Presidential campaigns focus on wealthy donors over swing states

LAS VEGAS — In three days of campaign travel this last week, President Obama spent just two hours on the soil of a battleground state — a small fraction of his time given that voters in those places are expected to decide the election.

Instead, Obama rubbed elbows with wealthy donors in New York City, San Francisco and Los Angeles. They hadn’t shelled out $20,000 apiece just to cheer and watch him from a distance at a big rally.

For years, the complaint in donor-rich states, including New York, Illinois and California, has been that presidential candidates take them for granted and seldom show up to campaign. But the race for money is vastly more competitive this year — and the list of actual battleground states is even smaller than before. The net effect is that both Obama and Republican rival Mitt Romney have spent a great deal of quality time in a few wealthy enclaves cloistered with the country’s prosperous elite.

The rest of America — states that are neither wealthy nor battlegrounds — increasingly has become flyover territory.

Only in recent elections has the list of campaign stops become so limited. Two trends have combined to greatly constrict it: increased political polarization, which has sorted states into a reliable pattern of blue and red, and a greatly stepped-up battle for money.

In 1976, about 59% of the U.S. population lived in battleground states — those that were won by less than a 5-percentage-point margin — according to data compiled by Emory University political scientist Alan Abramowitz. By 2008, only 20% of the population lived in battleground states, and the figure could drop even more this year.

On the flip side, almost half of voters in 2008 lived in states that either Obama or John McCain won by a margin of 15 percentage points or more.

Then there’s the money race. In 2008, Obama abandoned the system of partial public financing of presidential campaigns. This time around, Republicans have followed suit, meaning that both men must raise huge sums. Unlike the last election, in which Obama greatly outspent McCain, Republicans this time will at least equal — and probably outspend — the Democrat.

The resulting contrast in campaigns is particularly striking for Obama. In 2008, he spent countless hours perched on a stage with his sleeves rolled up, taking questions at televised town hall meetings. This year, at least for now, those town halls have morphed into private question-and-answer sessions behind closed doors, over finger sandwiches and catered cuisine.

Last week, the president spent much of a two-day trip with the political elite of San Francisco and Los Angeles. He took questions at high-dollar events, measuring the temperature of actors and Hollywood executives in the cozy courtyard of the home of Ryan Murphy, the creator of “Glee.” The next morning, he stopped in at the hilltop home of real estate developer Charles Quarles, where 300 people paid at least $2,500 to eat omelets in the presence of the president.

Before leaving Beverly Hills, Obama met privately with a small group of the younger Hollywood, including actors Zach Braff (“Scrubs”), Jeremy Renner (“The Hurt Locker”) and Dianna Agron (“Glee”).

From there, he zipped through Las Vegas, the economically battered city he will need to carry overwhelmingly if he is to have a hope of winning Nevada, a swing state. He delivered a speech that involved little interaction with voters, save for a moment when he mentioned the housing crisis and the plague of underwater mortgages. The crowd of about 2,500 reacted with a knowing groan.

In a typical campaign week, Obama gives speeches in key swing districts or tours factory floors, pausing to talk with workers wearing hard hats or protective eye gear. Each conversation typically lasts a few minutes and focuses on the work in front of them. Television cameras follow the entire interaction.

Afterward, usually, the president does a couple of high-dollar fundraisers elsewhere while the cameramen and reporters wait outside.

Obama advisors say the president doesn’t like chasing money, but has to compete with a new reality for Democrats.

Romney advisor Ed Gillespie called the emphasis on fundraising a strategic choice with a high price tag for Obama.

“It has been detrimental to his identity as a new kind of change agent,” Gillespie said at a recent media breakfast hosted by Bloomberg News. “I think they’ve concluded they’re going to need a lot of money, and so they’re willing to take these hits along the way in order to have the cash balance.”

One such hit involved a Web video of Vogue editor Anna Wintour — prototype for the haughty magazine editor in “The Devil Wears Prada” — inviting donors to a fundraising event with Michelle Obama. The Obama campaign released the video the same day the unemployment rate climbed to 8.2%.

Sometimes fundraising partners can be embarrassing for Romney too, as when a Texas donor settled an Internal Revenue Service case alleging he had dodged tens of millions of dollars in taxes.

Romney likes to hold public events in warehouses and factories, where he tends to highlight the owners’ experiences to buttress his argument that Obama is strangling business with taxes and regulations. He frequently meets with the business owners and other community members in closed-door round-table meetings before his public events.

How much the special access for wealthy donors affects the substance of policy is hard to know, since many of the interactions take place behind closed doors. When the Obama campaign began criticizing Romney’s record at Bain Capital last month, some Democratic officials and big donors saw that as an attack on the private equity industry and said the president should back off.

If that represented a collision between fundraising interests and the campaign message, the message won.

“We’re not going to back off of that,” one senior Obama advisor said of the strategy on Bain Capital. “That’s an important part of the story.”

Parsons reported from Washington and Hennessey from Las Vegas. Staff writer Seema Mehta contributed from Los Angeles. ¿