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September 2, 2009

Obama favoring purple Virginia over blue Maryland by 8-1 margin

With family in tow, Barack Obama high-tailed it to Camp David today for what aides are calling the final phase of his summer vacation.

If the president manages to stay put until Sunday, as scheduled, it would be his longest break yet at the Maryland mountaintop retreat. More typically, he has spent just one night at a time at the presidential compound north of Frederick (he blames his daughters' schedules for not letting him chill there more).

Those private visits notwithstanding, Obama has shown Virginia far more love than Maryland since taking office.

Presidents of both parties frequently use the neighboring states as sites for their public events. Since many Americans revile the capital city, it is often necessary to escape to a more suitable "real world" locale. Next-door Maryland and Virginia are obvious choices, since they are only quick trip away (time is a president's scarcest resource).

Recent presidents have divided their time more or less evenly between Maryland and Virginia. But Obama, by a lopsided margin, is favoring the commonwealth on the other side of the Potomac.

Today, for example, the White House announced that Obama plans to deliver a national back-to-school address next Tuesday from a high school in northern Virginia. That event will be at least his eighth in Virginia as president.

By comparison, he's participated in a single Maryland event, when he addressed the Naval Academy commencement in Annapolis last spring. (His trips to Andrews Air Force base, to catch flights on Air Force One or play golf, like similar jaunts to military golf courses in northern Virginia or to eat a meal at a local restaurant or visit a private home, aren't included in the tally.)

The rest of the First Family also seems to have taken a liking to Virginia. In July, first lady Michelle Obama took her daughters and her mother on a day trip to central Virginia, with stops at Luray Caverns and Thomas Jefferson's historic home outside Charlottesville.

There isn't much mystery in Obama's apparent preference for Virginia over Maryland. But it illuminates the highly political nature of his White House.

More, perhaps, than any recent president, Obama has concentrated his domestic travels on key electoral states--favoring those that will matter in 2012, while largely ignoring states that are either out of reach (such as those in the Deep South) or are safely Democratic (California and New York, crucial to campaign fundraising for Democrats, are exceptions).

Prominent swing states that he carried in last year's election-- and would like to carry again in a re-election run have already been favored with multiple presidential visits. In addition to Virginia, they include Indiana, Arizona, Colorado and North Carolina. Lightly populated but nonetheless important states--such as Nevada, Montana and New Mexico--have also gotten Obama visits, as have the heartland battlegrounds of Missouri, Ohio, Iowa and Wisconsin.

Bill Clinton, another politically savvy president, understood the importance of staying in touch with key states. He set, and largely stuck to, a goal of hitting California, the richest electoral vote lode, at least once a month during his first term.

Brendan J. Doherty, a political scientist at the Naval Academy who has studied Obama's presidential travels, noted that "a large number of public presidential events occur in the Washington, D.C. metropolitan area only a few miles from the White House as part of the president's regular activities and are not comparable to other types of presidential travel."

He added that a "presidential event held at Andrews Air Force base in Maryland or at the Pentagon in Virginia is not a representative example of a president traveling to the states."

But, Doherty also concludes: "When, where, and for what a president chooses to travel can reveal a great deal about a president's priorities and goals."

That is certainly true of Virginia in 2009. Obama was the first Democratic presidential nominee since 1964 to carry the state. Key to that victory was an enormous Democratic vote in the Virginnia suburbs of D.C., which overwhelmed the Republican tally in the rest of the state.

Virginia is also one of only two states with elections for governor this year (New Jersey is the other), and Obama has already made one campaign visit on behalf of his party's nominee, Creigh (pronounced "Cree") Deeds.

Deeds trails in early polling, but more than bragging rights are at stake. It is advantageous to a president to have a governor of his own party in office at re-election time.

Unlike purple Virginia (a mix of Democratic blue and Republican red), solidly blue Maryland was Obama's fifth best state in 2008. If he can't win here in 2012, he won't have a second term.

So, don't be looking for Obama in a Maryland neighborhood any time soon (unless a nearby golf course lures the president out of Camp David, as it has for his predecessors.).

It just makes more practical sense to look south to Virginia. After all, if you're an event planner at the White House, where re-election politics is a top-of-mind concern, which neighboring state would you choose as a backdrop?

Posted by Paul West at 3:34 PM |

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About the bloggers
Annie Linskey covers state politics and government for The Baltimore Sun. Previously, as a City Hall reporter, she wrote about the corruption trial of Mayor Sheila Dixon and kept a close eye on city spending. Originally from Connecticut, Annie has also lived in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, where she reported on war crimes tribunals and landmines. She lives in Canton.

John Fritze has covered politics and government at the local, state and federal levels for more than a decade and is now The Baltimore Sun’s Washington correspondent. He previously wrote about Congress for USA TODAY, where he led coverage of the health care overhaul debate and the 2010 election. A native of Albany, N.Y., he currently lives in Montgomery County.

Julie Scharper covers City Hall and Baltimore politics. A native of Baltimore County, she graduated from The Johns Hopkins University in 2001 and spent two years teaching in Honduras before joining The Baltimore Sun. She has followed the Amish community of Nickel Mines, Pa., in the year after a schoolhouse massacre, reported on courts and crime in Anne Arundel County, and chronicled the unique personalities and places of Baltimore City and its surrounding counties.
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