Mitt Romney is making his long teased loafers-on-the-ground foray into Pennsylvania on Sunday. This is will mark the most substantive aspect of his attempt to expand the electoral map, after his campaign and its allies went on the television ad offensive in states Minnesota, Michigan, and the Keystone State. So is this a sign of strength, as the Romney campaign is portraying it, or a sign of desperation as Team Obama is spinning it? It looks more like desperation and I'll tell you why.
There are two basic reasons one tries to expand the map with under a week left in a presidential race: Either you feel extremely confident about your position and you're trying to run up the score, or you don't see a clear path to the 270 electoral votes required to win the presidency on the current map and need to find an alternate way to get there.
Certainly the Romney campaign is trying to project momentum and confidence (still). Speaking to reporters on a conference call on Wednesday, Romney Political Director Rich Beeson said that, "Pennsylvania is a place that we decided to wade into as a path to 300 electoral votes." But is that plausible? Is Team Romney in a position right now to run up the score? Not if you judge by public polls.
Take the 11 states which Real Clear Politics rates as "Toss Up." If you look at Real Clear's average of public polls for them, Obama currently leads in eight of them. And in seven of them (New Hampshire having ticked up this morning) he has leads of at least two percentage points—a margin which is historically very hard to overcome this late in an election. Those seven states bring with them 80 electoral votes, which along with the 201 electoral votes Real Clear sees as leaning or likely Obama, push him over the finish line. (Obama leads in Pennsylvania, incidentally, by 4.6 percentage points, and there's no instance in the New York Times's Nate Silver's database of polls where a candidate blows a lead that big in the waning days of a presidential campaign.)
Unless the public polls as a group are historically wrong, the Romney campaign is—or should be—worried less about a "path to 300" than the trek to 270. (Not, incidentally, that breaking 300 necessarily makes you more president than just edging 270—just ask Barack Obama, whose 365 electoral votes in 2008 bought him four years of uncompromising noncooperation and questions about his legitimacy.) If his position was so strong Romney would not have spent significant time in Florida (all day Wednesday) or Virginia (all day Thursday) this week, states where victory keeps him alive but doesn't win him the White House. It may be true that the Obama campaign is on the defensive, spending its time and resources on its so-called electoral firewall (he's in Ohio all day today). But that's because the president doesn't need to be on the offensive—if he holds what he has, he wins.
The Romney campaign, on the other hand, has to open more routes to 270 because their chosen path is blocked in the current set of battleground states. Either that or they're running the self-fulfilling momentum play that very nearly cost George W. Bush the 2000 election when Karl Rove had him in California at campaign's end, ostensibly to run up the score. The idea is that if you behave like you've got the race in the bag, that sort of confidence will generate momentum of its own.
Compare this with the Obama campaign's approach. Real Clear's average of polls has the president within 5.3 percentage points of Romney in Arizona. But when a reporter asked him on a conference call earlier this week about going into the state, Obama Campaign Manager Jim Messina admitted that it was an "enticing" target but said that "the map is set"—Obama won't try to expand it at the last minute. Why not? He knows they don't need to because he's positioned to win with the current map.
That's real confidence.