WASHINGTON — With just over two weeks before voters head to the polls, the presidential campaigns are bearing down on the same swing states that have been the focus for the past year, but they are using different prescriptions for several battlegrounds.
Mitt Romney hasn’t been to Wisconsin in the last 30 days, for example. But over about the same period his campaign has been outspending Obama there, $3.9 million to $2.9 million. In Virginia, the opposite is true. Romney has been there 11 times over the past 30 days — four for Obama — but is being outspent on the airwaves.
Such moving pieces and differing strategies — along with a dizzying amount of information on matters such as early voting that each side attempts to use to its advantage — make the race difficult to decipher as it enters the final stretch. Polls come out almost hourly. National polls differ from state ones, and those conducted in the same state can show vastly different figures.
Even those who make a living out of following the numbers warn that much of this campaign has been contradictory and belied conventional wisdom. Out of 538 Electoral College votes, prognosticators say, from 36 to 131 votes — up to 11 states — are too close to call. That makes predicting who will reach 270 electoral votes a bit of a crapshoot.
“The honest answer is I don’t know,” Larry Sabato, a well-known political science professor at the University of Virginia who has a projection called the Crystal Ball (projection: Obama 267 electoral votes, Romney 235), said on MSNBC. “And the more I listen to the pollsters and methodologists, I don’t think they know either.”
Each campaign is calculating various scenarios, trying to drive up early voting, acceleratingtheir ground games to generate excitement among supporters, and attempting to showcase their confidence in winning.
Romney’s campaign suggested on Thursday that it was so confident in North Carolina, which Obama narrowly won in 2008, that they were shifting campaign staffers from there to Ohio (even though only one staffer has been identified as having been moved).
Monday’s final debate and unforeseen overseas events such as Friday’s car bomb in Beirut could be game-changing wildcards. Yet most observers believe that President Obama has a slight advantage in the final 17 days, with more scenarios leading to victory.
“Where do I think the race is? I’m a little confused actually,” said Stu Rothenberg, editor of the nonpartisan Rothenberg Political Report (projection: Obama 269, Romney 206). “I’d put a pinky on the scale of the president, maybe even a thumb.”
Most observers consider the vast majority of states to be either safe Republican or Democrat, leaving roughly eight in play: Colorado, Iowa, Florida, Nevada, New Hampshire, Ohio, Virginia, and Wisconsin.
New polls show Obama solidly ahead in Wisconsin and Iowa, which would mean he would only need to also win either Ohio or Virginia to carry the election. Put another way, if Obama wins Wisconsin and Iowa — what some have started calling his “Midwest firewall” — the only way Romney could win is if he carries Ohio.
“There are no secrets. We’ll win Ohio,” said Romney’s top strategist Stuart Stevens.
And what if they don’t win Ohio?
“It’s a silly question . . . we’re going to win Ohio,” he said. “This is like conscientious objection: if you’re going over the cliff and you have to throw your mother, or your sister, or your father out, which one would you? We’ll win Ohio.”
Over the past 30 days, Romney has spent more time there than in any other state — visiting 14 times. He’s spent more money in Ohio than in any other state aside from Florida, which has more media markets and is much more expensive. Still, Romney has yet to see a breakthrough in the Ohio, even though his advisers contend their internal polling shows it is a dead heat.
“It’s like one of those NBA games,” said Daron Shaw, a professor at University of Texas-Austin, former George W. Bush strategist, and author of the book, “The Race to 270.” “You make a run getting within 3 or 4 points, but you expend all your energy and can’t get over the hump. That’s how I feel about Romney in Ohio right now. If it really was a 1 or 2 points, you’d see some polls that have Romney up.”
The race quickly tightened after the first debate, with Romney gaining in states where he had been behind and moving ahead in places that had been tied. But several close observers question whether Romney has now peaked and whether his momentum will continue.
Republicans have hoped to make Pennsylvania and Michigan more competitive, yet except for a brief event Saturday by Republican vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan at an airport hangar in Moon Township, Pa., they have invested relatively few resources in these states. Democrats had counted on a fight for North Carolina, the site of their convention, but it appears to be shifting toward Romney.
Expect the number of tossup states to contract, not expand, as both campaigns pinpoint their resources, analysts say.
“Where they are is almost completely illustrative of what their battleground strategies are,” Shaw said. “There’s almost no feints or misdirection plays.’’
For example, Shaw said, Obama’s recent campaign events in Wisconsin indicate a desire to shore up that firewall.
“I think the Wisconsin thing is real. And the proof of the pudding is Obama went there,” he said.
Obama is also far outspending Romney in New Hampshire — $5.4 million to $1.4 million over the last four weeks — and he and Vice President Joe Biden have made six visits there in the past 30 days, compared with only one for Romney and Ryan.
In the final stretch, this election is turning out to be more like 2000 and 2004, when the result was unclear, rather than 1996 or 2008, when all but the margin seemed determined.
“I don’t crow about bad polls, I don’t crow about good polls. I just want trends,” said Ron Kaufman, a top Romney adviser. “And the bottom line is the trends are kind of good for us. That’s all that matters at this point. There’s a long way to go.”
“It’s been an enjoyable journey,” he added. “I think we’re having more fun right now than they are.“
Over the weekend, the campaigns are planning to revert back to debate preparation mode, with Obama heading to Camp David and Romney spending the weekend in Florida.
A CNN poll on Friday had Florida as a statistical tie. Romney and Ryan were scheduled to hold a rally on Friday night in Daytona Beach, and Monday’s debate will be in Boca Raton.
Obama launched a new attack on Romney on Friday, portraying the former Massachusetts governor as a medical patient.
‘‘He’s forgetting what his own positions are — and he’s betting that you will too,’’ Obama told a crowd in Fairfax, Va. ‘‘I mean he’s changing up so much and backtracking and sidestepping. We’ve got to name this condition that he’s going through. I think it’s called Romnesia.’’
He delivered a series of lines that mimicked Jeff Foxworthy, a comedian who has endorsed Romney and is well known for his “you might be a redneck if . . . ” routine.
‘‘If you say you’ll protect a woman’s right to choose, but you stand up at a primary debate and said that you’d be ‘delighted’ to sign a law outlawing that right to choose in all cases . . .” Obama said. “Man, you’ve definitely got Romnesia.”
Obama closed the routine by suggesting he had a cure.
‘‘Obamacare covers preexisting conditions,’’ he said.
Romney responded by releasing a statement from Barbara Comstock, a Virginia legislator and adviser to his campaign.
“Women haven’t forgotten how we’ve suffered over the last four years in the Obama economy with higher taxes, higher unemployment, and record levels of poverty,” she said. “President Obama has failed to put forward a second-term agenda — and when you don’t have a plan to run on, you stoop to scare tactics.”
Matt Viser can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.