Matt Sullivan/Getty Images
President Obama shakes hands after a grassroots rally in Columbus, Ohio.
President Obama shakes hands after a grassroots rally in Columbus, Ohio. Matt Sullivan/Getty Images
Alec MacGillis is senior editor at The New Republic.
Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan are embarked on a multi-day bus tour of Ohio, even as Karl Rove is openly speculating about whether the Republicans ought to start thinking about doing what they've never done before – chart an Ohio-less route to the White House. "Look, there are 11 different ways to win without Ohio," Rove said on Fox News Monday night. Yes, it's come to that: the man who secured George W. Bush's reelection with a tremendous turnout effort in Ohio in 2004 is now on the verge of declaring the Buckeye State a lost cause. And that was before the latest Ohio poll came out, the Washington Post one this morning that has Obama up eight.
It's worth stepping back to consider how remarkable this state of affairs is. Since Barack Obama started running for president, Ohio was supposed to be his Achilles heel. He won it by four points in 2008, well below his national margin. It has lots of those dread white working-class voters – in fact, it's one of only a few states in the country that demographers say saw its share of whites without a college degree increase since 2008. Part of the state lies in Appalachian coal country, where Obama is roundly blamed for the mining decline. The state has a Republican governor, John Kasich, who should be helping Romney as much as Ted Strickland boosted Obama in 2008. Obama's emphasis on social issues earlier this year – especially gay marriage – was deemed so unsuited to Ohio that one veteran TNR contributor argued that he was effectively choosing a non-Ohio path to reelection.
So what gives? No one can say conclusively. But I've been to Ohio on three reporting trips in the past six months, and wrote a big piece on the state's political landscape in May, and have my theories. Here are a half-dozen reasons for Obama's strong standing in the state, in no particular order:
1. His demographic weakness has been overstated. George Washington University political scientist John Sides recently noted how much we've misinterpreted Obama's working-class white problem. Simply put: the "problem" is, to a great degree, a Southern thing. Look at the stark regional variation in Kevin Drum's graph. And look at what the one region is where Obama actually has an edge with the demographic: the Midwest. You can attribute that to a host of cultural factors: the relative strength of unions in the Midwest, the progressive tradition in states such as Wisconsin and Minnesota, the relatively mellow racial dynamic in much of the region. Fact is, Obama's "problem" was never as bad as imagined.
2. The Baining of Romney, a man who, as the "guy who fires you," truly is unsuited to Ohio. This one's no secret: the Obama campaign and the SuperPAC Priorities USA did a bang-up job of hammering Romney's record at Bain Capital, and nowhere was there more bruising than in Ohio, where a disproportionate share of the ads were run and where voters are not surprisingly open to an anti-vulture capitalist message. My colleague Nate Cohn* has demonstrated just what an impact the Bain attacks had by studying Romney's drop in the polls there. What's striking, though, is that how much bang for the buck the Obama side achieved with them – Priorities has a famous lack of resources, yet managed to get a lot of eyeballs on its ads without spending all that much to air them. Why? Because the ads were so devastating – Romney would say unfair – that they got a lot of airtime on TV and YouTube. The one that is surely the most effective of all – a worker at the Indiana AmPad plant that Bain wiped out, describing how he and his co-workers were ordered to start"building [our] own coffin" – has gotten more than two million YouTube views. And get this – according to Priorities, nearly 350,000 of those were in Ohio.
3. The state's anti-anti-union backlash fired up Democrats and strengthened their grass-roots infrastructure. This was what I focused on in my May cover story – the possibility that the reaction against Senate Bill 5, the law gutting public employee collective bargaining rights, might carry over into this election. Unlike in Wisconsin, the backlash in Ohio succeeded: the law was overturned by a huge margin – and in a huge turnout – in a referendum last November. One reason for this was that the law, unlike Wisconsin's anti-union one, did not exempt police and firefighters, a politically potent and photogenic class of public workers. The national press has consistently overlooked the Ohio referendum while focusing on anti-union setbacks like the failed recall of Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker. But I could tell from my reporting last spring that the momentum of overturning SB 5 had mobilized Democrats in Ohio, and that the issue had clearly turned some public employees with Republican leanings toward the Democrats for at least the 2012 cycle, as long as the Democrats could keep drawing the connection between the law and Mitt Romney, no hard task given that he came out for the law and has been bashing unions left and right. And lo, just a week ago, the national Fraternal Order of Police, which has endorsed the Republican nominee for president in the past three elections, announced that it would not be endorsing this year because it could not stomach Romney's stance on laws like SB 5.
4. The Ohio economy's doing better than most. For all the talk of Rust Belt woes these days, Ohio is near tops in the country in job creation, and its unemployment has dropped to 7 percent. There are a bunch of reasons for this, which Matt Bai did a nice job of laying out in his recent New York Times Magazinecover story on Ohio – the fracking boom in eastern Ohio, which has helped prop up steel production; the return of the auto industry, which employs more people in Ohio than in any other state except Michigan; and, if you believe Kasich, aggressive employer-recruitment by his administration. Now, one should not take this argument too far, as I think Bai came close to doing (he also ought to have focused more than he did on the SB 5 fallout, which he only glanced at.) Political scientists are pretty sure that voters base decisions in national elections more on their perception of the national economy than of the local one. Still, Ohio's relative success has undoubtedly complicated Romney's gloom-and-doom framing of Obama's first term.
5. Kasich is not the best surrogate. This one's related to the previous one. Kasich, who is trying to climb back from his drubbing in last fall's referendum in time for his 2014 reelection, is understandably touting Ohio's recovery, which is at direct odds with Romney's message that the economy's a hopeless mess. Kasich's value is further diminished by his middling popularity with state voters, which ties back to SB 5. And he's left behind quite the string of unhelpful quotes, such as dismissing Romney's 59-point economic plan (in an interview with Bai) and joking about how his own wife, and those of Sen. Rob Portman and Paul Ryan, were back at home "doing the laundry" while their husbands were on the stump.
6. The auto bailout. Also, obviously, related to point #4. One in eight Ohio jobs is linked to the auto industry; without the bailout, who knows what would've happened to them. And the Obama campaign and Ohio Democrats aren't letting voters forget this. Bai curiously suggests that the campaign is not willing to stand up and make the case that its policies have helped the Ohio economy, a judgment that seems based on the fact that Obama would not talk to him for his story. In fact, Obama and his team are talking up their record, and the bailout in particular, to the point where they are arguably over-stating its impact on the state. And it seems to be working. When I was in Toledo last week, I asked Lucas County Treasurer Wade Kapszukiewicz, a Democrat, what he made of Obama's strong position, and he didn't hesitate. "It's the bailout," he said. "It's not just the Jeep plant in Toledo and that they build the Chevy Cruze in Youngstown. But more than that – we have 88 counties, and in 82 of them there are supplier plants to the larger ones. When you start talking about 82 of 88 counties that have some sort of direct, literal, positive impact from this rescue, I think that on the margins has the ability to tweak the numbers."
He added, by way of conclusion: "Obama could certainly lose the election, but it appears he's going to run a little bit ahead in Ohio than he does nationally – creating a first in history moment where Democrat could win Ohio and still lose the election." That's one way of looking at it – the way that Rove and Romney may end up clinging to in the weeks ahead.