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It is easy to get confused in the final week of a presidential campaign, and we are at that point in Campaign 2012. There are conflicting polls in battleground states, moves by the campaigns into new states, widely varying assessments from the partisans in both parties and persistent spinning by the candidates' advisers.
There are also certain realities about campaigns that offer some anchors, if not real answers, for assessing what is happening now and what may happen Tuesday. Where candidates spend their time in the final days is one clue. How states have performed, relative to one another, in past elections is another. Another is how different groups of voters are leaning.
One question in dispute right now is whether Mitt Romney can actually expand the electoral map by putting Pennsylvania, Michigan and even Minnesota into play. Republicans are advertising in those states, claiming there is an opportunity for the GOP nominee to win. President Obama's campaign has countered with ads of its own, which Republicans say is a sign of weakness. Obama officials claim that Romney is probing those states because he's run into trouble in true battlegrounds.
The electoral map
Money spent in unexpected places by the campaigns or their supporting super PACs tells us little at this point. That's because, unlike past presidential campaigns, resources are not an issue for either Romney or Obama and certainly not for the super PACs. Neither candidate is taking federal funds for the general election, which means there are no limits on spending. Both have extra funds to play with down the stretch. So the fact that Romney's campaign has put some money into ads in Minnesota and Pennsylvania doesn't necessarily say much.
Republicans say that recent public polls showing the race tightening in Pennsylvania and Michigan are evidence that Romney is in a position to overtake the incumbent in states that once appeared off the boards.
It's expected that states such as Pennsylvania, Michigan and even Minnesota will show relatively close contests. That doesn't mean the balance has shifted to Romney in those states -- he's still trailing Obama. It only means that if the national numbers show the race essentially tied or with one candidate ahead by a point, these states aren't going to show the president ahead by seven or eight or nine points. Only if Romney were to win a big victory in the popular vote is he likely to carry these states.
Look historically at these states. Republicans haven't won Pennsylvania since 1988. Four years ago, John McCain's campaign team thought they saw something happening there and sent him there in the closing days. But Obama won it by 11 points. Pennsylvania should be closer at this point than it was in 2008, given where the national polls are, but it still tilts toward Obama.
Michigan shows a similar pattern, and like Pennsylvania, also should be closer than it was four years ago.
George W. Bush made a strong push for Minnesota in 2000. Al Gore carried the state, but only by about two percentage points. Four years ago, some early fall polls made Minnesota look competitive. Obama ended up winning by 10 points.
Instead of watching the ad dollars, watch the candidates' movements. Will Romney campaign in Michigan or Pennsylvania before Tuesday? His campaign announced a rally in Ohio on Friday night, which will feature a huge cast of elected officials. They will then fan out across 11 states (including Pennsylvania and Michigan but not, said Romney's release, Minnesota). But where will Romney go?
Follow the candidates
Romney spent Wednesday in Florida, a state he needs to have a realistic chance of winning. He hasn't put that state away yet, although Republicans are cautiously confident that he will. He also hasn't locked down Virginia, a state that under virtually every scenario must be in his column for a victory.
And then there is Ohio, the battleground of battlegrounds, where the success of the president's automakers bailout has thrown obstacles in Romney's path. Romney's new TV ad implying that Chrysler plans to shift production of Jeeps from Ohio to China (denied outright by Chrysler officials) reflects the campaign's concerns about winning enough white, working-class votes to carry the state.
Romney's biggest opportunity to convert an Obama state is in Wisconsin. A victory there could help break open the electoral map for Romney and provide a path to 270 without Ohio -- if he were also to win Florida, Virginia, North Carolina, Iowa and Colorado. Even if Obama were to win Nevada, where he is favored, and New Hampshire, Romney would emerge with 273 electoral votes.
There are three groups of voters to watch: independents, who have swung back and forth in the election; women, whom Obama needs a strong showing from and with whom Romney has made inroads, according to recent polls; and whites.
Romney will win the white vote, but a key question is what percentage of the electorate will white voters constitute. As the minority population increases, the share of the white vote has been declining in each presidential election. In Ohio, Obama's strength (or weakness) with white working-class voters may decide the outcome there.