Battleground Ohio

Andy Vance is a journalist based in Reynoldsburg, Ohio. He covers economic, business and trade-related issues as a staff editor for Feedstuffs, the weekly national newspaper for agribusiness. You can follow him on Twitter and at his blog, The Angle.


Ohio will decide the outcome of the 2012 Presidential Election, and with only 12 days left in the race, the contest is a statistical tie. On November 6th, the Buckeye State’s electorate is likely to be more closely divided than in any presidential contest since 1976.

Going into 2012, conventional wisdom declared that Ohio was the President’s to lose. However, the race has clearly tightened. The key to victory for either candidate is who shows up to vote. For Mitt Romney, the objective is to beat the bushes in the rural counties and turn out as many small-town voters as he can. For President Obama, the key is stoking the same level of enthusiasm among low-propensity voters as he did in 2008 – namely young voters, African-Americans, and single females.

No Republican has won the White House without winning Ohio – that much essentially every political junkie already knows. Ohio is the classic bellwether, picking every presidential winner since 1964.

The last time Ohio voters were “wrong” about the winner of the race was 1960, when the electorate sided with Richard Nixon over John F. Kennedy. The closest thing to the current electoral gridlock in the state, however, came four cycles later, when former Georgia Governor Jimmy Carter edged President Gerald R. Ford by 11,116 votes. Ohio’s 25 electoral votes weren’t the deciding factor in the race, but had the Buckeye State fallen for the incumbent, Ford would have been within seven electoral votes of keeping the White House.

To understand Romney’s key to victory, one has to understand Ohio’s basic geopolitical makeup. The Buckeye State, with 11.5 million citizens, is the 7th most-populated state in the nation; at the same time, more than 50% of the state’s landmass is considered prime farm ground, and agriculture is the state’s leading industry.

That balance is fairly unique. Other leading farm states with large electorates – think of Illinois or California as examples – typically see their population centers relatively removed from their agriculturally productive regions. Ohio’s population is fairly well dispersed, however, not only among its key metropolitan areas (Columbus, Cleveland and Cincinnati), but among a number of “mini-metros,” as well – places like Toledo, Dayton, Youngstown and Akron.

In fact, these mini-metros make Ohio extremely difficult for political strategists and media buyers to deal with in planning television advertising campaigns. Ohio features five of the Top 10 television markets in the country, as ranked by Nielsen. In all, the state is covered by 13 separate television markets – California, by comparison, is covered by only 14 markets despite being nearly four times larger than Ohio geographically.

So why do rural voters matter so much? Consider those national election-night maps showing red states versus blue states … then think of red counties versus blue counties.

Looking at the national map, much of the country –  the so-called “fly-over states” – is painted red, indicating support for Republican candidates. Similarly, the vast majority of Ohio’s counties have been painted red over the past three election cycles. President Obama only won 22 of Ohio’s 88 counties in 2008, and John Kerry won even fewer in his 2004 outing against George W. Bush.

Bush versus Kerry was much tighter than Obama versus McCain, precisely because of the rural-urban split. Going into the final days of the 2004 campaign, the Republican team knew that President Bush would lose Ohio’s urban centers by some 100,000 votes.

Calling on volunteers and operatives in the rural counties to step up their efforts, the vaunted Bush get-out-the-vote machine stepped into gear and Bush indeed won the state by 118,599 votes. Bush won despite having lost Franklin (Columbus), Cuyahoga (Cleveland), Lucas (Toledo) and Mahoning (Youngstown) counties.

In 2008, of course, this did not happen. Senator McCain won more or less the same counties as did President Bush, but by much slimmer margins, and in the end lost Ohio to then-Senator Obama by 258,897 votes.

Two things happened in 2008: low-propensity voters turned out in force (more on that shortly), and the rural-urban split narrowed considerably.

Take one rural county as an example: Logan County is a relatively typical rural Ohio county, dependent on farming and the auto industry. In 2004, Bush earned 14,471 votes to Kerry’s 6,825 – a 68% to 32% split. In 2008, McCain still won the county, but earned only 13,848 votes versus Obama’s 7,936 – a spread of 62% to 36%.

