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Why Romney Is Buying Ads in Minnesota

The Associated Press reports that the Romney campaign is buying television advertisements in Minnesota, a state where neither presidential campaign has purchased TV ads before. So what’s Romney’s move? Is it a bluff? A genuine late play at a state that hasn’t voted for a Republican since 1972? Here are three possible explanations: 

1) Wisconsin.

The western sliver of Wisconsin is in the Minneapolis and Duluth media markets, so airing a limited number of advertisements in Minnesota might just be aimed at covering a wider swath of the Badger State. Obama performed poorly in Wisconsin’s Minnesota media-market counties four years ago, in part because McCain actually outspent Obama on television advertisements in Minnesota. The Romney campaign could really use Wisconsin’s 10 electoral votes, and they were already out-advertising Obama by greater than a 2-to-1 margin in Wisconsin’s two outlying media markets, so their strategy appears to involve persuading voters in the western half of the state. These counties aren’t especially populous—we’re probably only talking about 150,000 voters. But the campaigns have more money to spend than they know what to do with, so they may as well start spending on inefficient markets like Minneapolis to start appealing to 150,000 voters in western Wisconsin.

2) Momentum.

Perhaps the Romney campaign is spending in Minnesota to make it seem like they’re on offense, expanding the map, or whatever other clichés that might make their way into Politico articles. The Associated Press article suggests as much, and it's not hard to see why the Romney campaign might want to build a better media narrative. They're down in Ohio with twelve days to go, and ads alone aren't going to get them over the top. Given that the campaigns have more money than they know what to do with, why not build a better narrative by burning a million dollars on the cheapest but most significant non-battleground state? 

3) Ten Electoral Votes

Minnesota always stood out as the one state that ought to have been a battleground. Even though it has a Democratic reputation earned over nearly forty years without voting for a Republican presidential candidate, the North Star State has been quite close in over the last two decades. In 2008, Obama won a smaller share of the vote in Minnesota than New Hampshire, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Nevada, and Michigan—all states routinely discussed as actual or potential battlegrounds. Minnesota’s electorate is also 90 percent white, so with Obama performing beneath Kerry’s level among white’s nationally, it’s not hard to see how Obama could be performing worse than Kerry in Minnesota, a state that Kerry won by just 3 percent. As I said prior to the advertising announcement, Minnesota stands out as a state that might just be closer than many expect.

But as much as Minnesota might look like a battleground state on paper, the campaigns probably would have more vigorously contested the state if their data showed a tight race. And it's not hard to see why the state might not be as competitive as history and demographics suggest, since Minnesota has a strong Democratic-base that gives Romney only a narrow path to victory. Although polls have occasionally hinted at a tight race, Obama has consistently held a 6-10 point lead in Minnesota. Given the national demographic trends, my guess is that the race is closer than that, but probably not close enough for an all-out push at this late stage.

So what's Romney doing? It's probably all about Wisconsin with a side benefit of momentum.