Republicans on Tuesday recaptured some of the Electoral College battlegrounds they had ceded to President Obama in 2008, narrowing the playing field between the two parties once again.
Republican nominee Mitt Romney led the GOP to wins in Indiana and North Carolina — and potentially other states — even as his bid to expand his party's appeal to industrial states such as Pennsylvania and Michigan fell short.
Presidents traditionally win re-election by expanding their vote, but Mr. Obama appeared poised to become only the second man in history to win a second term while seeing a slide in his electoral tally.
The other president was Woodrow Wilson, whose 1916 re-election bid saw him drop from 432 electoral votes to 277.
"I've been at this a long time, and just when we think we have the map figured out, it changes," said Larry J. Sabato, a political scientist at the University of Virginia. "I can remember the 'Republican Electoral Lock,' post-1980, picked by Bill Clinton. And then an impregnable [Democrat] majority — deconstructed by George W. Bush. Followed by a demographically reshaped map in 2008 forged by Obama."
In 2000 and 2004, the electoral map looked static: Democrats won along the West Coast and Northeast, and George W. Bush won just about everywhere else. Ohio and Florida were the two most hotly contested states.
But Mr. Obama's 2008 campaign redrew those lines dramatically, winning Virginia, North Carolina, Indiana, Colorado — all longtime Republican-performing states in presidential elections — and all of the industrial Midwest on his way to an electoral cakewalk.
And the president entered this election vowing to expand the map further, hoping to put Missouri and possibly Montana in play.
Instead, he ended up on defense, trying to protect as much of his 2008 coalition as possible, even as Mr. Romney made a play for states that hadn't been considered tossups for years.
Early on, it became clear that Missouri, which stayed red amid Mr. Obama's 2008 swamping, would remain Republican. And Indiana voters embraced their red roots again, too.
In addition to making plays to recapture Ohio, Florida, Virginia, Iowa and Colorado, Mr. Romney went after three states that hadn't been in contention for the GOP in years: Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and Michigan.
Picking Rep. Paul Ryan, a Wisconsin congressman, as his running mate boosted Wisconsin to swing-state status, though they appeared to have fallen short Tuesday night. It's unclear whether Wisconsin will remain a swing state in 2016.
Mr. Romney also tried but failed to capture Pennsylvania and Michigan, which were part of Ronald Reagan's blue-collar coalition that powered the GOP to wins in 1980, 1984 and 1988. Both slipped away from Republicans in 1992 and have remained Democratic in every presidential election since.
Voters in Michigan gave Mr. Romney credit for trying, but said his opposition to the government's bailout of General Motors and Chrysler probably doomed him.
"Obama swept McCain under the rug with Michigan in 2008, but for this year we have to consider that Michigan is Romney's home state and a place where his father was once a popular governor, which makes this race that much more of a nail biter," said Jessica McMaster, 28, of Grand Rapids. "Although I do think that Romney being from Michigan is giving him an edge, I think the biggest and most obvious reason that the people of Michigan might be favoring Romney this election is because of the economy."
Voters weren't sure they were now considered a swing state, but enjoyed the attention at least for this year.
Joe Borri, 50, who lives in the Detroit suburbs, said they got a few visits from the likes of Mr. Romney's wife, Ann, and said the same messages that played elsewhere could have worked for Mr. Romney.
"Michigan is not disparately far geographically from Ohio — and we all know the importance of Ohio to the electoral count — so perhaps the party's resources are able to be used more efficiently in this election, which everyone seems to predict will be hanging-chad close," he said.
Democrats dismissed Mr. Romney's forays into places like Pennsylvania, saying it reminded them of 2004, when Mr. Bush deployed Vice President Dick Cheney to Hawaii after a poll showed the GOP could be within striking distance.
Mr. Bush ended up losing Hawaii by 9 percentage points anyway.
Democrats said part of the reason Mr. Romney was suddenly competing in Pennsylvania was because the GOP campaign had extra cash that couldn't be used in Ohio, where all available commercial air time was sold out.
"They're throwing spaghetti at the wall to see what will stick," Obama adviser David Plouffe told MSNBC on Tuesday morning.
What happens next time around depends on how the parties regroup. Usually, losers spend time thinking about what stances proved to be losers. But that doesn't always happen.
"If the party digs in its heels and says all is well except for a 'bad candidate,' then another loss awaits," Mr. Sabato said.
• Andrea Billups reported from Michigan.
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