Right now, Barack Obama is favored over John McCain in the race to secure the 270 electoral votes required to claim the White House. But when you listen to the tough-talking senior aides running his campaign, you realize that Obama wants something more than just a victory. That could be his undoing.
George W. Bush won the White House with 271 electoral votes in 2000 and 286 in 2004, barely exceeding the total needed. Today, most national polls suggest that the 2008 race is very tight. Yet Obama seems to be targeting enough states to net a total closer to 370 electoral votes than 270.
In the last two presidential elections, the nation was too deeply divided to allow either side to achieve a decisive mandate. Both parties in 2004 ultimately focused on the swing states necessary to eke out a win, with the Democrats in particular relinquishing a swath of the South and the West as hopelessly red.
But this time, the Republicans are burdened by a struggling economy, an unpopular war and an even more unpopular president. Obama, meanwhile, has proved his revolutionary fundraising capacity, inspired an army of passionate volunteers and established broad pockets of support in some of the states won by Bush. His potential to change the makeup of the electorate -- especially to bring more young and minority voters into the mix -- may offer a new formula for victory. And his financial advantage enables him to spread resources in more than half a dozen previously solid red states. Obama has been making more than a token effort in these places. He bought extensive time for television advertisements, although he cut back as of Friday, at least for the duration of the convention. He opened campaign offices at the county level and made campaign visits himself. His aides describe these bold efforts with a swagger that borders on machismo.
There are three rationales that support thinking big.
First, spending time and money in red states puts the Republicans on the defensive, forcing McCain to use precious resources to keep states firmly in his column.
And the more states Obama can put in play as potential wins, the more combinations are available to him to reach 270 electoral votes, a smart strategy given the near-miss runs of Al Gore and John Kerry.
Finally, should he win by a large margin, Obama would have a potent mandate to unite the country and bring about the fundamental changes in Washington he claims to seek.
But if the strategy backfires, it could cost Obama a race he should win.
As national polling has shown a closer race, the good news for Obama is that almost all of the solidly blue states won by Gore and Kerry are still safely in his column -- anchored by New England, New York, the Mid-Atlantic states and the West Coast. But that coalition does not get the Democrat to 270 electoral votes. And the bad news is that McCain is consolidating his support in some of the red states that Obama hopes to challenge, including much of the South, the Plains and the Great Basin states.
Which means the most vital targets for Obama are much the same as they were for his party in 2000 and 2004: Pennsylvania, Florida, Michigan, Ohio, Wisconsin, Iowa, Nevada and a handful of smaller states. Gore and Kerry both won their share of these battlegrounds, but not enough. Obama’s safest bet is to make sure he holds the battleground states Kerry won and then pick up enough of the others to get his 270. At this point, even matching Kerry in the battleground states is not a sure thing -- Michigan, for example, is being fiercely contested by the Republicans.
Analysts believe that the two red states in which Obama has the best chance -- Virginia and Colorado -- will be tough for him to win. And the other red states on his wish list -- Alaska, North Dakota, Indiana, Georgia, Montana and North Carolina -- will be even harder.
Trying to reach a wider swath of voters in a multimedia, transient world is more challenging than ever and requires not just plenty of money but an enormous allocation of the candidate’s time -- the single most valuable asset of any presidential campaign. For all the resources Obama will spend in the battleground states (and make no mistake, it will be a lot), his imaginative team could certainly find ways to spend even more in these places where it matters most.
In 2000, Bush made his own high-stakes gamble -- he attempted to win California’s electoral votes, fueled by a big campaign war chest, lured by some promising polling data and intrigued by the vision of a major sweep. Toward the end of the campaign, the Republicans spent almost $2 million in one week on television ads in the Golden State -- more than was spent in any battleground state during the same period -- while the Democrats spent nothing.
Bush put in more than 30 days personally campaigning from San Diego to the Bay Area. His sustained push in California nearly cost him the White House by diverting resources away from states -- such as Florida -- that ended up being much more closely fought than California, where Gore won easily, 53% to 41%.
Like Bush’s 2000 Texas crew, Obama’s campaign team is similarly brimming with confidence -- confidence that their candidate has the kind of transcendent appeal that can break the partisan gridlock that has paralyzed and embittered much of American politics, and confidence that enough electoral votes are in the bag that they can set grand goals.
They envision taking the grass-roots methods and enthusiasm that helped Obama win caucuses and primaries against Hillary Clinton and applying them to the broader canvas of a general election. But it will take far more votes to beat McCain than it took to topple Clinton, and the kind of voters who showed up for Obama in most primary and caucus states are more liberal and partisan than the centrist and independent citizens who will decide this election in the battleground states.
If McCain pulls off a victory in November, there will be a lot of postmortem scrutiny about the prudence of playing it safe versus the dream of shooting the moon.
Mark Halperin is an editor at large and senior political analyst for Time magazine and the editor of The Page on time.com.