Battleground Ohio

An in-depth look at the all-important swing state.

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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