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How Obama Took The Battleground States

Obama supporters react as President Barack Obama was declared the winner Tuesday, during the Nevada State Democratic Party gathering at the Mandalay Bay Resort and Casino in Las Vegas.
John Gurzinski
Obama supporters react as President Barack Obama was declared the winner Tuesday, during the Nevada State Democratic Party gathering at the Mandalay Bay Resort and Casino in Las Vegas.

The much-hyped battle for the battleground states turned into more of a rout on Election Day, as President Obama swept through eight key states and looked on course to capture Florida.

Swing states — Ohio, Virginia, Michigan, Iowa, Wisconsin, Nevada, Colorado, New Hampshire — viewed as tossups a day before the voting fell without much fight into the blue column. Only North Carolina went for Romney.

How did the Obama campaign pull it off? It came down to a mixture of demographics, superior organization and a few tactical missteps from Republicans, political observers tell NPR.

George C. Edwards III, a professor of political science at Texas A&M University, says organization was first and foremost.

Edwards discounts the superPAC-fueled, billion-dollar ad blitz, with one exception. "There was a time in the summer," he says, "when the Obama campaign got the upper hand on the ad wars, but for the most part it was about other things."

Things like grass-roots infrastructure. "The Obama campaign had many more field offices than [Mitt] Romney, and they had many more people on the ground, knocking on doors," he says. "That seems to be the key to turnout, and Obama's people are just better at it."

The president's base came out in force. In most of the battleground states, blacks and Latinos supplied the margin of victory, says John Geer, a professor of presidential politics and public opinion at Vanderbilt University.

African-Americans showed up in astonishing numbers, matching or exceeding the record turnout in 2008, Geer says. And he notes that Romney's harsh rhetoric on immigration issues didn't sit well with Latinos, who overwhelmingly support the DREAM Act, backed by President Obama, to allow children of illegal immigrants a path to citizenship.

Jonathan Turley, a political scientist at George Washington University, agrees. "The simple answer is that the Democrats did much better with voters of color," he says.

Controversial statements in U.S. Senate races in Missouri and Indiana also had a surprising impact in the final weeks of the campaign. Turley says candidates Richard Mourdock in Indiana and Todd Akin in Missouri both made inflammatory remarks about rape that the Obama campaign was able to seize on and elevate to the national stage.

"I think this is one election where candidates lower on the ballot actually had national impact," he says.

Here's a quick look at the decisive factors in some battleground states:

Florida, Nevada And Colorado

The Latino vote made a difference in all three states.

Many pollsters showed Florida leaning toward Romney immediately ahead of the voting. But the state, while technically not decided, is where Republican weakness among Latinos was most telling, Geer notes.

"Most people thought Romney would capture Florida, but that's partly because the polls have a hard time recording the Latino vote at times, because they tend to be cellphone-based," he says.

Exit polls showed the president capturing 60 percent of the Latino vote (compared with 57 percent in 2008) to Romney's 32 percent.

"During the primary, most of the Republican candidates took very strong anti-immigrant stances, and that hurt them going into the general election," says Texas A&M's Edwards.

That also proved to be the case in Nevada and Colorado.

"In a state like Nevada, you've got bad times and bad times for Hispanics when it comes to job losses," Geer says. "But nonetheless, the demographics were pretty strongly in favor of Obama.

The Pew Hispanic Center notes that nearly 270,000 Latinos were eligible to vote in Nevada. A pre-election poll commissioned by America's Voice, a Washington, D.C.-based immigration advocacy group, found that 69 percent of Latinos surveyed in the state backed Obama versus 15 percent for Romney.

A Denver Postpoll showed a wide margin of support for Obama in Colorado.

Ohio And Michigan

We can lump these two states together with one phrase: "auto bailout," says Turley, of George Washington University, who notes that Obama made the case that he saved the auto industry, so vital to Michigan and Ohio, while Romney wanted to "let Detroit go bankrupt."

"The Obama campaign did a great job of selecting one part of the economy — its bailout of the auto industry — to highlight as a success," Turley says. "Romney argued about the entire economy, and Obama's campaign instead fought very narrow turf, such as the successful auto bailout.

"It turns out that the auto bailout had greater legs than the Romney camp anticipated in places like Ohio," he says.

As always, Ohio's election map was a complex puzzle for both sides. Obama was counting on his base of supporters in the same urban centers that buttressed his 2008 campaign in Ohio: Cleveland, Columbus, Cincinnati, Toledo, Dayton, Akron and Youngstown. Overwhelming support among blacks was key.

In fact, Obama's support among whites in Ohio dropped enough from 2008 that Romney potentially could have taken the state had it not been for the higher African-American turnout.


Here's another state where demographics played a key role, Edwards says.

"You've got more white-collar professionals in the urban areas, and they are more predisposed to support Obama," he says. "That balances out the more conservative rural areas."

Turley agrees. "Virginia can no longer be counted as a red state," he says. "Tim Kaine's victory [in the U.S. Senate race] underscores that."

U.S. News breaks it down this way:

"[Obama] posted big margins in the more liberal counties of Northern Virginia, or NOVA. But to eke out his victory, he also made inroads in the crucial swing area of Prince William County, once considered the dividing line between NOVA and the more conservative ROVA, or 'Rest of Virginia.' And exit polls showed he performed better in the eastern half of the state than Democrat John Kerry in 2004."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit

Scott Neuman is a reporter and editor, working mainly on breaking news for NPR's digital and radio platforms.

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