Obama launches first general-election ad, expands battleground to GOP states as Georgia poll confirms fluidiy of electoral map

More than two weeks after clinching the Democratic nomination, Barack Obama launched his first general election ad today, a 60-second biographical spot meant to introduce himself to voters:

What: Speaking directly to the camera, Barack Obama mentions his maternal family, his being raised according to Kansas values and his choice to help devastated neighborhoods (Obama has long ceased calling his days in Chicago 'community organizing') rather than take a Wall Street job. He goes on to tout his record in providing health care to wounded troops, cut taxes and move people from welfare to work. These are all issues that could just as easily be featured in the ad of a Republican candidate, which goes along with the non-threatening heartland imagery and non(or anti)-partisan message the ad is meant to convey.

Politico's Jonathan Martin dubs this a "task in reassurance" and there is little doubt that this is exactly the ad's goal. This election is first and foremost a referendum on the Republican Party and the Administration. That means Barack Obama will be elected President in November unless the GOP convinces Americans that Obama is an entirely unacceptable choice -- whether because of his alleged inexperience or because of whatever smears are circulating online and are foolishly repeated on Fox. In 2004, the Bush campaign managed to survive an election that was a referendum on the incumbent by convincing enough voters that Kerry was too risky (read: unpatriotic) a choice. In 2008, McCain will need to drive up negativity even more given how much the Republican brand has sank just in the past four years.

Obama will have achieved a large part of what he needs to do by simply preventing Republicans from demonizing him. Given his massive financial advantage, he will have plenty of resources to do just that by airing this type of positive ad that emphasize the parts of Obama's story that make him look like just any other American politician while also being able to attack McCain.

Where: As interesting as the ad's content is the list of 18 states the commercial will be air in (the size of the media buy is still unknown): Alaska, Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Iowa, Indiana, Michigan, Missouri, Montana, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Mexico, North Carolina, North Dakota, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Virginia.

This list is the who's who of battleground states, and it gives us a good sense of which states Obama expects to contest in the coming months. Compared to my latest least of competitive states, are noticeable the absence of Minnesota, New Jersey, Oregon and Washington (and perhaps also California) and the inclusion of Alaska, Georgia, Indiana, Montana and North Dakota.

Obama's confidence in carrying the first set of states is due to a series of polls finding the Illinois Senator improving in what I have been calling the "Dukakis 5." WA, OR and MN appear to be returning to their longtime Democratic roots after flirting with take-overs these past two cycles. As for New Jersey, Bush considerably improved his score in 2004 and McCain believes that his support among independents makes the state a worthy target. But New Jersey is an expansive state since running an ad requires investing in both the Philly and NYC markets and Obama is unlikely to accept such investments without further indication that the state might be competitive. (A similar argument could be made about expensive California.)

As for the more unconventional states that are included in the list, they are truly fascinating: Obama has long argued that Georgia is competitive but now that push is coming to shove and the time has come for the first media buy, it is noteworthy that Obama is actually following through and spending money here. It suggests that this is no longer just spin but that the Democrat's campaign actually believes that its registration drive and the increase in black turnout will make the Southern state Bush won by 17% truly competitive. And don't forget that the Bob Barr factor could play in Georgia more than in other times. Just in time to give us an idea of where Obama is coming from, Insider Advantage released a poll from Georgia finding... a toss-up:

  • McCain gets 44% to Obama's 43%, with Bob Barr coming in at a high 6%. (A Rasmussen poll taken 10 days ago had McCain leading by 10%).
This is obviously stunning and we eagerly await more polls from this state -- particularly more surveys that include Bob Barr, as he could really influence this election if he draws more from McCain than Obama. The Democrat's targeting Indiana can be described in the same way as Georgia: McCain's lead is narrowing there, just as it is in Georgia, but for Obama to actually take the jump in a state that has a more-expansive-than-most media market (Indianapolis) is remarkable.

As for Alaska, Montana and North Dakota, those are the real stunners of Obama's list, states George Bush won by 25%, 20% and 27% respectively! And DailyKos notes that running ads in Iowa probably enables Obama to reach the Omaha network, where one or two of Nebraska's EVs could potentially be contested. Each of these 3 states represents 3 electoral votes, but Obama is here striking at the core of the Republican base, states that never wavered in its support of Bush in the past two presidential elections. Yet, polls have shown Obama within striking distance in Alaska (there have been less public polls from MT and ND) and the candidate is less affected by racial polarization patterns in these Western states than he is in the Southern red bastions. Boosted by the fact that all three of these states are relatively cheap to advertise in, Obama looks determined to test McCain's vulnerabilities.

At the very least, this expansion of the electoral map will put McCain on the defensive, forcing his campaign to calculate whether it should play defense in Indiana and Alaska or whether it should invest that money in Minnesota and Oregon, states Obama is not even bothering to defend. Remember that the Republican's campaign will only have $85 million to spend once voters start paying the most attention in the fall and there is only so many states that he can spread that money on.

Update: Further provoking Republicans, Obama is assigning the former political director of its Iowa caucus effort to... Indiana, a state that has not voted Democratic since 1964. And the campaign is pledging paid staffers to... Texas!

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