Important notes from this comparison:

  • 488 additional people voted in 2008 than voted in 2004.
  • McCain earned 623 fewer votes than did Bush
  • Obama earned 1,111 more votes than did Kerry

Next, consider that in Franklin County, home of the state capital, Bush lost in 2004 by 48,548 votes. It took him roughly 6.3 Logan Counties to overcome his margin of loss in the state capital. In 2008 on the other hand, Obama won by 116,206 votes, more than doubling Kerry’s margin of victory in Franklin County. It would have taken McCain nearly 19.7 Logan Counties to overcome that deficit because the margin of victory in the rural county tightened by nearly 2,000 votes, and because an additional 50,000 people voted in Franklin County, essentially all voting for Obama.

Recent data suggests Romney will come much closer to matching Bush’s numbers in the rural parts of the country than did McCain. Polling released Oct. 16 found that rural swing-state voters preferred Romney to Obama by a 22-point margin, 59% to 37%. In a similar poll from mid-September, conducted prior to the first debate, Romney led Obama among that demographic by 14 points, 54% to 40%.

“We’re seeing a major shift to Gov. Romney among these voters, and that’s going a long way toward tightening the presidential race,” said Dee Davis, president of the Center for Rural Strategies, which commissioned the poll.

Republican strategist Dan Judy of North Star Opinion Research said Mitt Romney had been “under-performing” among rural voters in September. “Now he has surged into a huge lead,” Judy said, “and I think it’s fair to say his lead among these rural voters is what’s helping him in swing states overall.”

Given that Obama won Ohio 52% to 47% in 2008, Romney needs to perform as close to – or better – than 60% in the rural counties to have a chance of winning. The Romney camp knows this, as vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan will campaign this weekend in New Philadelphia, Zanesville, Circleville, Dayton, Celina, Findlay and Marion.

Which leads to President Obama’s keys to victory: the lower-propensity voters. With the possible exception of more-conservative Hamilton County (Cincinnati), urban voters are not suddenly going to part ways with the President, at least in massive numbers. What they may do, however, is simply stay home.

“Low propensity voters are key to the Obama campaign,” noted WBNS-TV political analyst Jim Heath in a recent Facebook post. “Young, African-American, single females. If they have lost their enthusiasm for the president, and fail to show up at the polls, then the GOP and tea party 2010 voter will carry the state. Democrats have a top-notch operation in Ohio, and are supplemented by organized labor, but if low propensity voters aren’t excited it won’t matter.”

Like Romney, the Obama team has campaigned heavily in Ohio – since June, the President, First Lady and Vice President Biden have visited the state a combined 32 times. While Romney has increasingly focused on campaign stops in smaller rural communities, Democrats have maintained their focus on their traditional urban voting blocs, hosting major rallies in key cities and on university campuses.

Heath noted, however, that warning signs are looming for Obama. According to the latest data from the Democratic polling firm Public Policy Polling, Obama now leads Romney by only 1 point, 49 to 48 percent.

More importantly, the President is losing among Independent voters 49 to 42 according to the poll, released Oct. 20.

“The election is coming down to men versus women, black versus white,” Heath explained. “Men prefer Romney 57 to 41 percent. Whites prefer Romney 55 to 42 percent. Obama’s strength comes from women, African Americans and younger voters.”

PPP said Obama’s lead has narrowed sharply, down from a 51-46 advantage only a week prior.

Noted pollster Scott Rasmussen said Wednesday that the race is tied 48-48 according to his latest poll of 750 likely voters in the state, taken the day following the final debate. The Real Clear Politics average as of Oct. 24 gives Obama a 2-point advantage, 48-46.

Romney’s success will be predicated on his ability to generate Bush-type enthusiasm in Ohio’s traditionally red counties – merely winning the rural areas won’t cut it, he needs high turnout in those non-metro areas and a near-60-percent margin of victory. President Obama, on the other hand, needs to maintain the high level of enthusiasm among voters who don’t have the greatest turnout track record to maintain his edge in the state.

The race may still be the President’s to lose – but the momentum has clearly shifted in Romney’s favor, and the campaign in Ohio will be a footrace to the very bitter end.

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  • posse101

    based on the amount of (herd mentality) Blacks and (stupid trashy) Whites in the state of Ohio, i think Romney is in deep trouble. please prove me wrong Buckeyes! now's your chance.

    • ezra

      I think your description, of the people, of Ohio make you the MORAN!

      • http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nLNn2YflwNs Roger

        I think you spelled a key word wrong.
        It's not moran, it's moroon.
        (sarcasm)

        • posse101

          Roger,

          i thought it was macaroon. either a coconut or chocolate one thank you.

