a half years of Bush's first-term. We have no doubt that states like South Carolina, Arkansas, or Kansas matter to presidents, but given our state-by-state, winner-take-all method of electing the president, political incentives for spending energy on these states are nil. Until we have a national popular vote for president in which every vote in every corner of the nation is equally meaningful, expect to see White House political teams making similar calculations.