Obama's Sesame Street Bus Tour

You could call it the Trailways tour, or the non-campaign tour, or the I hope I run into Sarah Palin at a truck stop tour. But I’m going to call President Obama’s bizarre three-day road trip around the upper Midwest his Sesame Street tour.

Sesame Street, as in “brought to you by the number 270 and the letters G, O and P.”

With America’s rural population at a record low (only 16 percent of us live outside urban areas), and with sky-high commodity prices making the farm sector one of very few vigorous parts of the U.S. economy, Obama’s decision to spend three precious days of his term talking about jobs in places like Cannon Falls, Minn., and Decorah, Iowa, doesn’t seem to make any sense. Tooling down the heartland’s two-lane byways in a tricked-out $1.1 million Secret Service brontosaurus seems politically tone-deaf, too. It cannot have made the president’s green supporters very happy. On the other hand, the presidential behemoth must have put a few smiles on the faces of corn farmers, who are happy to sell their crops to ethanol and biodiesel makers.

There is a method to the apparent White House madness, however, and I am pretty confident it has a lot to do with the Electoral College.

Presidential races are not determined on the basis of who gets the most votes. If they were, we would all remember the Gore administration. Instead, it takes 270 Electoral College votes to win the White House. At this early stage in the campaign, the president’s prospects look pretty dim.

Florida, oddly enough, is the key to understanding this week’s bus trip.

Let’s create our own map of the possible Electoral College results next year. The website 270towin.com makes this very easy. For starters, let’s give Obama all six New England states, plus the Democratic-leaning Northeastern states of Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York, Maryland and Delaware, as well as the District of Columbia. Pennsylvania is not a sure thing, but we will be charitable toward the president. Let’s also give him all the Pacific states except rock-ribbed Republican Alaska. He is entitled to his home state of Illinois, and we can throw in Michigan, if only because Obama can (and certainly will) claim credit for rescuing General Motors and Chrysler. Finally, we will give him Minnesota. It is a pretty evenly divided state, and home to Tea Party favorite Michele Bachmann, but Minnesota has gone to Democrats in every presidential election since the Nixon landslide in 1972.

That’s 236 electoral votes. If Obama could count Florida in his column, he would be up to 265. He would need to pick up only one shaky swing state to get over the hump, even a small one like Nevada, with six electoral votes, or New Mexico, with five. That is a manageable goal.

The problem is that Obama’s chance of winning Florida is slim, and getting slimmer. He carried the state in 2008 with a heavy turnout among minorities and solid support among independent white voters. This time his white support is far weaker, and his hard-core Democratic base is far less motivated than his Republican opposition. Obama has to brace for lighter turnout in the Democratic-leaning South Florida metroplex, and stiff resistance in the critical corridor along Interstate 4, running from Tampa to Orlando to Daytona Beach.

If he loses Florida, as he probably will, Obama’s prospects are bleak. States like Virginia and North Carolina, which he pulled into the Democratic column last time, are hopelessly out of reach. His chances don’t look good in Ohio either, though this may depend on whom the Republicans nominate and how effectively that person campaigns. He cannot count on Ohio. Missouri, another important swing state, is probably also beyond Obama’s grasp. Health care reform pushed that state sharply to the right.

Without Florida or Ohio in his column, Obama’s only hope is to run the table by winning every other state in which he conceivably has a chance. That would be Wisconsin, Iowa, Nevada, Colorado and New Mexico. He also cannot afford to lose any of his base states, notably Minnesota and Illinois.

Now the motivation for the bus trip becomes clear. Motoring his way through Minnesota, Iowa and Illinois gave Obama a chance to show some love for the region. He also guaranteed himself plenty of exposure in neighboring Wisconsin, which was busy on Tuesday with the last of its recall elections stemming from this year’s legislative fight over public worker unions.

Wisconsin is undoubtedly causing the president and his political handlers plenty of aggravation. Without Florida or Ohio, they cannot win without Wisconsin. Yet Democrats and their labor allies spent tens of millions of dollars in nine recall elections affecting state senators with unsatisfying results. They picked up only two of the six Republican seats they challenged, leaving the Legislature in GOP hands. They also lost a stiff challenge to a sitting, Republican-leaning state Supreme Court justice. Wisconsin remains a close call, but it clearly leans Republican right now.

Why didn’t Obama ride his bus there? Probably timing. A visit on Monday or Tuesday would have looked like blatant interference in the recall elections and might have sent Republicans streaming to the polls. A visit on Wednesday would have risked embarrassment if one or both of the Democratic senators who were challenged this week had been knocked off. The safest course was to stay out but stay close, and that is what the president did.

Sesame Street has always been one of the most instructive shows on television, and the Sesame Street Bus Tour was equally informative. By staying away from Florida, Obama taught us a lot about the reception he thinks he will get down there. By confining himself to the upper Midwest, he underscored how important the region has become to his presidency. Presidents usually take faster transportation options, and nobody relishes the thought of three days on a bus. Not even one tricked-out by the Secret Service.