For months, the political world has focused attention on some key 2012 battleground states, which seem likely to dictate the outcome of the presidential election. Most notably, the campaigns and their allies have invested heavily in Ohio, Florida, and Virginia.
This week, however, there was a twist. The Romney campaign and its allies -- Karl Rove's attack operation, the Koch brothers, etc. -- announced a new, 11th-hour push into three states where President Obama is favored: Pennsylvania, Minnesota, and Michigan. And as Republicans shift attention and resources to these states, Team Obama is doing the same.
There are basically three ways to evaluate the strategy. The first and more generous interpretation is that Romney/Ryan and their friends are feeling so confident about their standing in the other swing states, they've decided to expand the map, hoping to take create new opportunities while pushing Democrats on their heels.
The second is that Romney/Ryan is in trouble, they're struggling in Ohio, and they're scrambling to find new ways to compensate for losing states they need to win.
And third, it's possible that this push into Pennsylvania, Minnesota, and Michigan is little more than a half-hearted ruse -- they're not really trying to compete in these states -- and the Republican focus hasn't really changed at all.
Which is the most credible interpretation? Let's take them one at a time.
The first option is awfully hard to believe. Before one can expand the map, one must lock up other swing states, and there's simply no evidence that Romney is a sure thing in Ohio, Florida, and Virginia. Indeed, if Romney felt as if Florida is already a lock, he wouldn't have scheduled three events in the state today.
The second is more plausible. If Obama wins Ohio, Romney will have to make up ground somewhere, and Pennsylvania, Minnesota, and Michigan are probably the next best options. But they remain uphill climbs for the GOP candidate -- a Republican hasn't won any of these states since 1988, and despite assurances every cycle since that this time they'll turn these states red, every attempt has come up short.
It's the third that looks the most credible to me. I don't doubt Romney/Ryan would love to win Pennsylvania, Minnesota, and Michigan, but there's little evidence they're serious about competing in these states. Republicans have invested in Minnesota, but the sums are small, and seem focused on the state's neighbors -- Wisconsin and Iowa -- than Minnesotans themselves.
Keep an eye on where the ad money is going, but also watch where the candidates are going. For example, has Romney scheduled any events in Minnesota? No. Has Paul Ryan? Yes, but he'll be in the state for about an hour, in between events in Wisconsin. This is not evidence of a real commitment.
I imagine Pennsylvania, Minnesota, and Michigan will all be much more competitive than they were four years -- Obama won each of these states by double digits in 2008 -- but with less than a week to go, the map hasn't actually expanded, and the race is still being fought out in the same battlegrounds as last week.