Swing State Tango

By R. Alan Clanton

Thursday Review Editor


In the age of precision polling, hyper-professional political management and intense, hour-by-hour media scrutiny, those places in the country known as "swing states" have now become familiar by their newer, more divisive and warlike name: the Battleground States.

The term has become a fixture in our language since the election of 2000, when "armies" of political pros and amateurs “invaded” Florida--before, during, and after the election deadlock.  There were skirmishes, fights, battles, and, there was trench warfare.  There were defiant last stands in courthouses, and there was frontline fighting in nearly every office of every election supervisor from one end of the Sunshine State to the other.

This inflated language of political ground-war stuck and has remained a permanent part of our daily news feed ever since, from the voting machine wars in Ohio in 2004, to the Tea Party insurrections of 2010, to the return of the Culture Wars and the Budget Battles. At CNN, MSNBC and Fox News, divisiveness is more fun--and profitable--than agreement.

So it is in this context that six states can be counted upon to be at the center of campaign attention and media scrutiny for the foreseeable future (meaning now through November): Florida and Ohio (both regarded dead-even toss-ups), Virginia, Colorado, Nevada and Iowa.  Assuming there are no major gaffes or meltdowns by either President Obama or Mitt Romney, these states may prove pivotal in the arithmetic of the Electoral College.  In fact, a shift of only a few thousand votes in Ohio or Florida--the two big prizes among the battleground states--could prove decisive, just as they proved decisive to the outcomes of 2000 and 2004.

So, even though we are months away from the conventions, the battles have begun.

On Thursday, both President Obama and GOP presumptive-nominee Mitt Romney made campaign appearances in Ohio, a state once so solidly Republican--or so the joke goes--that road maps were printed on red paper, but now so closely matched that the Buckeye State could go either way in November.  Obama spoke in Cleveland while Romney spoke in Cincinnati, and Thursday's war of words (CNN and several online magazines called them "dueling speeches") was almost all about the economy--the President suggesting that a vote for Romney would be a vote to return to the very profit-obsessed policies which triggered the start of the current recession, and Romney turning the question of economic pain and stagnation back onto Obama by paraphrasing Ronald Reagan's rhetorical question: are you better off now than you were four years ago?

Romney and Obama each stressed, in their own ways, that this election would come down to the economy and jobs, and what policy direction Americans will choose to bring about a full recovery.  Prior to April and May the President could cite the improvements, meager and tentative, though measurable, as a sign that things were slowly but surely moving in the right direction.  Even lower gas prices seemed to be offering an additional glimmer of hope. But poor job reports and a recent free-fall in consumer confidence may have proved to be a serious setback to Obama's November end game: many Americans feel they are not better off than they were four years ago.  Short of an unpopular war, there is little worse an incumbent President could face than a flatlined economy.

But that same sword has injured Romney as well: recent polls indicate that Americans blame GOP policies and Wall Street mismanagement for the current recession more than they blame Democrats.  So Romney, too, must walk a thin line, talking up job creation and market growth without seeming to embrace the pre-meltdown policies espoused by some of the most infamous of the One Percenters.  Despite Romney's recent repackaging of his campaign to make the message all about jobs, Obama's strategists may soon begin to deploy harsher methods in their anti-Romney advertising, attempting to tie noisier cans to Romney's rear bumper and linking him more directly to the greediest of tactics which many Americans fault for being central to the mortgage crash.

Ohio's economic pain has been substantial, so the stakes are high for the President and the former governor.  Indeed, as long as Ohio remains one of those carefully watched Battleground States, Ohioans can expect to see a lot of Obama and Romney between now and November 6.

In Florida, meanwhile, Governor Rick Scott, and his Republican allies in Tallahassee, seek to eliminate the possibility of vote fraud in upcoming elections by removing some of the names of those ineligible (or illegally registered) to vote.  Accused by Democrats of purging people from registration lists, Florida once again finds itself smack in the middle of national scrutiny over its election processes. The issue has been predictably inflated by both sides--Republicans who defiantly say that this is a simple but necessary step to insure a fair and honest election in November; Democrats and liberals who accuse Florida politicians of a widespread purge of residents with Latino or foreign-sounding names, residents who might be inclined to vote Democratic.

In interviews with the major networks, Governor Scott says that the current audit is most decidedly not a purge, merely a long-overdue clean-up and the systematic enforcement of laws already on the books.  Scott has asked for database assistance from the Department of Homeland Security, but that help has not been forthcoming.  Democrats and a variety of liberal interest groups say that the governor is seeking to not merely control Florida's internal alignment, but that he also hopes to sway the outcome of the Presidential election by skewing the red-blue divide in one of the most critical of the Battleground States.

So, fairly or unfairly, Scott has been easily lumped into the complex and nasty brouhaha over immigration, voter ID, nationality and ethnicity--the same toxic arena in which Arizona and Alabama have found themselves this year.  And though it is unlikely that either Arizona or Alabama would prove decisive in a national election (Alabama is even more reliably Republican than Alaska), the inclusion or subtraction of a few hundred voters in Florida could have huge consequences.

So, as is often the case, Democrats and Republicans talk past each other: easier to play the divisive card than find some area of basic agreement, and in the meantime the Florida GOP finds itself in the uncomfortable position of sailing into the wind of political-correctness on this issue.  And the mainstream media, which loves a good fight (but loves a dirty fight even better), gets a chance to inflate the font size of the headlines and shout a little louder.

Then, on Friday, the stakes got even higher when President Obama announced his unilateral decision to allow undocumented young people--the children and adult children of illegal immigrants--legal pathways to remain in the U.S.  In an email from Katherine Archuleta, National Political Director for the Obama campaign, she said that "effective immediately, the Department of Homeland Security is taking steps to ensure that young, undocumented immigrants who were brought here as children by their parents, and who have followed the law since then, will be able to request temporary relief from deportation proceedings--and will be allowed to apply for authorization to work in this country."

At the core of the President's decree is a plan which bears a close resemblance to the proposal floated a couple of months ago by Senator Marco Rubio of Florida, a plan which was, however, given only a lukewarm review by some Republicans.  Romney, in fact, shrugged it off and offered only that the plan had merit, much the same kind of unenthusiastic praise John McCain received for similar talk back in 2008.

In the meantime Obama seeks to unbalance Romney on this same issue.  Though Obama's policy would not empower any of the affected young people to vote, the mere appearance of implementation may be enough to sway independent-minded Latinos--related or not related to the immigrants included in the program--easily into the President's column, a move which might have a huge impact not only in Florida, but also in a dozen other states.

So, for our readers in Ohio and Florida (as well as the other battleground states seen on that big interactive screen so often visited by John King and Wolf Blitzer) stay tuned...there will be plenty more of these skirmishes.