LEESBURG, VA.: How Virginia goes in the presidential election may come down to voters who live amid the small wineries, affluent subdivisions and Civil War battlegrounds of Loudoun County.
Voters in the tony Hamilton County suburbs around the humming riverside economic engine of Cincinnati may tip the balance in Ohio.
To win Florida, either President Barack Obama or Mitt Romney probably will have carried Hillsborough County, where the urban seaport town of Tampa bleeds into communities of Spanish-speaking voters and retired Midwesterners.
Those areas are vastly different, yet each is full of fickle voters and bound by a proclivity to swing between Republican and Democrat every four years. All are main targets as the president and his Republican challenger look for enough victories in enough states to reach the 270 electoral votes needed to capture the White House.
The race may come down to an even narrower slice of the electorate than the nine most contested states: Colorado, Florida, Iowa, Nevada, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Ohio, Virginia and Wisconsin. The outcome probably will depend on what happens in the 106 counties that Republican George W. Bush won in 2004 and that voted Democrat Obama in 2008, according to an Associated Press analysis.
The AP reviewed the vote returns in those nine states during the 2000, 2004 and 2008 elections to identify the counties that have swung between the parties and were most likely to do it again on Nov. 6.
In these counties more than anywhere else, voters’ phones ring every night with automated telephone surveys. Every day, glossy mailers hit their mailboxes. Televisions crackle day and night with campaign ads.
In fact, voters in the Cincinnati, Tampa and northern Virginia TV markets have been subjected to presidential campaign advertising totaling $127 million, almost one-fifth the total spent nationwide this year.
“There’s more — and more concentrated — contact with voters in these counties that swung back and forth in these states than anybody,” said Charlie Black, a veteran Republican presidential campaign strategist and informal Romney adviser.
In a race where any bit of an advantage could make the difference, the campaigns go to all this trouble to sway a tiny fraction of the electorate. In 2008, there were 6.2 million votes from those 106 counties; that was not even 5 percent of the roughly 137 million who voted for president.
There is no single reason to explain why these counties seem to shift with the political wind. Their voters are far from monolithic, having little in common other than their voting patterns.
In most of these places, there are few truly undecided voters, forcing Obama and Romney to subdivide the electorate in their attempt for any edge.
Six of the counties are in the Buckeye State.
In working-class Sandusky County, the automotive industry’s rebound has pushed the county’s unemployment below the state average. The county is adjacent to two other swing counties —Wood and Ottawa — that together make Toledo’s southern and eastern outliers a coveted bloc.
In the state’s northeastern quadrant, Cleveland’s far suburbs in Lake County are considered up for grabs, as is heavily rural Tuscarawas County, just south of Canton.
In southern Ohio, Romney needs Hamilton County, especially the Cincinnati suburbs, to offset Obama’s edge in Cleveland, Columbus and Dayton.