  • banastre Tarleon

    Early voting is decisive for Obama ; Even Mccain WON the election day returns 4 years ago , but LOST due to the pre -election lead built up by early voting that always favours the Democrats …minorities , low income folks , young people , especially women, are notoriously unreliable voters who have trouble making it to the polls on election day …early voting strongly favour them
    Obama has 120 campaign offices in Ohio compared to Romney's 40 ….team Obama have approached this election like a precise and methodical military campaign , while Team Romney has been amateurish , half assed and merely following in Obama's wake ; victory in politics, as in war , goes to the best organized and Obama has CLEARLY out-organized Romney

    • posse101

      you are exactly spot on my good man. the question to me is why did Romney's advisors (who i've had issues with from day 1) let him be outmaneuvered in Ohio as it was no secret quite some time ago that Ohio would be key. any thoughts?

    • ApolloSpeaks

      300,000 Evangelical voters in Ohio, who voted for Bush in 2004, sat out of the 2008 race. Add those to McCain's total and he beats Obama by 38,000 votes-as Romney will do this time.

  • pierce

    VOTERS OF THE BUCKEYE STATE. DO YOU TAKE STUPID PILLS TO START YOUR DAY? IF YOU DO, WELL THEN I GUESS I KNOW WHO YOU WILL VOTE FOR, BARACK HUSSEIN OBAMA. PROVE TO ME YOUR ARE NOT STUPID, CAST YOUR BALLOT FOR ROMNEY/RYAN. AMERICA NEEDS THEM, AND YOU NEED THEM.

    • ezra

      Only stupid individual is the one who thinks you have to vote for a Dem or Repub. Plenty of other people to vote for on the ballot.

      • Hotdigittydog

        That's real intelligent……..

      • bmatkin

        Ezra: nice try Democrat. We all know that Dems don't stray from the party line. The only people that do are conservatives trying to find someone with an agenda that restores the nation.
        This time a vote for anyone but Romney is a vote for Obama. Clinton if you remember, was elected with far less than a majority of votes, his election wins were entirely due to Ross Perot.

        • ezra

          I'm not nor have I ever been a Democrat! I'm an independent who thinks that both you and the Dem are retarded. Time to wakeup Washington is our problem, which is Dems & Repubs.

      • Mary Sue

        Go ahead! THROW YOUR VOTE AWAY! – Kang, Treehouse of Horror VI, "Citizen Kang"

        "Don't blame me! I voted for Kodos!"

  • PaulRevereNow

    A lot of economic hardship in Ohio; not for nothing is this state called "the Rust belt." Southern Ohio is basically an extension of Appalachia; while northern and eastern Ohio have both seen many plant closings, and corresponding high unemployment. If Romney runs a tight, well organized campaign, this widespread misery should work in his favor, and overcome traditional Democratic Union sentiment, in places like Youngstown and Toledo. However, readers of this publication need to support Josh Mandel, big time.

  • Schlomotion

    While I agree with the numbers in this article, I do not think it speaks to the importance of Ohio as a swing state so much as it speaks to the unimportance in the difference between the candidates.

    • http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nLNn2YflwNs Roger

      One is American.
      One doesn't want to remove us from the superpower status.
      One doesn't think the muslim call to prayer is beautiful as he screws our allies around the world.

    • Omar

      There is a significant difference between the two candidates. No GOP candidate has ever won a presidential election without winning Ohio. In this case, Ohio is clearly a must-win state.

  • Chezwick

    Do away with the electoral college! As things are, the party of fraud (Democratic) can concentrate its efforts on a single state like Ohio, thereby jeopardizing the integrity of the entire electoral process. Just imagine the number of fraudulent votes in Ohio compared to states like Wyoming and Massachusetts, where the certainty of outcome precludes such wide-spead shenanigans.

  • Chuck

    Remember that one candidate said let the auto industry go bankrupt and now he denying it all. The president acted presidential and bailed out the auto industry. Vote for him. He is a true friend of Ohio. Vote for Obama.

    • DebbieOhio912

      Listen Bozo, Romney wanted GM to go through bankruptcy restructuring. I'm from Cleveland, and Ford Motor has done pretty well here, thank you, without any government nosing around. So take your union garbage elsewhere….

    • Guest

      The truth is the auto industry went through bankruptcy with Obama… the taxpayers just paid for it! Read …bring yourself up to speed….you are just buyng the hype. Research and read…….

