Once you strip away the superficialities, a presidential election is a relatively simple exercise. Someone puts their bullshit narrative up against someone else's bullshit narrative in the hopes of reaching the magic number of 270 votes in the electoral college. While a presidential race is always portrayed as a national election, it is anything but. It is really fifty-one separate contests, of which maybe only about ten are really in play in any given year and even that number reduces drastically within a few weeks of election day. We are often told that third-party or write-in votes are a waste, amounting to little more than protest votes. Well, the truth is, if you vote for a Republican presidential candidate in a state like New Jersey or California your vote amounts to little more than a protest vote as well. The same can be said for Democratic voters in states like Georgia or Texas.
An examination of the upcoming 2012 electoral map shows how little is really up for grabs. Even in late February, a little over eight months before we vote, you can already safely color in almost forty states for either a Republican or Democrat. Of the dozen or so states still in play, only one of them went Republican the last time around, meaning that President Obama's path to 270 has a much larger margin for error than whoever the Republican nominee is. Other than fund raising trips to Hollywood and Silicon Valley, a quick glance at the electoral map shows that the Obama team really has no need to venture west of the Mississippi River in order to get reelected. Even if Nevada, New Mexico, Colorado, Nebraska, Iowa, Indiana, North Carolina, and Virginia all return to Republican hands it is still not enough for a Republican victory.
So for all intents and purposes, the 2012 election will most likely be fought in Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Florida. If Obama is victorious in Florida, he probably be able to lose one of the other two and still emerge victorious. The election is localized even further when one takes a closer look at these three key swing states, as the county by county results from 2008 demonstrate. Pennsylvania, which was accurately characterized by James Carville as "Philadelphia and Pittsburgh with Alabama in the middle", may be a swing state but very little of it is actually in play. With Democrats carrying the urban centers of Pittsburgh and Phildelphia, and Republicans winning the rural areas, the only part of Pennsylvania that actually is up for grabs are Philadelphia's vast suburbs. Florida gets a similar electoral downsizing. With the territory north of Orlando having more in common with Georgia and Alabama, there will be little upside to any candidate spending time or resources in that part of the state. The battle for Florida will be confined to the Tampa, Orlando, and Miami. Ohio will be contested in its northeast, centered around Canton, Youngstown, and Akron. With part of this industrial paradise sharing a media market with Pittsburgh, its importance doubles.
Even a presidential election isn't immune from Democratic icon Tip O'Neill's time-honored observation that "All politics is local". The only thing that will matter come November is who focuses their entire operation to be successful in a few select areas. To everyone else in the United States, the only reason you will see a campaign commercial is so you don't feel left out. Everything a campaign says or does should be done with the sole purpose of appealing to the small group of swing voters that occupy a handful of key states.
For all practical purposes, the office of vice-president has only two official roles. The first is to stay awake during the State of the Union Address and the second is to not appear publicly intoxicated at any of the agricultural fairs or ethnic parades they spend the next four years attending. Their only real responsibility is to deliver on election day. Let's say, for argument's sake, that Sarah Palin was actually intelligent, articulate, and sane. She still would have been a lousy choice for a vice presidential candidate. Palin's nomination, while appealing to the base, only excited voters who were going to vote Republican anyway.
Joe Biden, on the other, was an absolutely brilliant choice. Despite being one of the biggest buffoons in contemporary American politics, Biden really came through in 2008. Mind you, it had nothing to do with him having any widespread appeal, it was simply a matter of all politics being local. Having decided that their path to the White House had to go through Pennsylvania, the Obama campaign tapped Biden. With the Philadelphia suburbs being the key to carrying the state, the Delaware senator was perfect. Representing part of Philly's media market, Biden's ability to deliver pork to the area was so well-documented he was often referred to as Pennsylvania's "third senator". Early on election night, Pennsylvania broke for Obama and the rest is history. As an added bonus, Biden has yet to fall asleep on live television or show up anywhere drunk.
Continuing to forget the battle-tested axiom that "all politics are local", state-level Republicans in several key battlegrounds have helped the Obama cause by making some key political miscalculations. Attempts by Republican governors to limit the collective bargaining rights of public sector employees in Wisconsin, Ohio, and Indiana have served to mobilize labor unions and other activist groups in support of Democrats. A bill in Virginia, championed by their Republican governor, that would subject women seeking abortions to additional medical testing has mobilized the Democratic base in that closely contested state. In Florida, Republican governor Rick Scott is so unpopular, just simply by being himself, he would probably lose a straight-up election to the CEO of BP
How each individual state runs its primary can also play a role in shaping who that state goes for in the general election.In 2008, Rush Limbaugh (and closet anarchists like myself ) delighted in "Operation Chaos", in which Limbaugh used his widely popular radio program to encourage his listeners in open-primary states to vote for Hilary Clinton in order to prolong the Democratic race. However, despite there being a prolonged nomination fight, Democrats benefited in the long run because the open-primary format allowed them to register hundreds of thousands of new voters. In Nevada alone, during their 2008 caucus, Democrats registered 30,000 new voters out of a turn-out of 110,000. By contrast, in 2012, due mainly to party infighting, Republicans decided to ban same-day registration, leading to an overall turnout of just 32,000.
In 2003, after being elected in the closest contest in American history, George W. Bush passed a massive prescription drug entitlement program. While it was a disaster fiscally, it was pure genius from a political standpoint. By cynically pandering to seniors, Bush made sure Florida was completely in his pocket for his 2004 reelection. Fast forward to 2012, where Republicans are stupidly highlighting issues like the Keystone XL Pipeline, whose path runs through seven states that they can already count in the win column. If they want to be successful in November, Republicans better starting remembering Tip O'Neill's words of wisdom. Otherwise, the 270 to Washington is going to end up being more like the 310 to Yuma.