No candidate has won the presidency without Ohio since John Kennedy, and no Republican has done so ever. At this writing, the state’s 18 electoral votes are in play, and both campaigns are visiting Ohio with the insistence of a determined suitor.
No sooner had Mitt Romney named Paul Ryan as his running mate (after seriously considering Ohio senator Rob Portman) than Ryan stumped at his alma mater, Miami University in Oxford, 30 miles northwest of Cincinnati. Both parties placed leading Ohio politicians on their national convention stages in prime time. And after the GOP convention, the Romneys made their first campaign stop in Cincinnati.
The response in the state was not especially enthusiastic. By late September, Barack Obama led Romney in the Real Clear Politics state average by 5 points; one poll gave the president a 10-point lead. Romney and Ryan toured the state by bus for three days, and Obama’s RCP lead grew to 5.6 points. Pundits predicted Romney’s team might shift resources from Ohio to other battlegrounds.
Then came October 3. The night of the first presidential debate, at Romney’s campaign office on Cincinnati’s working-class west side, anxious conservatives in Romney T-shirts ate finger sandwiches and cookies from a potluck table. A few volunteers manned the phones. But when Romney came out swinging and, paraphrasing Joe Biden, declared the middle class has been “buried” in
the last four years, the room was electrified. Supporters finally had the aggressive Romney they wanted. “After the debate, we got a lot of phone calls for yard signs,” state GOP chairman Bob Bennett told me. “We had to put in a new order.” Soon Romney was back in Ohio, speaking in Cuyahoga Falls, Lancaster, Mt. Vernon, and more to audiences averaging 9,000 a stop.
The president, too, has come courting, seeking the youth vote and claiming credit for the state’s increased jobs. Unemployment has fallen to 7 percent, and in the Cleveland area—where Obama emphasizes the auto bailout—manufacturing unemployment has dropped 2.5 percentage points from a year ago.
The Obama campaign is strongly urging supporters to vote early. The first lady addressed a crowd of nearly 7,000 in Cincinnati on October 2, the first day of early voting, and encouraged voters to go straight to their local board of elections to cast their ballot. A week later, the president addressed a crowd more than twice that size at Ohio State University, in Columbus, and his campaign took supporters by bus to register or vote. The Franklin County Board of Elections tallied 842 registered Democrats voting that day, as well as over 3,194 unaffiliated voters, but only 182 Republicans.
As of last Thursday, more than 16,000 in-person votes had been cast in the Columbus area, 4,342 by registered Democrats, 1,202 by Republicans, and 10,854 by independents. Analysts believe the unaffiliated are disproportionately voting for Obama, partly because Ohio determines party preference by the party ballot requested in the previous primary; since the last Democratic presidential primary was uncontested, turnout was low.
“The president has a stronger ground game,” says Daniel Coffey of the University of Akron’s Ray C. Bliss Institute and coauthor of Buckeye Battleground (2011), which argued that personal voter contacts were crucial in Ohio in the last two presidential elections. The AFL-CIO is also registering voters—roughly 65,000 this year, according to its state president, Tim Burga. Union “members haven’t forgotten” the Republicans’ attempt last year to eliminate public sector collective bargaining, says Burga. The collective-bargaining measure, passed by a Republican-dominated legislature and signed by Republican governor John Kasich, was repealed by
referendum last November.
Meanwhile, Ohio’s Republican secretary of state, John Husted, just lost the final round in an early-voting controversy: The U.S. Supreme Court last week rejected his plan to free election officials from the burden of early voting on the final three days before November 6. African-American leaders, who’d alleged “voter suppression,” are touting this victory in black precincts.
If the first debate moved the ball closer to the 50-yard line in the Buckeye State, it’s too early to move the chains after the candidates’ second encounter. Romney’s bedrock challenge in Ohio remains what it’s always been: to win Reagan Democrats, social conservatives, and the Appalachian region to the east and southeast.