Why Ohio Will Decide the Presidential Election

As Obama's margins in swing states shrink to a hairbreadth or vanish altogether, Ohio has emerged as the President's firewall, its 18 electoral votes his best hope of stopping the surging Romney campaign from winning the White House.

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Brooks Kraft / Corbis for TIME (2)

U.S. President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden during a campaign rally in Dayton, Ohio

Barack Obama speaks in a different dialect when he stops in Ohio, which seems to be every other day now. Even when delivering his basic stump speech, he will aim a few extra Buckeye-friendly zingers at his rival, Mitt Romney. “Does anybody actually look at that guy and think, ‘Man, he’s really into coal’?” the President asked recently at a rally in Athens. “I wasn’t born into fame and fortune,” he continued. “Nobody was picking me–‘Boy, that guy Barack Obama, he’s going to be President someday.'”

On flat screens now from Marietta to Toledo, there is one particularly edgy chord being struck: “Mitt Romney. Not one of us.” That phrase was once used as racial code by Southern segregationists to rouse white voters. Obama uses it to paint Romney as a sort of rich Uncle Pennybags, defined by his Cayman Islands holdings, a Swiss bank account and his opposition to Obama’s auto-industry bailout. “We won’t take your vast business advice,” Obama thunders at his rival on the stump.

Obama once decried such tactics as a relic of the past, but one need only look at the polls to see why he has dusted them off for 2012. As his margins in swing states shrink to a hairbreadth or vanish altogether, Ohio has emerged as the President’s firewall, its 18 electoral votes his best hope of stopping the surging Romney campaign from winning the White House. It’s a familiar role for the state that has voted for the winning candidate in 27 of the past 29 presidential elections. Obama’s Chicago operation is well aware of the tradition: no Republican has ever won the presidency without carrying Ohio.

A new Ohio poll for TIME by Abt SRBI shows that Romney still has a ways to go with just two weeks remaining. Among those who have already voted and those who are likely to vote, Obama holds a clear advantage, winning 49% of the state, compared with Romney’s 44%. The President’s advantage is accounted for by those who say they have already voted, a group Obama is winning by a 2-to-1 ratio. Among those likely to vote who had not yet cast a ballot, the race is tied at 45% each.

This could rattle nerves at Romney’s Boston headquarters, given Ohio’s history as a bellwether for the nation. But the state is behaving differently from the rest of the country this year. Long mired in recession, its economy is on the mend, buoyed by the auto bailout three years ago. The Chevy plant outside Youngstown is revving up again, and shifts have been added at the Jeep factory near Toledo. A fracking boom in northeastern Ohio has steel plants humming. The unemployment rate has dropped from 8.6% to 7%, well below the national average, putting a crimp in Romney’s argument that Ohio can’t afford four more years like the past four. The TIME poll found that Ohio voters are relatively optimistic about the future–at least the future in Ohio. While 54% believe the nation is on the wrong track, 51% say the outlook in Ohio is brightening. “Romney is trying to say that it’s cloudy when people are seeing sunshine,” explains David Cohen, a political-science professor at the University of Akron.

Obama’s controversial decision to bail out the American auto industry in 2009 lost him friends in conservative think tanks but has bolstered his support in the state, providing what one Obama aide calls “a message contrast that is really hard to achieve in presidential politics.” In Ohio, 1 in 8 jobs is tied to cars and light trucks, a fact that Obama and Vice President Joe Biden point out on their frequent visits. Romney, meanwhile, has struggled to explain the nuances of his “Let Detroit Go Bankrupt” position. He opposed Obama’s up-front government financing of Detroit and the terms that went with it, arguing instead that the industry could be saved by government guarantees of debt after the bankruptcy process. “There’s no question that the automobile issue has probably cut into some traditional support we’d be running away with,” admits Bob Bennett, longtime head of the Ohio Republican Party.

The Five Ohios
Ohio is the whole nation in miniature. The northeast is a Democratic stronghold, home to Cleveland, Akron and Youngstown, with sturdy minority populations and many union households. Southeastern Ohio, at the northwestern fringe of Appalachia, is rural and white, its rolling hills dotted with signs lamenting Obama’s “war on coal.” The two western quadrants more or less mirror the demographics of the broader Midwest, with progressive urban centers like Dayton and Toledo offset by conservative rural communities and staunchly Republican Cincinnati. Anchored by moderate Columbus, central Ohio has been thriving thanks to stable government jobs and a sprawling state university.

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