The turmoil on Wall Street and the weakening economy are changing the contours of the presidential campaign map, giving new force to Barack Obama's ambitious strategy to make incursions into Republican territory, while leading John McCain to scale back his efforts to capture Democratic states.
Obama has what both sides describe as serious efforts under way in North Carolina and at least eight other states that voted for President Bush in 2004, including some that neither side thought would be on the table this close to Election Day.
In a visible sign of the breadth of Obama's aspirations, he is using North Carolina – a state that Bush won by 13 percentage points in 2004, and where Obama is now spending heavily on advertisements – as his base for debate preparations this weekend. Aides say he is camped out in Asheville and will address a forum there today.
By contrast, McCain is competing in just four states that Democrats won in 2004: Pennsylvania, New Hampshire, Wisconsin and Minnesota. His decision last week to pull out of Michigan reflected in part the challenge that the declining economy has created for Republicans, given that they have held the White House for the last eight years.
But McCain's abrupt decision – which caught many members of his own party by surprise – also underlined the tactical political squeeze he finds himself in: With Obama using his fundraising advantage to compete in so many places, he has forced McCain to spend money to hold on in what had been viewed as safe Republican states, like Missouri and Indiana, while limiting McCain's ability to play offense on Democratic turf.
Obama now has a solid lead in states that account for 189 electoral votes, and he is well positioned in states representing 71 more electoral votes, for a total of 260, according to a tally by The New York Times, based on polls and interviews with officials from both campaigns and outside analysts. It takes 270 electoral votes to win the presidency.
McCain has solid leads in states with 160 electoral votes and is well positioned in states with another 40 electoral votes, according to The New York Times tally, for a total of 200. Just six states representing 78 electoral votes – Florida, Ohio, Virginia, New Hampshire, Nevada and Colorado – are tossups.
Obama appears to have significantly more options to reach the 270 threshold, particularly if McCain fails to win any states that Democrats won in 2004.
That said, the margin in many of these states remains relatively tight, and the field could certainly shift again in the final weeks, as the presidential candidates engage in two more debates and as McCain steps up his attacks on Obama, as his aides said he plans to do.
McCain's advisers said their hope was that the issue of the economy would recede somewhat from the public consciousness, now that Congress has passed a bailout plan, and open the way to try to turn the contest back into a referendum on Obama's credentials. They argued that given everything that has happened, McCain still remains in easy distance of Obama, evidence of what they said were underlying problems with his appeal.
Obama in particular is moving to seize on what both sides think could be a decisive moment in this campaign, using Wall Street as a way to focus attention on related concerns, like Social Security and health care.
Obama is now running advertisements aimed at elderly voters in South Florida, Las Vegas and Reno, Nev., invoking the Wall Street crisis in criticizing McCain's support for allowing individuals to choose to invest part of their payroll taxes in stocks and bonds as an alternative to Social Security. The advertisements assert that the approach will “gamble with your life savings.” (That claim has been described by independent monitoring organizations as deceptive.)
In Virginia, voters stung by fuel costs received brochures from Obama's campaign saying, “While you're running on empty, Exxon made $4 billion in one month,” pointing out that McCain promised tax breaks to oil companies. (The tax cuts are not specifically for oil companies but are part of a broader proposal to reduce corporate tax rates, including those for alternative energy companies.)
McCain's advisers said that more than anything, it was the bad economy in Michigan – staggered by declining sales of American-made automobiles – that convinced them they had no hope of winning a state that once had been high on their list of targets. Beyond that, they said the Wall Street downturn was hurting McCain in Florida – where the mortgage crisis has been particularly acute – a state where they were once confident that they could hold off Obama.
Obama opted out of the federal campaign finance system, which limits spending to $84.1million, in the belief that he would be able to raise far more than that and outspend McCain.
Obama has used his cash advantage both to expand the size of the campaign field – it seems a good bet that Obama would not be spending money in Missouri if he had an $84.1 million limit – but also to outspend McCain in battleground states. In Florida over the past two weeks, Obama has spent $5.3million on television, compared with just under $1.1 million by McCain, said Evan Tracey, the head of CMAG, a company that monitors political advertising.
Tracey said Obama had been steadily increasing his national television advertising budget by 20 percent each week this fall.
Obama is making a sustained effort to capture from the Republican column North Carolina, Virginia, Iowa, New Mexico, Colorado, Nevada, Ohio, Florida and Indiana. He is putting effort into Missouri and Montana, and though those seem like longer shots, McCain campaigned in Missouri last week, and Republicans are buying advertising time there.
In a sign of how closely contested the campaign remains, both McCain and Obama have sent people and money into Maine and Nebraska, two states where electoral votes are split, to try to peel off a single electoral vote, with Obama hoping to pick up one in a particular region of Nebraska, which is otherwise reliably Republican, while McCain is trying the same thing in Maine, which has gone Democratic in recent presidential elections.
That is not a fanciful battle: There are plausible outcomes that would leave the two men with a 269-269 electoral vote tie, forcing the election into the House of Representatives.
McCain sent workers from Michigan to Maine, focusing specifically on the state's rural 2nd Congressional District. And Obama has added an office filled with organizers to Nebraska's 2nd Congressional District, which includes Omaha, where a large voter registration drive has been under way for weeks.
“I think we've got a shot at that,” Obama said this summer about the Nebraska vote. “Wouldn't that be fun?”