For the first time, just seven days before Election Day, it looks like the presidential campaign has finally come to Minnesota.
With polls tightening nationwide and the campaigns of President Obama and Mitt Romney increasingly focused on a small sliver of swing states, polling, ad buys and the promise of a big name surrogate visit prompted partisans to either declare Minnesota the newest front in the presidential race, or insist their candidate had the state well in hand.
It all started on Friday, when the Romney and Obama campaigns both announced they would begin advertising on Twin Cities television, ostensibly to reach voters in western Wisconsin. Sunday brought a Star Tribune poll showing Obama with only a scant 3 point lead in Minnesota, which lead the Romney campaign to begin whispering about sending either Romney himself or running mate Paul Ryan to the state before Election Day.
By Monday, the Obama campaign said the chatter was nothing more than a head fake from a campaign looking to build false buzz about a broadening electoral map, promising that the “must-win” state would stay in Obama’s category.
“The Romney campaign wants you think it’s expanding the map, but it’s not,” campaign manager Jeff Messina said in a conference call with reporters. “Romney is pretending he’s got a shot in states like in Pennsylvania and Minnesota. We expect the Romney campaign to visit an out of play state this week to pretend like they have some momentum there.”
Obama still mobilizing
If the Obama campaign says Romney is bluffing, then they’re going all in. Former president and über-surrogate Bill Clinton will hold rallies in Minneapolis and Duluth on Tuesday, Oct. 30, as part of a campaign swing through the Midwest and battleground states like Wisconsin, Iowa and Ohio. Their Twin Cities ad campaign is worth $345,000 on broadcast stations between now and Election Day, more than 10 times the size of the Romney buy.
Noticeably, the Twin Cities market bleeds into seven Wisconsin counties, and our neighbor to the East has long been considered a battleground state this fall. The Obama campaign’s message late last week was that the ad buy was for those voters. On Monday, Obama’s Minnesota campaign manager Jeff Blodgett said the one-two punch of the ad buy and the Clinton visit is symptomatic of the overall importance of Minnesota and the Midwest and not an indication of concern, never mind what the polls say.
“For us, it’s all about firing up our volunteers, getting them to sign up for [get out the vote] activity this weekend so that we can deliver the state for the president through our organizing,” he said. “We’re focused in this last week on generating excitement amongst our base, getting folks to sign up for volunteer activities and help us do the turnout that’s required.”
Blodgett said the Romney campaign wasn’t serious about contesting the state. He said Obama’s ground game in Minnesota — with its array of campaign offices and statewide get out the vote efforts — will win out in the end.
“In close elections, the way you win is through a concerted ground effort,” he said. “And the other side has none of that. They’ve ignored our state and whatever they’re saying about Minnesota right now is silly because they haven’t invested the time and the energy.”
Republicans relying on enthusiasm
It’s true that the Romney campaign has no ground game in Minnesota, and there was little indication Monday that national Republicans would move quickly to make a race of it here, unlike in other states where Obama has seen a once-strong lead fade.
Look, for example, at Pennsylvania. In September, Obama was leading by double digits in some polls, but his edge now is down to just 4.7 percent, on average. Earlier this month, the Republican National Committee began moving a team of staffers to the state, and on Monday, Restore Our Future, a major pro-Romney super PAC, announced a $2 million ad buy there. It wasn’t immediately clear Monday whether such a last-minute infusion of national help was coming to Minnesota.
The Republican National Committee is looking to drive turnout through Internet ads targeted at Minnesota voters, RNC spokesman Ryan Mahoney said. Otherwise, state GOP executive director Ben Zierke said the party is hoping the campaign will send a candidate or surrogate here in the next week, and he predicted Romney might go up with more ads before the election.
But even without it, Zierke said there is enough residual energy from conservatives’ big victories in 2010 to make the presidential race competitive here.
“I think we have a lot of the grassroots enthusiasm that carried Republicans to victory here in Minnesota,” he said. “It doesn’t have to be the vast paid effort.”
From ‘safe’ to ‘lean’
Zierke pushed back against the Obama campaign’s contention that the state is safely in their category.
“The Obama campaign can downplay the poll results all they want, but sending their top surrogate, Bill Clinton, to Minnesota tomorrow tells us that they believe it’s real, as well,” he said.
The polls have the attention of national prognosticators. On Monday, both ABC News and the Washington Post shifted Minnesota from “safe Obama” to “lean Obama,” but the Post conceded:
In other words, it’s not clear this is primed to be a battleground state. But it’s still worthy of inclusion in our list of “lean Obama” states, which also includes places like New Mexico and Pennsylvania, since a Romney victory is within the realm of possibility if not at all likely.
Geoffrey Skelley, an analyst at University of Virginia’s Center for Politics, said Obama’s lead in Minnesota is probably safe (the Center’s Crystal Ball rates Minnesota “likely Obama,” with no change on Monday), and even if Romney manages to win it, Minnesota’s electoral votes probably wouldn’t be the deciding ones. A Romney victory in a state that has gone Democratic every year since 1972 would probably mean he’d crushed Obama nationwide.
“Minnesota may be closer now than it was but it’s still far from a battleground,” he said in an email. “The president’s lead appears to be just comfortable enough that he should hold on to the Land of 10,000 Lakes on November 6.”
Devin Henry can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter: @dhenry