Five 2012 story lines to watch in 2011

While the political world remains preoccupied with showdowns over a government shutdown, a looming debt ceiling, and what President Barack Obama described as the "silliness" of the debate over his birth certificate, there are other developments happening now that will define the structure and shape of next year's presidential campaign.

The 2012 Republican nominee will be attempting something that has been done only three times in American history: defeating an incumbent Democratic president.

The GOP field remains a work in progress — several contenders have established committees, while not yet "formally" declaring their candiacies, while others have said they will not run. But regardless of who emerges as the Republican nominee next year, here are five story lines that will help define the campaign between now and then.

The incumbent advantage
“We ought not to act like an incumbent; we ought to act like an insurgent campaign that wakes up every single day trying to get every single vote we can,” said Obama’s 2012 campaign manager Jim Messina in a message to supporters on Obama’s campaign website this week.

Messina’s “incumbent as insurgent” idea sounds like an interesting experiment, but there’s no precedent for a president relinquishing the advantages of incumbency.

He’s the one who goes to summit meetings with foreign leaders, and he’s the one who declares a state a disaster area and orders in federal aid after a tornado strikes. He takes action, the challenger can only talk.

The 1964, 1972, 1980, 1992, and 1996 campaigns all demonstrated the power, but also the limitations, of an incumbent’s strategy of portraying his challenger as ideologically eccentric, radical, untested, or even dangerous.

That strategy failed at the tail end of a recession, in 1992, when President George H.W. Bush said his rival, Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton, needed to "level with the American people" about his activities as a young man, specifically Clinton’s marijuana smoking, evasion of the draft, and journey to Moscow as a student in 1969.

Two of Obama’s Democratic predecessors, Clinton in 1996, and Lyndon Johnson in 1964, exploited the advantages of incumbency, but their success had as much to do with their opponent’s flaws as with their own strengths.

In two cases where the incumbents lost, 1980 and 1992, they went into the months before Election Day with appalling approval ratings, as measured by the Gallup Poll.

Jimmy Carter and Bush each touched bottom at about 30 percent approval and never were able to recover, no matter how hard they tried to make their opponent the issue.

For example, Carter in his debate with Ronald Reagan a week before the 1980 election, called Reagan’s ideas “heartless,” “very dangerous” (four times), “extremely dangerous and belligerent,” “irresponsible” (twice), “disturbing” (three times) and “very disturbing” (twice).

Obama has begun to run his version of the incumbent campaign. At this stage, it seems likely he and his surrogates will link the GOP nominee to the Tea Party and House Budget chairman Paul Ryan’s plan to fundamentally redesign Medicare and phase out the open-ended entitlement.

Obama has already been at work at this: he said in a recent speech that Republicans’ message to people over age 65 was “tough luck, you’re on your own.” They are, he said, “deeply pessimistic” with “a vision that says if our roads crumble and our bridges collapse, we can’t afford to fix them.”

Messina said the Obama camp will expand its "ground game," the person-to-person canvassing which operated out of more than 700 field offices in 2008. According to research by political scientist Seth Masket, Obama's field offices tipped three states into his column in 2008: Florida, Indiana and North Carolina. It is notable that while the GOP campaign moves along in fits and starts, the Obama effort is well under way.

Calendar calculations
Before 1972, a presidential candidate was unlikely to find himself in Keokuk, Iowa (pop: 10,400) unless he was on a family bald-eagle-watching trip.

Nowadays, a visit to the southeastern-most outpost of the Hawkeye State signals serious courtship of the state’s first-in-the-nation caucus goers, whose votes have catapulted the likes of George McGovern, Barack Obama, and Mike Huckabee into the national spotlight.

But Iowa — and fellow first primary state New Hampshire — haven’t held on to their influential spots on the calendar without a fight.

In 2007, Democrats in both states joined South Carolina and Nevada in asking candidates not to campaign in any other states that tried to leapfrog the first four contests sanctioned by the Democratic National Committee. (The main targets: Michigan and Florida, which were threatening an earlier primaries.)

All major Democratic candidates signed the pledge, and the DNC initially stripped Florida of its convention delegates to make an example of the state, although it later allowed them to take their seats at the convention.

The dispute forced the first four states to move their contests earlier in the year, prompting a flurry of New Year’s Eve campaigning that earned grumbles from candidates and journalists alike.

The drama could be repeated this year. Republican Party officials are hoping that Florida will back down from its currently-scheduled late January primary date. If Florida Republicans don’t budge, that date would preempt the contests in Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina, and Nevada — all currently scheduled for February.

Republican National Committee chairman Reince Priebus told reporters this week that traditional early states would make their contests earlier if Florida stands firm. The result: An earlier and more compressed primary season.

As the wrangling over the calendar continues, observers can expect to hear the critique that Iowa is not diverse enough to serve as the first springboard for the presidential race. Just 3 percent of voters in the 2010 midterms in the state were black or Hispanic; one recent poll grabbed headlines for finding that nearly half of Iowa Republican primary voters don’t believe that Obama was born in the United States.

Florida's electorate in the 2010 midterms, by contrast, was 23 percent black or Hispanic. And the state's foreclosure, poverty, and unemployment rates are much closer to national averages than those of Iowa and New Hampshire.

As former George W. Bush speechwriter David Frum argued, "Florida looks a lot more like the America in which most Americans live."

