GREENSBORO, N.C. — The morning after Democrats finished their convention in Charlotte, the breakfast crowd at the Smith Street Diner here neatly encapsulated how the presidential campaign is likely to play out over the final two months before Election Day.
Most were entrenched supporters of President Obama or Mitt Romney, many felt the conventions made little difference, and a handful of undecided voters who could determine the election’s outcome said they are waiting for debates and other events before making up their minds.
“It’s frighteningly close here,” said Helen Campbell, a 57-year-old psychologist who supports Obama. “It was close here four years ago. I would actually be surprised if Obama carries the state this time.”
The patrons at the diner are likely to be more heavily courted than most Americans because they live in one of just five to 10 swing states that analysts predict are likely to decide the election. Indeed, after a two-week blitz of national conventions and saturation coverage, Obama and Romney are facing a narrow goal: They are competing not just in a small number of states, but for a sliver of voters who are undecided in those states. The conventions were, in the rawest strategic terms, in large part about winning over such voters.
North Carolina, which Obama won in 2008 by about 14,000 votes, barely makes the list of swing states put together by some analysts, but its importance was emphasized by the Obama campaign’s decision to hold the convention in Charlotte and to continue to spend money in the state on television advertisements.
Indeed, the path that each candidate sees to winning the White House can be measured in dollars. The campaigns and super PACs that support them are pouring millions of dollars into a handful of key states including Ohio, Florida, New Hampshire, Iowa, Nevada, Virginia, North Carolina, Colorado, and Wisconsin, where the candidates are roughly even, while spending little recently on television advertisement in places that are borderline competitive, including Pennsylvania and Michigan, where Obama leads in the polls.
While campaigns often hold off spending in some states until they are confident the dollars can be used effectively, the reality is the presidential campaign will hardly exist — at least in terms of candidate appearances and advertising dollars — in the vast majority of the country. States such as California and New York are ceded to Obama, while Texas and many southern states are presumed to be Romney territory. If candidates show up in those places, the main purpose will probably be to raise money that will be spent elsewhere.
Both candidates provided a window into their fall strategy in their conventions.
Romney has tried to make the campaign a referendum on Obama’s performance, while solidifying his effort to turn out the conservative base by picking Congressman Paul Ryan as his running mate and hammering Obama as a failed leader on the economy.
The president’s campaign, meanwhile, has sought to change the question from a referendum on the economy — which the Obama campaign fears he would lose — to a choice between two different visions about how to go forward. At the same time, the Obama campaign is trying to expand its pool of potential voters by focusing on social issues such as abortion in an effort to win over younger voters and women who otherwise might be unhappy with his handling of the economy.
The number of swing states is a matter of judgment. Some analysts put the number at 10 or higher, but others say fewer are in play. Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics, said there are eight swing states and has predicted that Virginia is likely to decide the race. In the wake of Romney’s selection of Ryan as his running mate, Sabato added Wisconsin to his list of swing states.
“In my view it is likely that 42 states are over,” Sabato said.
David Paleologos, director of the Suffolk University Political Research Center, said the race is even more limited, counting only five swing states, allocating Iowa to Romney and New Hampshire to Obama, even though the polls are close in both. Paleologos said the five competitive states are Florida, Ohio, Virginia, Wisconsin, and Colorado. He said third-party candidates in two of those states — Virgil Goode, former US Representative in Virginia, and Gary Johnson, former governor of New Mexico, in Colorado — could be factors if the race is decided by a small margin.
Registration of new voters could be key. Ginny Peters,a Democratic delegate from Virginia, is part of a team trying to register 60,000 new voters in Fairfax County. “We’ve been sitting outside the dollar store every Saturday registering people,’’ Peters said.
Each swing state has a different emphasis. The Obama campaign, for example, is hoping that it can win states such as Wisconsin and Ohio (and retain Michigan, if that state moves from favoring Obama to being competitive) by emphasizing the impact of the president’s support of the auto bailout, which Romney opposed. Convention speakers in Charlotte made this point repeatedly.
In states such as Colorado, meanwhile, Obama is counting on heavy support from Hispanics, suburban women, and younger voters.
In Colorado, focus will be on two counties in metro Denver — Arapahoe and Jefferson — which are loaded with swing voters. Rick Palacio, chairman of Colorado’s Democratic Party, said voters are discussing abortion issues and Romney’s pledge to veto the Dream Act, which would provide a path to citizenship for children of illegal immigrants who meet certain qualifications. The Obama campaign has about 1,000 staffers and Democrats will have another 5,000 volunteers working on the ground in Colorado, he said.
“Where Arapahoe and Jefferson counties go, so goes the state, and the rest of the nation,’’ he said.
The same might be true of key counties in other swing states, which is why, on the day after the Democratic convention ended in Charlotte, Obama and Romney paid visits to Iowa and New Hampshire, which hold the nation’s first caucus and primary and again are at the forefront of the campaign.
Obama campaign officials have long boasted of their ground operation, which has more paid staff and offices than Romney in key swing states, as an indicator that they will be able to get their supporters to the polls.
But Rich Beeson, Romney’s political director, said in an interview that it is telling that Obama is spending time in Iowa, which the president won in 2008 by nine points. He said that it was unlikely that the conventions had a dramatic impact on the race or took any swing state out of the competition.
“If anything, normally after conventions you see the maps contract,” Beeson said. “This is one of the years where I don’t know if it’s going to expand much, but it’s not going to contract. It’s still a nice wide map, Nevada all the way to New Hampshire.”
“We’re not in this world where you see any seismic shifts anymore. This is going to be close down to the wire. We might move a little bit, they might move a little bit, and then we’re like we were before the conventions, neck and neck.”
Back at the Smith Street Diner, the challenge to both campaigns was clear.
Charles Coote, a 58-year-old funeral home director who said Obama’s acceptance speech was “electrifying,” said that the campaign has a long way to go. “People have to vote. You have 500,000 voters who aren’t registered in North Carolina, and Obama only won by 14,000 votes.”
The undecided voters at the diner remain up for grabs despite the conventions and the coverage and the advertising dollars. Dave Lane, a 30-year-old banker from Winston Salem, said aside from catching a portion of Clinton’s speech he didn’t see much of the conventions. Although he voted for Senator John McCain, a Republican, four years ago, he’s not sure who he’ll vote for this time. “To me, Republicans have bad ideas and Democrats don’t have any ideas,” he said. “It is what it is.”
“It’s still up in the air,” said Horrace Murphy, a 32-year-old firefighter from Greensboro who is most concerned with the economy. “I’ll listen to both sides and make a decision.”
Matt Viser can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Viser reported from Greensboro, Rowland from Charlotte, and Kranish from Washington.