Romney makes a feint at Pennsylvania

Mitt Romney is making a last-minute run at Pennsylvania — or at least he’d like people to think he is.

Romney began buying airtime in the state on Tuesday and released an ad attacking President Obama’s policies on energy and coal mining. The Romney campaign also put out a memo arguing that Pennsylvania is winnable, and a number of GOP outside groups launched large ad buys in the state.

ADVERTISEMENT
But this is the first serious effort Romney has made in a state no GOP presidential nominee has won since 1988 and where polls consistently show him trailing by between 4 and 6 points. The move seems designed to push a narrative that Romney has the momentum and is expanding the electoral map — with the added bonus that it forces Democrats to spend time and money there rather than states where the polls are closer.

“Every sign points to a head-fake,” said Keegan Gibson, a Pennsylvania politics expert and the editor of politicsPA.com. “If they were responding to the underlying nature of the race, they would have gone up here a few weeks ago.”

The pro-Romney Restore Our Future super-PAC made a $2.1 million ad buy in the state on Monday, and American Crossroads, another GOP group, added $1.2 million for ads that will begin airing Wednesday. Romney’s campaign was in the process of buying ad time there as of Tuesday afternoon.

One GOP strategist familiar with the outside groups’ thinking said the move had three goals: exciting the GOP base, trying to make Democratic surrogates (like Scranton native Joe Biden) stump there rather than in more competitive states and, possibly, completing a Hail Mary pass.

“There is always the potential that they could hit a home run somewhere, but it’s more about pushing this perception that he has the momentum, messing with Democrats and forcing them to spend there,” said the strategist, who asked not to be named in order to speak candidly about private conversations he’d had with the groups.

“They’re trying to expand the map and give the perception that things are opening up everywhere. You have to look at it like buying a lottery ticket,” he continued.

The move could also be a pre-emptive measure against post-election Monday-morning quarterbacking. If Romney loses the race, no strategist can complain the campaign didn’t spend in Pennsylvania.

Romney’s campaign argues it is on the move in the state.

“This expansion of the electoral map demonstrates that Gov. Romney’s momentum has jumped containment from the usual target states and has spread to deeper-blue states that Chicago never anticipated defending,” Romney political director Rich Beeson argued in a memo released Tuesday afternoon.

But Beeson later hinted at another reason for the move: that Romney and his allies have money to burn (the campaign raised $111.8 million in the first few weeks of October) that is better spent seeking to create a narrative of momentum and looking for a long-shot win than trying to buy extra commercial time in states where ad messaging reached saturation levels long ago.

Restore Our Future in particular has focused on doing this throughout the campaign, spending in a number of states that were never truly competitive, like Michigan. 

Romney has not campaigned in Pennsylvania for months; running mate Paul Ryan has only been there once in recent weeks, and Romney’s Pennsylvania communications director was moved to Virginia a few weeks back.

“As a campaign, we will put more resources into the target states in the final week than previous GOP campaigns have been able to do in the final 10 weeks,” Beeson continued. “The Romney campaign has the resources to expand the map in ways that weren’t possible in past [election] cycles (without reducing any effort in any other target state).” 

Obama’s campaign said it would go on the air in Pennsylvania in response — but it scoffed at Romney’s move.

“Three things are now absolutely clear in this race — we have a significant early-vote advantage in states from North Carolina to Nevada, there is no Romney momentum in the battleground states and the Romney campaign has found itself with a tremendously narrow and improbable path to 270 electoral votes,” Obama campaign manager Jim Messina said in a statement. 

“Now, like Republicans did in 2008, they are throwing money at states where they never built an organization and have been losing for two years. Let’s be very clear, the Romney campaign and its allies’ decision to go up with advertising in Michigan, Pennsylvania and Minnesota is a decision made out of weakness, not strength.”

American Crossroads spokesman Jonathan Collegio told The Hill that his group had decided to go in so late because it got back a poll last Friday that showed Romney within 3 points of Obama.

“You don’t spend $1.2 million on an earned media hit — this is a considerable buy. There’s a sense that in putting so much energy in Ohio, Obama is leaving his flank unguarded, and advertising in a state where it’s not as saturated could have a much bigger impact,” he said. “This is an earnest effort to win the state.”

Former Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell (D), who at times has been critical of Obama and his campaign, said the GOP groups were launching a push in Pennsylvania to force Obama to spend there and pointed out that Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) also made a last-minute head-fake at the state in 2008.

“These guys have money to burn and they’re pretty desperate to find some other electoral path to win,” he said. “That means they have to play in Pennsylvania, where it’s a 4- to 8-point lead, and that’s pretty impossible to make up in a week of TV, particularly because the Obama folks will respond.”