How Can Rob Portman Win Ohio for Romney If Its Voters Don’t Know Who He Is?

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Tom Williams / CQ Roll Call / Getty Images

Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, talks with a reporter outside of the office of Senate Minority Whip Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., before senate luncheons in the Capitol.

With Mitt Romney’s vice presidential selection expected in the next week or so, the insiders’ wisdom (read: What I saw on the Internet) points to two guys in the top tier of contention: Ohio’s Rob Portman and Minnesota’s Tim Pawlenty. Here and elsewhere, the reasons Romney might want one of these  midwesterners on the ticket have been well covered.  But skimming through Nate Silver’s exegesis of all the potential picks’ home state polling, something really puzzled me about Portman, the longstanding favorite of Washington prognosticators.

A plurality of Ohioans have either never heard of the guy or don’t have an opinion of him one way or the other. (The blank space between the red and blue bars represents the percentage of respondents who didn’t know enough about the candidate to form an opinion. In Portman’s case, that’s 45%.)

Portman just became a Senator last year, but he wasn’t a stranger in Ohio before that. He represented the state’s 2nd Congressional District from 1993 until 2005, when he went to work for the Bush Administration. The 2nd is a conservative suburban stretch along the Ohio’s southernwestern border and only contains about 5% of the state’s population. But you’d think more than a decade in Congress and a high profile Senate race two years ago would suffice for at least plurality familiarity statewide.

Maybe it’s just a sign of one of Portman’s vice presidential qualifications (again, according to journalistic speculation): His boringness. Romney wants to make the election about Obama, this line of thinking goes, so an experienced, stable and uncontroversial pick is what he’s after. Portman is evidently so uncontroversial that a plurality Ohioans just kinda forgot about him, or at least haven’t been moved to any strong feeling about his performance in office.

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The chart also tells us a little something about Washington. The buzziest guys on this list are some of the least known or least liked in their home states. Pawlenty is one of just two potentials whose approval is underwater back home. Paul Ryan, who’s now enjoying a late-breaking surge of vice presidential speculation after inspiring similar swoons among the Beltway set during presidential oddsmaking, is not a towering figure in his state. (At least compared to Bobby Jindal or Susanna Martinez.) Washington is biased toward Washington figures.

But back to Portman. Despite his relative anonymity, Portman has the greatest potential to tip the Electoral College results in Romney’s favor according to Silver’s model. His modest net-positive approval rating has an outsize effect because of Ohio’s pivotal cache of E.C. votes and the closeness of the presidential race there. I might go even further than Silver does in predicting Portman’s potential benefit for Romney. It always helps to be popular, but I suspect part of the impetus for voting for a presidential ticket that includes someone from your state is self-interested calculation: Voters might reasonably think that such a ticket, if elected, would give their state preferential treatment. In 2012, just being from Ohio might be enough. Or not. We’ll find out soon.

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