Does it matter where candidates campaign? Not as much as you think.

Keeping tabs on the '08 contenders.
Oct. 28 2008 3:30 PM

All Politics Is Not Local

Does it matter where candidates campaign?

Since the primary season ended five months ago, Barack Obama and John McCain have made about 370 campaign stops in 32 states. Their running mates—who started campaigning only about two months ago—have added about 200 stops to that total, and their spouses have stumped slightly more than 100 times.

What does this grueling schedule accomplish? When politicians thunder into town, they hope to attract thousands of people, hundreds of voter commitments, and dozens of headlines. From there, they hope word of mouth trickles across the community, causing voters to consider their candidacy. This is basic American politics in action.

But this election, the positive effects of campaigning are tough to spot. A clean cause-and-effect relationship was always unlikely—let's give the American voter a little credit for not just supporting whoever has swooped into town most recently. But in most cases, it's tough to find any correlation between the number of campaign events and the poll returns. There are a variety of explanations—a national economic crisis, the dwindling power of local news headlines, and the increased emphasis on grass-roots organization, just to name a few. The bottom line: When it comes to the candidates' schedules, this election appears to be much more about national strategy than local appearances.

To determine this, we crunched the data from Slate's Map the Candidates tool, which has been tracking the candidates' public schedules the entire election, including the party primaries. Below, you'll find a map of the Democratic ticket's campaigning vs. the Republican ticket's campaigning since the start of the general election and the differential between the two. In the differential map, Obama's advantage is shaded blue; McCain's is shaded brown. Once you click on the box below, you can roll over the states to see how many more times one ticket has appeared in a state than the other presidential pair.

For a closer look, we've pulled out four states that suggest both the futility and the advantages of extended face time in a state. The number of stops from June 9 through Oct. 28 are listed below each state name.

Iowa
(Obama 3, Biden 1, Michelle Obama 0; McCain 6, Palin 3, Cindy McCain 0)

In the Hawkeye State, McCain and Palin have tried to make up for lost time. The GOP ticket has made five more stops in the state, primarily because Obama doesn't think he needs to contest it. He leads by 12 points in Pollster.com's average and has never trailed McCain. McCain, though, insists that his internal polls show the state is competitive, and he continues to campaign. The Republican ticket has held four events there this month. The Democrats haven't been there since early September.

During the primaries, McCain barely competed in Iowa's caucus, choosing to focus on New Hampshire instead. Partly as a result, McCain came in fourth. From July 1, 2007, through the caucuses on Jan. 3, 2008, McCain made 63 appearances in the state, compared with Obama's 186 (full tallies here). In Iowa, the candidates' attendance records during the caucus season seem to be more important than their appearances during the general election.

North Carolina
(Obama 9, Biden 7, Michelle Obama 4; McCain 3, Palin 5, Cindy McCain 2)

The McCain campaign didn't see North Carolina coming. Obama and Biden have dominated the Tar Heel state, making twice as many total stops (16) as McCain and Palin (eight). (The 2-1 ratio still holds when spouses are included: The totals become 20 to 10.) After dabbling in the state once in June and once in August, Obama and Biden held a combined four events there in September. Obama made another three appearances before Palin or McCain showed up for the first time in early October. By then, the polls had already turned, and Obama was in the lead. McCain and Palin have made eight stops there this month, which seems to have stopped Obama's surge, but they haven't picked up any ground. Obama leads McCain by two points.

Pennsylvania
(Obama 16, Biden 9, Michelle Obama 3; McCain 21, Palin 14, Cindy McCain 12)

McCain and Palin have out-campaigned their opponents in Pennsylvania by a larger margin than in any other state, notching 35 appearances to 25 between Obama and Biden. Yet the state now rests comfortably in the blue column. Since June, no less, only three polls have found McCain tied with or leading Obama—and all three were in the two weeks after the Republican National Convention. McCain campaigned heavily in Pennsylvania in that span, making five stops between Aug. 30 and Sept. 11, twice with Palin.

Not coincidentally, those were McCain's best two weeks in the national polls, too, a bump largely attributed to the initial giddiness over Palin's selection and a calmer economic landscape. McCain is almost certain to lose the state, but it is not for lack of effort.

Virginia
(Obama 16, Biden 9, Michelle Obama 2; McCain 5, Palin 6, Cindy McCain 2)

Obama made six unanswered stops in Virginia in July and August, then another eight after John McCain showed some belated interest in the formerly red state. But it wasn't until mid-September that Obama saw the first sign he was gaining any traction there. (McCain was in Virginia twice in June but didn't return until Sept. 10; his last visit was two weeks ago.) It's unclear whether Obama's campaigning, plus nine stops by Joe Biden since Sept. 4, have much to do with their eight-point lead; the break in Obama's favor since mid-September coincides almost exactly with his move ahead of McCain in national polls. That, in turn, coincides with the week the economy became unmoored.

The best theory one could give about Obama's attention to the Old Dominion is that it made Virginians more sympathetic to this general trend toward Obama. This hasn't been true everywhere. In other states where he was modestly behind in the early summer but has not since visited as frequently, like Indiana (five stops since July), the mid-September boost is much less evident.

We've set up heat maps of all the candidates' travels here. If you'd prefer to customize the timeline yourself, visit Map the Candidates. You can also use it to follow their travels for the remaining week of the campaign.

Chris Wilson is a Slate contributor.

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