Surprise! Virginia may not be the center of the political universe after all

“Henrico has emerged as a bellwether in a critical battleground state that could determine the outcome of the election,” the Richmond Times Dispatch reported.

And both campagns are acting accordingly.

Different state, same commercial

The Romney campaign, for example, is airing more television commercials in Virginia than any other state, even those with more electoral votes. And both Republican candidates have been practically commuting here.

On August 17, Paul Ryan spoke at an overflow rally at Deep Run High School in Glen Allen.

The day after the Tampa convention, he was back, this time at Richmond International Airport, also in the county (Mitt Romney would have been, too, except for a quick decision  to visit hurricane-damaged Louisiana).

This past Saturday, after an afternoon rally at Virginia Beach’s Military Aircraft Museum, Romney was back in Henrico again — to wave the Federated Auto Parts 400 starting flag at Richmond International Raceway, and, when rain prevented the race from starting, to give out handshakes and hotdogs to 90,000 NASCAR fans.

Not to be outdone, Barack Obama campaigned in Glen Allen in July and campaigned at Norfolk State University September 4. And the same day Romney was heading for RIR, the Obama campaign was opening a second Henrico field office.

So it would be logical to conclude that both candidates regard Henrico County, and secondarily Hampton Roads, as the center of the political universe.

Logical, but not necessarily accurate.

Because yesterday, the Romney campaign launched another new mix-and-match television commercial in Wisconsin, increasing the breadth of their television buy from eight states to nine.

Is Wisconsin a head feint?

According to some commentators, this is a nod to vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan’s home state. According to others, it’s because Republican  Governor Scott Walker won so convincingly even though being heavily outspent in this year’s recall election. Still others, perhaps the more cynical ones, see it as a kind of head feint to divert Obama advertising dollars which, thanks to the summer’s advertising burn rate, are in relatively short supply.

But an e-mail released this morning by Romney campaign headquarters tells a different story, namely, that the battlefield is expanding beyond Henrico County, Virginia:

[T]he battlefield has actually expanded, not contracted. Note that Wisconsin is now in play and our campaign is now up with ads in that state, while the latest poll numbers from the Albuquerque Journal in New Mexico show the race closing there. And this tightening is not an anomaly.

They also see their opponents’ battlefield contracting:

The Obama campaign’s North Carolina television buy has dropped 35% compared to June, and they have run more than twice as much advertising over the past two weeks in Rochester, Minnesota (hitting a small slice of Iowa), than they have in any North Carolina market.

Funny, it doesn’t look newish

The Romney campaign’s e-mail also claims that

Anyone asserting a “one-size-fits-all-campaign” effort is being put forward is simply misinformed, as evidenced by the 15 different ads released by the Romney Ryan campaign this past Friday and now running in nine states, including Wisconsin.

Reasonable adults can debate just how much difference it takes to make a commercial different. But in this case, I’d rather believe my own lying eyes.

As noted last week, when the eight-state buy launched, the commercials share the same openings and closings, and with minor localization many also share the same middles.

The new Wisconsin spot is the old(er) Iowa spot, with one-word changes in two supers and two voice-over sentences, one different statistic and one different piece of B-roll footage. (Click and see for yourselves.)

Saving production dollars by localizing basic commercials may be smart.

But claiming in a nationally disseminated e-mail that doing so constitutes “deeply local and targeted efforts in each of the states focusing on the voter groups that will make the difference on Election Day” isn’t.