Obama Scales Back His 50-State Strategy

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Callie Shell / Aurora for Time

Senator Barack Obama works on a speech aboard his campaign plane

Barack Obama has never been particularly shy about his hope to reshape the political landscape of a country deeply divided between red and blue. To much fanfare earlier this year, his campaign launched into general-election mode pledging to make a serious play in all 50 states. The idea was scoffed at by Republicans as a waste of time and money, and lauded by many Democrats as at least a shrewd way to tie up the GOP's resources. But until recently, even as some anxious Democrats started to view the 50-state strategy as an indulgence their candidate could no longer afford, Obama seemed to be following through — even now he has a few paid staffers in Salt Lake City, despite the fact that Utah is the reddest of Republican states. His advisers argue that the approach not only expands the playing field and aids down-ballot candidates, but that it also helps with fund-raising and adds to volunteer efforts in neighboring states that are more in play — such as, in the case of Utah, Colorado, New Mexico and Nevada.

But now, as voter registration is expected to wind down in the next two weeks and the impact of John McCain's running mate, Sarah Palin, becomes clearer, the Obama campaign is apparently scaling back its outsized electoral ambitions. It has already shifted staff, abandoning some states and putting others on notice. If it once technically played in all 50, it's now down to 48 — you can cross Alaska and North Dakota off the list — and two other states, Montana and Georgia, are on life support. The choice of Palin not only crushed Obama's hope of winning the Frontier State — his campaign has withdrawn most of its staff and ceased advertising there — but it also caused repercussions in North Dakota, another hockey-crazed northern state where snow-mobile racing and moose burgers apparently resonate. The Obama campaign announced this week that it is redeploying its North Dakota staff — estimated in some press reports to be more than 50 people.

"We always knew it would be an uphill battle, but because people across the country in red states and blue states are hungry for change, we built a grass-roots movement we are proud of and an infrastructure that will help candidates up and down the ballot," says Obama spokeswoman Amy Brundage of the decision to pull out. The news isn't entirely a surprise, as Obama cut advertising in North Dakota by 50% in recent weeks. The move comes as Obama has been forced to mount more serious defenses of Michigan, Minnesota and Wisconsin — states where the campaign spent nearly $1.5 million in television advertisements last week.

Another state in which Palin's down-home, conservative appeal may be having an effect is Montana, where Obama also recently decreased his advertising budget by 50%. Although Obama approached — and in a few polls, even led — McCain in surveys of North Dakota and Montana over the summer, when Obama was the only candidate advertising there, he now trails McCain by double digits in those states. Real Clear Politics, a nonpartisan website that tracks the campaign, recently moved both states into the "solid McCain" column. Still, the campaign is taking a wait-and-see approach in Montana as staff and volunteers race to register as many voters as possible. Essentially, the campaign's entire state-by-state strategy will come down to voter registration: it will keep investing in the states where it can sign up enough new Democrats to make the race competitive and will likely abandon those where it can't.

"At the end of the day, some states are going to matter more than others," says Howard Dean, chairman of the Democratic National Committee. "If our registration efforts go very well in Georgia, Georgia will be in play. If they don't go well, they won't be in play. The map is getting bigger for us, not smaller."

Georgia is another state in which the campaign once had very high hopes but is now unsure whether it should continue to invest in it. The campaign stopped advertising there before the conventions and last week redeployed some of its 75 staff to neighboring North Carolina — a southern state with a large African-American electorate that has seen one of the highest levels of voter registration this cycle, with more than 400,000 new voters on the rolls. If the campaign can register enough new voters in the Peach State — and it has already registered more than 300,000 in Georgia — then it believes that the state could still be in play, since former Georgia Congressman Bob Barr's libertarian candidacy could steal some of the Republican vote. Bill Clinton won Georgia in 1992 after Ross Perot drew a significant number of votes from George H.W. Bush. But for Obama to pull off a similar coup, he would need an increase in Democratic voters of at least 15% from 2004 — a whopping number that, even with an unprecedented 30 offices in the state, will be difficult to achieve.

"It is interesting to note that the Obama campaign is starting to pull down some of their efforts to extend the map, as they like to put it, into states that otherwise wouldn't be in play in an election cycle like this," McCain's campaign manager Rick Davis said Monday. "We assume, without fanfare, that he has pulled out of Alaska, where he spent a good deal of media money over the course of the summer. And [I] look forward to him continuing to spend his money in states that we hold significant leads."

Although his enormous fund-raising still gives Obama more routes to the White House than McCain, the contracting playing field does narrow the Democrat's potential paths to the presidency. Now that a northern front — including Alaska, Montana and North Dakota — looks out of reach, Obama has four central ways to win it all:

— Hold the states John Kerry won in 2004 (which are in the Northeast, upper Midwest and West Coast), plus Ohio, where Obama has invested in more than 70 offices, or Florida, where his campaign recently pledged to spend almost $40 million over the remaining six weeks.

— Take back parts of the South, winning Virginia, North Carolina and, maybe —just maybe — Georgia.

— Have a strong showing in the Mountain West, winning Colorado, Nevada and New Mexico.

"You had Obama spend the better part of the summer trying to make this race into a 20- [to] 25-state battleground, but he's reined this in a little bit to 11 or 12 states, and potentially less, closer to Election Day," says Evan Tracey, president of TNS's Media Intelligence Campaign Media Analysis Group, which tracks campaign advertising. "It's all about Ohio, and after that, the other areas are a hedge."

With reporting by Maya Curry, Marti Covington and Michael Scherer / Washington

(See photos of Obama on the campaign trail here.)
(See a gallery of campaign gaffes here.)
(See 50 authentic American experiences here.)