President Barack Obama makes his way onto the stage to speak on payroll tax cuts this week in Scranton, Pennsylvania.
MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images
President Barack Obama makes his way onto the stage to speak on payroll tax cuts this week in Scranton, Pennsylvania.

Story highlights

Obama's trip to Pennsylvania this week is a window into a larger strategy

His campaign team aims to win all the states won by John Kerry in 2004

It also hopes to pick up at least 24 more electoral votes elsewhere

Republicans will fight to take Pennsylvania, win back Wisconsin and Michigan

Washington CNN —  

As President Barack Obama wraps up his eighth trip this year to Pennsylvania, some political insiders say he can’t sell his brand in the Keystone State. The region’s white, blue-collar voters, they say, have tuned him out.

So why, then, was he in Scranton this week pushing the payroll tax cut?

It may be that, despite the conventional wisdom, the Obama re-election campaign has a different, larger strategy quietly developing. They know that the 2012 election will likely be decided by a razor-thin margin. It will be a battle for every vote.

Obama challenges Republicans on payroll tax cut

With less than a year before Election Day and having raised more than $100 million, the Obama campaign believes it has the time and the money to compete in the dozen or so traditional battleground states as well as take on a few new states it feels have been put into play since 2007.

Now, Team Obama is focused on finding multiple ways to get to 270 electoral votes.

The path to 270

First, the president is aiming to win all the states John Kerry won in 2004. That would bring him to 246 electoral votes, including Pennsylvania’s mother lode of 20. Add New Mexico, which the president won in 2008, and that’s five more electoral votes. Now he’s at 251.

Then it gets hard. The final 19 electoral votes would come through a process of mix and match.

In 2008, Barack Obama also won these states:

  • Florida (29) North Carolina (15) Virginia (13) Indiana (11) Ohio (18) Colorado (9) Iowa (6) New Mexico (5) Nevada (6)

The scenario getting the most buzz inside the beltway: locking in Virginia (13 electoral votes) and North Carolina (15 electoral votes) which would get him to 279.

Democratic operatives like the demographics of these states because they see an influx of the young, highly educated workers who tended to be Obama voters in 2008.

But some Republicans doubt Obama can take North Carolina, in particular, pointing to its high unemployment rate – currently around 10.4%, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics – and voting history: Obama won the state by only 14,000 votes in 2008 (or 1%), and it went for the Republican candidate in seven out of the past eight elections. Before Obama, Jimmy Carter in 1976 was the last Democrat to win North Carolina.

A win in Florida, with its 29 electoral votes, would also do the trick. But if Florida’s popular junior Sen. Marco Rubio is on the Republican ticket, the state could suddenly be out of reach. Even without Rubio, it will be a tough battleground state.

There are other paths to the 19 electoral votes they need.

Ohio has 18 electoral votes (yes, they still plan to campaign there), plus any of these other states: Nevada (6), Iowa (6), Colorado (9) or even Arizona (11), which, thanks to its growing Latino population, could now be in play.

Back to Pennsylvania

But Republicans won’t simply roll over in those states, especially in Pennsylvania. They have success in the last midterm elections to build on.

In 2010, Republican Pat Toomey won the open U.S. Senate seat in Pennsylvania. Republicans also picked up five new House seats and took over the governor’s mansion in the last election.

So now, top Republicans say that with the president’s approval rating down to 44% in Pennsylvania, according to a recent Quinnipiac poll, coupled with his early struggle to win in the western part of the state against Hillary Clinton in the 2008 primaries, they may actually have a shot at taking the traditionally Democratic state in 2012.

But Democrats argue that they’ll hold those 20 electoral votes for three reasons:

1. They have a 1 million-plus advantage among registered voters.
2. Turnout for the midterms was so low – around 41% – it wasn’t necessarily a true reflection of voter sentiment.
3. In 2008, the president won the state by more than 10 points, making it likely, in their view, that he can at least eke out a victory this time.

Meanwhile, Republicans also plan on fighting for the Kerry states of Wisconsin and Michigan.

However, the Obama team has alternate routes to 270 if they lose some of the Kerry states.

For example, if he loses Pennsylvania – which would take him down to 226 – but wins North Carolina (15), Virginia (13) and Colorado (9), and adds two of the following three states – Iowa (6), New Mexico (5), Nevada (6) – he crosses 270.

Or he could lose Pennsylvania – down to 226 – and Wisconsin – down to 216 – but pick up Florida (29), North Carolina (15) and Virginia (13) and he crosses the finish line. Add Ohio (18) and Arizona (11) to the list of options and the possibilities grow.

Of course one wonders whether the president could sweep other battleground states if he can’t prevail in Pennsylvania and hold the Kerry map.

Any road map to victory requires one big dose of reality: The president will have to fight hard to win votes in any battleground state, old or new, given the state of the economy.

And that won’t be easy.