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Romancing Ohio

The wooing of swing state voters proceeds apace.

Oct 29, 2012, Vol. 18, No. 07 • By DAVID WOLFFORD
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“The group to watch is white working-class voters,” says Paul Beck, a longtime communications and political science professor at Ohio State. In the 2008 primary, they did not warm to Obama​—​Hillary Clinton won
66 percent​—​but this year they are wary of Romney. His “47 percent” comment was received with mixed emotions. “These voters resent people that live off government,” says Beck. “On the other hand, they are asking, ‘Am I part of the them, or am I part of the us?’ ” 

Romney is targeting this group with a one-minute ad in which he looks straight into the camera and says: “President Obama and I both care about poor and middle-class families. .  .  . We shouldn’t measure compassion by how many people are on welfare, we should measure compassion by how many people are able to get off welfare and get a good paying job.”

The pitch has little chance of succeeding in true blue Cleveland, but Romney aims to capture white working-class voters, libertarians, and independents in surrounding Cuyahoga County. The local Republican chairman, Rob Frost, is optimistic. The number of registered Democrats in the county has dropped by 52,000 since 2008, and the number of Republicans has risen by nearly 34,000. 

Communities centered on the auto industry want free and fair trade policies, and some are skeptical of bailouts, says Frost. “Take Parma,” with its nearby Ford Motor plant. “Ford refused the bailout, restructured, and eliminated their debt. This community resents the bailout and embraces the handicap”​—​that is, the handicap of now competing against companies that took public money. 

As for social conservatives, Buck Niehoff​—​Cincinnati attorney, fund-raiser for Republicans from George H.W. Bush through John McCain, and the author of Winning Cincinnati​—​ex-plains, “National races are won or lost on Republican turnout in Greater Cincinnati, which can offset Cleveland. Until the [first] debate .  .  . Romney never made a connection.” As of last week, Niehoff thought there was still time to get social conservatives fired up.

In the sparsely populated Ap-palachian region, the predominantly white working-class and social-conservative electorate mostly voted for Bill Clinton, then George W. Bush. In 2004, southeast Ohio favored amending the Ohio constitution to enshrine traditional marriage by over 70 percent, while giving Bush 54 percent of the vote. It’s the kind of region where voters cling to their guns and their religion (in the infamous Obama phrase) .  .  . and their coal. The Democrats’ liberal evolution could turn this region​—​and thus Ohio​—​Romney’s way. 

“Gay marriage and coal are both winning issues in our area,” says Brian Wilson, Republican chairman of Jefferson County, along the western bank of the upper Ohio. Wilson and coal advocates insist EPA standards have increased electricity rates and shut down power plants and coal mines. In 2008, roughly 36,000 votes were cast here; Obama won the county by a mere 76 ballots over McCain. Statewide, unemployment in mining and logging has risen 2.5 percentage points from last year. It’s why Romney emphasized oil, coal, and gas in the Hofstra debate.

On October 13, Romney stopped in Portsmouth, where the Scioto River flows into the Ohio, and spoke encouragingly about a uranium enrichment plant proposed nearby as taking America one step closer to energy independence. From there he headed west to Lebanon, to speak at the Golden Lamb, an 1803 inn owned by the family of Senator Portman. In a county that four years ago cast more than twice as many votes for McCain as for Obama, over 10,000 gathered to hear Romney, Portman, and Bengals Hall-of-Famer Anthony Muñoz. This was the twentieth Ohio county Romney had visited since the primary in March, and the sixth last week. 

The second debate seems unlikely to have changed much. A one-day Rasmussen survey the day after showed Romney at 49 percent and Obama at 48 percent in the state. So the wooing continues.

Paul Ryan dropped by Cincinnati’s municipal airport the day before the debate and appeared with Condoleezza Rice in Cleveland the day after. The president, too, has returned to battleground Ohio, this time appearing before 14,000 at Ohio University in Athens, a liberal island in the otherwise mixed southeast. When supporters booed Romney, Obama responded with his standard line: “Don’t boo​—​vote.”

David Wolfford teaches government and politics at Mariemont High School in Cincinnati.

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