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Why the Obama Campaign Isn’t Sweating Voter ID Laws in Pennsylvania

A widely-held belief is that voter-ID laws endanger Obama's chances in Pennsylvania, but the campaign's don't seem to buy it. Last week, Romney allies withdrew advertisements from Pennsylvania, and the Obama campaign cut their buy in half. This week, the Obama campaign is going even further: withdrawing advertisements from the Keystone State altogether, making this the first week that Obama has gone without airing advertisements in Pennsylvania. At the moment, Priorities USA, an Obama-allied Super PAC exclusively airing attacks criticizing Romney's time at Bain Capital, is the only entity airing ads in the state, although Restore Our Future is expected to renew their ads. If the campaigns believe voter-ID is a game changer in Pennsylvania, they're sure not acting like it.

It is impossible to say whether the Obama campaign is withdrawing because they believe their position has improved or because they have a rare opportunity to save money while opposing ads are on hiatus. Either way, the willingness of the campaigns to suspend advertising, even temporarily, is a telling indicator of the state’s competitiveness. Campaigns don’t go off the air if they’re serious about fighting for a state: The effects of advertising fade quickly once ads are withdrawn, so campaigns generally sustain uninterrupted ads from the first buy until November. If the campaigns assessed that voter-ID was enough to vault a state like Pennsylvania into the true toss-up category, the airwaves would be jam-packed with political ads.

No, the absence of advertising isn’t a sign that Romney doesn’t even need to campaign to carry the Pennsylvania, as was widely suggested to me by readers following my last piece on Pennsylvania. Folks, lets not kid ourselves: Romney would need to spend to win Pennsylvania, even if photo-ID was every bit as great for Romney's chances as Mike Turzai dreams. Obama won the state by 10 points in 2008, and even significantly reduced Democratic turnout in Philadelphia wouldn’t be enough to flip the state to Romney. Republicans need to reduce or even reverse Democratic margins in the Philadelphia suburbs and persuade conservative Democrats in western Pennsylvania. Both tasks require a concerted advertising campaign.

And even if you are convinced that the Romney campaign is slow-playing Pennsylvania, let’s not forget that the Obama campaign isn’t buying it, either. Obama has not aired advertisement numero uno in the Philadelphia media market, where presumably Obama would need to educate supporters about the new voter-ID law. Instead, Obama’s dollars have been spent in the white working class parts of western Pennsylvania, where even a mediocre showing among white working class Democrats would probably be enough to win the state. If Obama was truly endangered in Pennsylvania, they would be spending millions, since it's just about a must win state.

Is it possible that the Obama campaign is making a huge mistake? Possibly. But the Obama campaign has dealt with and overcome photo-ID laws before. It’s easy forget, but Obama actually won Indiana, even though Bush won by 20 points four years earlier and over the intervening years the state implemented a photo-ID requirement. Georgia was one of the closest states in 2008, and African American turnout surged despite a photo-ID law similar to the controversial law in Pennsylvania. Is it possible that voter-ID could have larger consequences in Pennsylvania than Georgia or Indiana? Yes: Philadelphia is more than twice as reliant on public transportation as Atlanta or Indianapolis, so there’s cause to expect that there would be more voters without photo identification in Pennsylvania than elsewhere.

But it’s important to emphasize that Obama didn’t just do better in Indiana and Georgia than Kerry did in 2004: the point is that Obama improved by as much or more in Indiana and Georgia than he did in similar states, including in terms of African American turnout. The number of voters who rely on public transportation or don’t own a car is not-insignificant in Atlanta (22 and 11 percent, but presumably a higher share of the African American population). Even so, it’s hard to look at the numbers and see any evidence of photo-ID, let alone faint hints. None of this demonstrates that voter ID requirements do not have a disparate impact on minority voters, nor can it preclude the possibility that Obama would have done better without photo identification requirements.  It's just an indication that the effects are only at the margins and often too small to be easily discerned.

Even though the Pennsylvania House Majority Leader claims to have already won the Keystone State for Romney, neither the campaigns nor their Super PAC allies seem especially convinced. None of this means that photo identification requirements can't or won't suppress Democratic turnout. It's just an excellent reason to doubt whether it will flip the state in 2012. The campaigns might ultimately return to Pennsylvania, especially if Romney makes gains nationally or finds himself without anywhere better to spend his growing cash reserves. But the Obama campaign’s willingness to withdraw advertisements—even if temporarily—is a clear sign that they don’t consider themselves in grave danger, despite the requirement for voters to provide photo identification.