  • Western Spirit

    Nixon didn't lose he was cheated so Ohio has a clear record for winners and losers. I liked Kennedy but his father's use of gangsters to win Illinois may have gotten him assassinated when Bobby went after the mob.

  • Banastre Tarleon

    Ohio is part of the auto industry and it was Obama that bailed GM out AND YET we are supposed to believe that Ohio will go for Romney sheeeeeeeeeeeeeesh !

    Obama will win Ohio even before the election date due to early voting

    • http://www.facebook.com/davidr.allen.92 David R Allen

      BT, I guess you don't know much about bankruptcy law – all Obama did was to illegally award GM's assets to his allies in the UAW, rather than go through a standard Chapter 13 bankruptcy (where the business pays back as much as it can for three years, all debts are forgiven, and the business stays in operation).

      So now, after burning $80B dollars of taxpayer money, GM is teetering on the edge of bankruptcy again (due to it's enormous loses in Europe), if the Government tried to sell it's 26% share in the company, it would lose $21B dollars, Chrysler was sold to the French, and Ford and the rest of the people building cars and trucks in America dealt w/Obamanomics w/out getting any Federal bucks.

      If the voter fraud was so great that BHO "won" Ohio before election day, you would witness an unpleasant Nov 6 visit from the United Mine Worker's union, and the thousands of disenfranchised soldiers and sailors that are citizens of Ohio.

      • Swamp Fox

        Banastre "Tarleton" was a ruthless butcher in the British Army under Cornwallis. Known as "Bloody Tarleton" by the southern patriots he ultimately surrendered with Cornwallis at Yorktown, VA.

        May the patriots win the state of the Ohio!

        How appropriate the Banastre "Tarleton" handle is for the anti-patriot, anti-American forces.

        • Questions

          Tarleton was the Uber bad guy in "The Patriot," directed by Roland Emmerich and starring Mel Gibson, if I'm not mistaken.

    • ann

      The tax payer bailed out GM not Obama.

  • lcs

    Ohio will come down to Hamilton County (Cincinnati and suburbs) where I live. Having worked both Bush campaigns (2000 & 2004), the GOTV effort was the best in the country. However, immediately after the 2004 election, the religious right took control of the Republican Party and deep divisions ensued, and add to that most conservative Republicans were not motivated by McCain in 2008. So, I will report to you this: the enthusiasm and GOTV effort during the Bush elections cannot compare to this year. College kids are coming over from Indiana and next week a group is coming in from Texas. In the suburbs, you have to search hard for any Obama signs or stickers. Don't believe the polls. I grew up in a union family (Teamsters) and very few union members, out of fear, would ever tell a pollster they are voting for Romney. On Wednesday, Paul Ryan gave a speech at Cleveland State University and received a standing ovation – in CLEVELAND!!! hope this helps

    • lcs

      Romney & Co. will be in Ohio next week while Obama is literally scraping for every single vote in what should be safe areas for him. You can see and feel Obama’s concern here in Ohio just by how he has become so petty during the last two weeks of campaigning. Another thing to consider is how shockingly close Romney is in MI and PA. Whether Romney wins or loses these states is irrelevant to this discussion. The simple fact is, Obama is in deep $hit – and he knows it.

  • Sunbeam

    Yeah, everybody must sound the bell to vote for Romney this November 6. Everyone must work hard for the success of Romney to be elected as the next President of the United States. The danger shall always be there if Obama should be elected again for another term. Who can predict…….but the future shall be as bleak as ever…………….could be worse. Is Obama trustworthy enough………………loyal enough to give his undivided heart to this great nation and its people to preserve its cultural heritage, civil rights. freedom. free speech, nation's sovereignty and national security? Will all of these come under any threat in any way possible by the perpetrators of the day? Can the American people put their total trust in a man who has lied and not been truthful for the things that had happened which had claimed the lives of American people? These are the questions we should pose to ourselves when we cast our final vote this 6 Nov. Americans must not gamble their future away.

  • jose

    Why gamble that obama will suddenly become a great leader? We all know he wont, so vote accordingly.

  • tony

    ohio dont do the unforgivable vote for romney or suffer the future that the fraud in the white house has planned for you god help you

  • Marti

    Obama didn't help the auto companies, he shored up the unions.
    After the election they will again file for bankrupcy.
    How about all the dealers and their emploees he put out of business and jobs?
    7 out of 10 cars are made in China, people of Ohiio had better look a little deeper for true facts and vote accordingly.