In a number of posts over the past weeks, I’ve been looking at where each of the campaigns have been visiting to get a sense of their strategies and objectives. What can sometimes be missed in these daily snapshots is the larger picture or context in which the campaign takes place. Candidate visits are a part of the overall strategy of a campaign. In structuring their campaign, candidates must choose how to allocate their time, resources, and organization as well as how to frame their message and that of their opponent. With limited time, money, and organization the campaigns seek to best maximize the return on these resources within the context of a campaign’s constantly shifting position. If a candidate feels that a state is no longer in reach, they will no longer visit or air advertisements there, as witnessed by McCain’s pullout of Michigan in recent weeks. A candidate confident that a state is on their side won’t waste time with a visit—see Obama and Iowa, for example. If, however, a state seems either in danger of falling out of one’s column or potentially moving into it, a candidate will shift attention there. Here, witness the Obama campaign’s recent shift to Florida and Missouri.
Thus, by looking at where the two campaigns are spending their time, and how this has shifted over the recent weeks, we can get a sense, perhaps, of the larger direction the race is moving in. So, for example, are the campaigns spending most of their time in states won by Bush in 2004? If so, this would seem to bode well for the Obama campaign. If the Democrats are devoting resources to these states at a greater rate than states they won in 2004, they would seem confident in their ability to expand the electoral map and gain the electoral votes necessary for victory (assuming they aren’t sure they’ve already lost states they won in 2004). If McCain, likewise, is spending most of his time in the same states, this would imply a defensive stature. The Republicans can only afford minimal losses from the 2004 Bush map to win the presidency. Given the polling in some of these Bush states (Iowa, New Mexico, Virginia) McCain must find a way to win some states won by Kerry in 2004.
So, then, where are the campaigns actually spending their time? I’ve built a spreadsheet (see here) that tracks each visit by each presidential and vice presidential candidate since the end of the Republic an National Convention. These visits are tabulated by the Washington Post in their “Campaign Tracker” and updated daily. In the first column I’ve listed the date of each visit. Column 2 lists the candidate (Biden, Obama, McCain, Palin) making the visit. Column 3 is the state of the visit followed by the city in Column 4. In Column 5 I’ve noted the few visits that were fundraisers and not traditional campaign rallies or events. In the next 4 columns I’ve captured the “offensive” or “defensive” nature of each visit. This, I feel, will give a sense of the campaign’s real movement. Thus, we see Democratic visits to Bush 2004 states (offensive); Democratic visits to Kerry 2004 states (defensive); Republican visits to Kerry 2004 states (offensive); and Republican visits to Bush 2004 states (defensive). To add a visual dimension to this coding, I’ve color coded each column red (Republican) or blue (Democratic) to allow one to get a quick sense of what’s going on and to see these changes over time. I’ve also coded the visits that coincide with each debate yellow and not counted them in my tabulations as these cities were not chosen by the campaigns. I’ve also not counted a few visits that candidates made to their home state (Biden to Delaware and Palin to Alaska) because these visits do not seem part of the campaigns’ electoral strategy but were rather part of these VP nominees “roll-outs.” I’ve also not counted visits to New York as part of September 11 commemorations as official campaign stops.
In tabulating these visits, a few trends become clear. First, we see that by an overwhelming margin, the race (in terms of visits) is being conducted on Republican turf. This is very good news for the Obama campaign. 115 visits were to states won by Bush in 2004 (64 by the Obama campaign, 51 by the McCain campaign). Only 58 visits were to states won by Kerry in 2004 (26 by the Obama campaign, 32 by the McCain campaign). Put another way, the Obama campaign has spent 71% of its visits in states won by Bush while McCain has only spent 39% of its visits in states won by Kerry. Looking at this in more detail one sees, perhaps, a more dire picture for McCain. In the last ten days, the McCain campaign has only visited 3 states won by Kerry (Pennsylvania, New Hampshire, and 1 stop by Palin in Maine). Over the same time period, the Obama campaign has visited 7 states won by Bush (Florida, Missouri, Nevada, New Mexico, North Carolina, Ohio, and Virginia). Clearly, as Obama’s polling has improved over the past month, the campaign has felt emboldened to venture into a broader array of states, some of which were not thought to be winnable a few months back.
Another thing one notes is that the Obama campaign has been able to use its candidates—at least in terms of ground covered—more efficiently. One notices in the data a number of events attended by both Republican or Democratic candidates. These joint events, while probably larger in scope, are a less efficient use of the candidates’ time. Having two candidates in two places allows a campaign to accomplish more than having two candidates in one place. Here again we seem to have a Democratic advantage. Whereas the Republican ticket has had 19 joint events (thus coded as 38 visits), the Democratic ticket has had only 6.
When we look at the visits candidate by candidate, we don’t see a noticeable difference in terms of the candidates’ workloads. Obama has made 48 visits; Biden 42; McCain 42; and Palin 41. We do see some interesting trends, though, when we look at where each of these candidates has ventured. Joe Biden is probably the most interesting. He has made 43% of his visits to just two states—Ohio (13 visits) and Pennsylvania (5 visits). Thus, the “boy from Scranton” with his blue collar persona is clearly being used to try and shore up the segment of the electorate that has been most elusive to Obama throughout the campaign. Obama has made only 9 visits (19%) to those two states and concentrated his efforts on targets outside the Rust Belt like Colorado, Virginia, and Florida.
Thus, by looking at the campaign in a more “macro” sense, we can get some indication of the direction things seem to be moving. Some states that were earlier seen as competitive have seemed to solidify. Michigan, for example, hasn’t been visited by the McCain camp since September 23. It appears solidly in the Obama column. Likewise, the McCain campaign last visited Wisconsin and Minnesota on October 10. The decision by the RNC to stop airing ads in Wisconsin might signal that the Badger State is out of reach. Other states have suddenly gotten a lot more attention. Prior to October 9, Missouri had gone a month without being visited by the Obama campaign. Since the 9th, though, the Democrats have made 6 visits in a newfound sense of bullishness.
Over the remaining two weeks of the campaign, I’ll continue to monitor these visits to see if any further shifts take place. Should the polling begin to tighten in some states we’ll no doubt see the campaigns flock there. I’d also note, in closing, that the campaigns’ use of advertising will be a part of this larger strategy of resource allocation. The data for this year’s campaign advertising provided by the Wisconsin Advertising Project can be compared with these candidate visits to get a more complete picture of how the Democrats and Republicans view the current state of play. Like with visits, their recent findings suggest a battle being fought on Republican turf. The recent announcement by the Obama campaign that they had raised a staggering $150 million in September ensures that for the remainder of the contest, the Democrats will not be hindered by a lack of resources. While the laws of physics may prevent Obama and Biden from being wherever they would like to be, the opportunities available via the airwaves appear limitless.
**Update: Nate Silver takes a slightly different, but equally interesting, look at the data on candidate visits at FiveThirtyEight.com