Message control
When former House Speaker Newt Gingrich announced a “testing the waters” organization this year, journalists lit up Twitter with commentary about the site’s generic multiracial-crowd background image and quickly identified the image as a stock photo. Within a day, a Tumblr.com site called “NewtInFrontOfStockPhotos” emerged, giving web users nationwide the chance to superimpose the candidate’s image over silly commercial images.

Social media use among politically-active internet users has jumped in the last four years, and it’s also become more bipartisan, according to the Pew Internet and American Life Project.

In 2010, a quarter of adults said that the Internet was their main source of campaign news, compared to just 7 percent who said the same in 2002.  And 22 percent of online adults used sites like Facebook or Twitter to share or learn information about politics.

Aaron Smith, who researches the Internet and politics at Pew, says that so many more politically-active voters are getting involved with social media because “they see appeal in the ability to have a more personal connection with the candidates that they support and the campaigns they follow.”

That involvement allows candidates to more easily activate their supporter base, and creates a wealth of personal and contact information for campaigns to mine. 

But social media can be a double-edged sword.

“You don’t necessarily have control over what your supporters are doing with your information,” Smith said.  “When you talk to folks who are doing this kind of [new media work], there is always a concern that they’ll lose control of the message.”

Despite the proliferation of new means of communication, traditional venues still matter. In Iowa, for instance, Republican presidential hopefuls may be better able to reach likely caucus goers through media such as the Jan Mickelson show on Des Moines AM radio station WHO than through Twitter or Facebook.

New channels for money
This year there will be new channels for money. The Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United decision, which Obama denounced, gave corporations, unions and individuals the ability to covertly finance an advertising campaign attacking or supporting a candidate. They cannot directly fund a presidential candidate’s campaign but they can, in effect, run their own parallel campaign.

In the 2010 election, money was routed through tax-exempt groups, known as 501c 4’s, which collected donations from individuals or corporations, with the donations shielded from disclosure under tax law.

“They were several of them very active in 2010, mostly on the Republican side. But that will change in 2012. We’ll see 501c4’s active on both the Democratic and Republican side, I predict,” said Paul Ryan, associate legal counsel at the Campaign Legal Center, a nonpartisan organization that favors greater disclosure of contributions. (Ryan is no relation to the House Budget Committee chairman.)

Donald Tobin, an expert on the intersection of tax law and campaign finance law and a professor at Ohio State University’s Moritz College of Law, predicts “an amazing explosion of these 501c4s in 2012.”

At least one Democratic affiliated 501c4 has begun to operate. The question is whether the new money and the additional ads will be effective: will an extra $2 million in TV ads in Missouri, for instance, shift it from the Republican column, as it was in 2008, to Obama?

Demographic shift and the Electoral College
“We expanded the electorate” in 2008, Messina said in his briefing for Obama supporters this week. The total electorate did expand, but not by much, about 4 percent, over 2004. In the 2008 election, 64 percent of voting-age citizens voted, no different from the 2004 turnout rate.

As we re-learn every four years, it's a contest for electoral votes and it is won by winning individual states, not by running up the popular vote total.

Of course, what the Democrats did do in 2008 was to increase the number of Democratic voters, especially in states such as Colorado, Iowa, New Mexico, and Ohio, enabling Obama to carry those states, all of which Democratic candidate John Kerry had lost in 2004.

Just as significant as Obama building the Democratic vote in 2008 was the drooping Republican turnout: in Iowa, for example, John McCain got 9 percent fewer votes in 2008 than Bush did in 2004.

The ten states on which Messina focused in his briefing as targets for 2012 are the ones Obama won in 2008 but where Republicans won gubernatorial or U.S. Senate races last fall.

One can further narrow Messina’s list of ten down to seven which Bush won in 2004: Nevada, Iowa, Indiana, Ohio, Virginia, North Carolina and Florida. All but one of them now has a Republican governor, which should help the GOP nominee with voter turnout efforts.

While Obama has the luxury of spending the rest of 2001 and all of 2012 courting voters in those swing states, the Republican contenders will be spending far more time in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina, battling it out for the nomination. 

Due to reapportionment, 12 electoral votes have moved from the Northeast and Midwest to the South and West.

Texas, with four more electoral votes than in 2004, and Florida, with two more, are bigger prizes than ever before, accounting for nearly a quarter of the 270 electoral votes needed to win the presidency.

The Sunbelt states have many eligible Latinos who are not registered to vote: two million eligible but unregistered in Texas, and more than 400,000 in Arizona, according to Matt Barreto, a pollster for Latino Decisions and a University of Washington political scientist. McCain carried Texas by about 950,000 votes in 2008 and Arizona by about 195,000 in 2008.

“I never write off any states,” Obama recently said to Texas TV reporter Brad Watson, seeming to be annoyed by Watson's suggestion that Obama wouldn’t contest the state in 2012.

Although Messina said Obama “won first-time voters by a large margin in '08,” they were a relatively small percentage of the electorate, 11 percent, compared to voters 60 and older who accounted for 23 percent of the electorate.

Given the Ryan plan for Medicare redesign and given the Republican success in winning nearly 60 percent of over-65 voters in 2010, they may be the essential 2012 demographic. That’s why Medicare is looking like a dominant issue in 2012.

msnbc.com's Carrie Dann contributed to this story.