When President Obama boarded Air Force One for Hawaii last week, the flight was one of the few this year taking him to a state that he can expect to have little trouble winning should he seek re-election in 2012.
Over the course of Mr. Obama’s first year in office, the White House has been methodical and strategic in selecting destinations for policy speeches and town-hall meetings, The Washington Times has found in a review of the president’s domestic travel.
Mr. Obama has ventured out of the confines of Washington to secure memorable and symbolic backdrops for important speeches, as he did when setting his Afghanistan war address against the gray-jacketed cadets of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point in New York. He has made multiple trips to other states known for their Democratic fundraising heft, such as Illinois and California, and has stopped in presidential battleground states that he won or lost by less than 5 percentage points.
Mr. Obama marked his first 100 days in office with a speech in Missouri. It was one of two trips he has taken to the state, which he lost to his Republican rival, Sen. John McCain of Arizona, by just one-tenth of 1 percentage point. He has visited Ohio and Pennsylvania three times each, and he chose Montana, a state he lost by 12,000 votes, or 2.5 percentage points, for one of his health care town-hall events.
The White House does not dispute the political role of each decision to fly the president into a community for a policy speech, but officials said there are other compelling reasons.
“The president has routinely traveled outside of the Washington area and visited a diverse range of communities because we’ve found that the president’s agenda for strengthening the economy and creating jobs, for example, is most resonant and persuasive when it’s presented in the context of those communities who are dealing with these challenges firsthand,” said Joshua Earnest, a White House spokesman.
“It’s no surprise that this president, like previous presidents, most frequently visits those areas where there is a high concentration of voters who are most likely to be persuaded - so-called swing voters,” he said.
Mr. Obama went to Elkhart, Ind., once known as the “RV Capital of the World,” in February while the area was suffering the highest unemployment rate in the nation, at 15.3 percent. When Mr. Obama wanted to talk about his plans for helping struggling homeowners, he traveled to Fort Myers, Fla., ground zero in the foreclosure crisis. He told the audience that he was “not just talking about faceless numbers. We’re talking about families you probably know.”
At the same time, Indiana was a state Mr. Obama carried by less than 1 percentage point in 2008, and Florida is the state that cost Democrats the 2000 election.
Although swing states have been given personal attention by the president, a swath of the nation - most of it in the Deep South - has been excluded from Mr. Obama’s travel plans. Much as George W. Bush avoided Vermont and Bill Clinton made only one stop in Nebraska during their respective White House tenures, Mr. Obama appears to have adopted a key principle in deciding where to interact directly with the American people: where the votes are.
“Everything that presidents do centers around political calculations,” said Brendan J. Doherty, a political science professor at the U.S. Naval Academy. “When a Democrat is in the White House, the places that systematically get shortchanged tend to be low-population states that vote Republican.”
Mr. Doherty, who has conducted extensive research on presidential travel, said the focus on battleground states emerged as a White House tactic during the Clinton administration and was a lynchpin of Mr. Bush’s domestic itinerary.
“It was really George W. Bush where this really took off,” he said. “He spent a remarkable amount of time in battleground states. What he was doing was dramatic and clear. You’re seeing it again now with Obama.”
By Mr. Doherty’s calculations, Mr. Obama spent more of his first six months traveling internationally than did any of the previous five presidents. His domestic travels were more consistent with those of his predecessors. Over the course of 2009, he made more than two dozen domestic trips, many of them aimed at selling key initiatives such as his health care plan and his economic recovery initiatives.
Of the 23 states he has visited for policy-related events, all but five have been in traditional battleground states.
He often attempted to maximize the benefit of a journey. On the evening of May 26, he held a fundraiser for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat, in Las Vegas, gave a speech there the next morning promoting his stimulus bill, then headed to Los Angeles for another fundraiser. Mr. Obama won Nevada in 2008 by 11 percentage points, but the state went to President Bush in 2004 by just 3 percentage points.
Mr. Obama was on a tour of national parks with his family in August, but between stops at Yellowstone and the Grand Canyon, he visited Grand Junction, Colo., for a town-hall meeting on health care. Mr. Bush carried Colorado in 2004; Mr. Obama won there in 2008.
One reason presidents travel frequently to battleground states is that a personal visit gives their best shot at positive coverage in local newspapers and on local television news broadcasts.
The coverage typically is coordinated by regional press officials in the White House, said Matthew Eshbaugh-Soha, a political science professor at the University of North Texas, and is much more likely to be favorable.
“Presidents are always mindful of their re-election, so they strategically target states that they know will be in play and that have a large electoral prize,” Mr. Eshbaugh-Soha said. “These travels always lead to a good number of stories on the president and so presidents can benefit from more exposure. People at least want to know that the president is working hard, even if they do not agree with him.”
When Mr. Obama’s aides were looking for a place for the president to deliver an education speech on the anniversary of his election, they settled on Wisconsin.
The state Legislature was about to remove a legal barrier to using student test scores in evaluating teacher performance. That policy change, championed by Mr. Obama, would help Wisconsin qualify for a share of the $4.35 billion in “Race to the Top” stimulus program he was to announce in the speech.
But the audience of more than 600 at Madison’s Wright Middle School and the thousands more who saw media reports on the visit were valued for their potential to help Mr. Obama’s re-election chances, too. Wisconsin voters handily supported Mr. Obama in 2008. In 2004, they supported Democrat John Kerry by a single percentage point.