* Obama, Romney focus largely on just nine states
* Nine states this year account for 22 pct of US population
* Election battlefield shrinks as states polarized
By Andy Sullivan
WASHINGTON, Nov 4 This year's presidential
election could be among the closest in U.S. history, as
President Barack Obama and Republican Mitt Romney are locked in
a virtual dead heat. For a growing number of voters, however, it
will not be much of a contest at all.
Roughly 22 percent of the U.S. population lives in the nine
politically divided states that are likely to determine the
outcome of Tuesday's election - and that have been the focus of
the candidates' campaign stops and advertising.
That has left four-fifths of Americans effectively on the
sidelines, the highest proportion in more than century.
It's a reflection of how Americans elect their president not
by popular vote, but through a state-by-state process known as
the Electoral College. The winner of each state typically is
awarded that state's electoral votes, with 270 electoral votes
needed to clinch the White House.
Over the past four decades, presidential elections have
played out on a shrinking battlefield, as political parties have
become more ideologically unified and Americans increasingly
have moved to communities where their neighbors share their
political views, analysts say.
As a result, most states can be taken off the table - as
either particularly friendly to a candidate, or not - before a
presidential campaign even begins.
With the South and the Plains states firmly in the
Republican column and the Northeast and West Coast solidly
Democratic, elections since 2000 have come down to a few states
that, for one reason or another, remain politically diverse and
up for grabs.
This year, Obama and Romney focused the bulk of their
television advertising and ground-level campaigning on nine
states: Nevada (6 electoral votes), Colorado (9), Iowa (6),
Wisconsin (10), Ohio (18), New Hampshire (4), Virginia (13),
North Carolina (15) and Florida (29). Romney has made a late bid
for Pennsylvania and its 20 electoral votes, but polls there
have shown Obama with a consistent lead.
Some of the most competitive states, such as Virginia and
Colorado, have become that way as more Democratic-leaning
Hispanics and college graduates have moved in. Others such as
Ohio and Iowa have been relatively untouched by demographic
shifts, and the two parties have remained at a rough parity in
And some states have been split down the middle.
In Wisconsin, the state capital of Madison is one of the
most Democratic cities in the country, while the suburbs of
Milwaukee are now among the most Republican.
Competitive presidential races in the 1960s and 1970s
involved states that encompassed more than half the U.S.
population. Since 2000, the presidential race has been
competitive in states where roughly one-quarter of U.S. voters
Political analysts say the narrowed geographic scope of the
presidential campaign is not just a symptom of increased
polarization - it is also a reason the gap keeps widening. The
dynamic encourages presidential candidates to ignore wide swaths
of the nation and can make it more difficult for the winner of
the election to govern effectively.
"Politics now isn't about issues, it's really more of a
tribal affiliation," said Bill Bishop, who examined the
increasing geographical polarization of the country in his 2008
book, "The Big Sort."
AN IDEOLOGICAL SHIFT
Between the 1880s and 1960, close presidential elections
were rare in the United States. Since the 1960s, Americans
increasingly have moved into communities that mirror their own
cultural preferences, Bishop found.
A computer programmer who wants to cycle to work and eat
organic produce might move to San Francisco, while someone with
the same skills who wants plenty of parking and a thriving
evangelical community might choose a Dallas suburb, Bishop said.
Over the same time period, political parties have become
more ideologically consistent.
While Republican voters now are much more likely than
Democrats to oppose abortion, the two groups showed no
difference on the issue in 1988, said Columbia University
professor Andrew Gelman.
"The parties are definitely more ideological than they used
to be, and the voters are, too," Gelman said.
This ideological and geographical sorting has been most
pronounced at the local level, but it has played out at the
state level as well, as southern conservatives have switched to
the Republican Party and northeastern moderates have been pushed
to the Democratic Party as Republicans have emphasized
conservative stands on social issues.
As politically divided as the nation is overall,
presidential races are now much less likely to be competitive at
the state level.
The average state margin between the winning and losing
presidential candidate in close elections widened steadily from
8 percentage points in 1960 to 14.8 percentage points in 2004,
according to research by Alan Abramowitz of Emory University and
Kyle Saunders of Colorado State University.
The presidential battleground as a whole has shifted during
this period. Virginia, for example, had been a reliably
Republican state in presidential races from the 1950s until
Obama carried it in 2008.
At the same time, elections have steadily shrunk in scope.
Republican Richard Nixon campaigned in all 50 states in the
1960 campaign for the White House. He lost narrowly to Democrat
John F. Kennedy, but the race was competitive in 20 states,
where the margin of victory for either candidate was narrower
than 5 percentage points for either candidate.
Some 18 states were competitive in the 1976 matchup between
Democrat Jimmy Carter and Republican Gerald Ford. In the 2000
nail-biter between Republican George W. Bush and Democrat Al
Gore, 12 states were in play. The battlefield shrunk to 10
states in Bush's 2004 matchup against Democrat John Kerry.
The pattern is less noticeable in years in which one
candidate wins handily, such as Republican Ronald Reagan's
landslide victory over Democrat Walter Mondale in 1984 or
Democrat Bill Clinton's relatively easy re-election bid over
Republican Bob Dole in 1996.
CLOSE NATIONALLY, NOT LOCALLY
But in close elections, the trend is clear.
The contrast is especially striking between this year's
campaign and the 1976 race, in which Carter defeated Ford by 2
That year, 51 percent of the population lived in states
where Carter ended up winning or losing narrowly. New York,
California and Texas were among the most competitive states for
Those three states, which accounted for 30 percent of U.S.
gross domestic product in 2011, are not in play this year. New
York and California are solidly Democratic, while Texas is a
sure thing for Republican Romney.
The nine most competitive states this year accounted for 20
percent of the nation's GDP last year.
These states are home to a smaller slice of Americans than
were in play during Bush's razor-thin win in 2000, which turned
on 12 states that accounted for 27 percent of the population.
With a smaller playing field in the presidential race, the
candidates have tailored their pitches to a smaller slice of the
electorate than ever.
Obama has been emphasizing a revival in manufacturing, which
could help him in Rust Belt states such as Ohio and Wisconsin.
Romney's proposal to expand the Navy seems aimed squarely at
Virginia, which is home to a large naval base and military
contractors that are an important part of the state's economy.
At a time when spending cuts are needed, neither candidate
has mentioned trimming the controversial federal subsidy for
ethanol, which could anger corn farmers in Iowa.
This calculus can shape governing as well, said Mark
Kennedy, who heads George Washington University's graduate
school of political management.
"You know which issues you're going to be called on the mat
for in the next election," he said.
As the election nears, those lucky enough to live in the
"swing" states might not exactly be thrilled. The intense
campaigning can widen already existing partisan divisions, and
the barrage of television ads, telephone polling and
door-knocking can get wearisome.
"People in Colorado are miserable because they're getting
called up all the time," Gelman said. "There's more money and
less places to spend it so it's getting a little bit