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

“There are a lot of combinations to winning the five Ohios. We’re going to unlock the combination,” promises Rich Beeson, the Romney campaign’s political director. Four years after John McCain was outhustled across the state, the Romney campaign boasts that it has knocked on more doors here than anywhere else. Inside the Romney campaign’s Ohio headquarters, a nondescript warren of rooms on the north side of Columbus, aides have mapped out a plan to cobble together a majority by targeting voters in places where Obama’s support has slipped: coal country, college campuses, Catholic communities, cities that rely on the military bases that would suffer from looming defense cuts. “It’s all peaking at the right time for us,” says Scott Jennings, Romney’s Ohio director, who calls the race a “dead heat.” Averages of all public polls in the state suggest the race could be within a couple of points.

But Romney’s team is still scrambling to catch up with the Obama campaign, which never really stopped organizing after winning by four points in 2008. (One Obama field office in crucial Cuyahoga County never closed.) David Axelrod, the President’s top strategist, says the private numbers held by both campaigns show that the race across the swing states is not as tight as the Romney team is claiming. “We know what we know, and they know what they know,” Axelrod says. “We’ll know who is bluffing in two weeks.”

Republicans have sought to counter the Democratic advantage on the ground with a stepped-up early-voting campaign of their own. For the first time, Ohio’s Republican Secretary of State mailed absentee-ballot applications to every registered voter, a tactic that could shave Obama’s edge, given the traditional GOP propensity to vote by mail. There is good reason to think, meanwhile, that Romney’s momentum elsewhere in recent days may improve his standing in Ohio as last-minute voters, who traditionally break for the challenger, make up their minds. “There is an old saying: ‘The good gets better, and the bad gets worse,'” says Beeson. “Our good has gotten better, and their bad has gotten worse.”

Then there were the billboards, paid for by anonymous outside donors, that loomed for several weeks above mostly low-income neighborhoods in Cleveland and Columbus, warning that voting fraud was a felony punishable by 3 years in jail and stiff fines.

In the final fortnight, groups of all sorts are camping out in the state, hoping to turn a few thousand votes here and there. Social conservatives have renewed their efforts to spike turnout in rural Ohio and turn churches into early-voting information centers. Phil Burress, the leader of pro-life, anti-gay-marriage group Citizens for Community Values, has been crisscrossing the state in a van to educate church pastors about what they can say from the pulpit about the upcoming election. His group plans to take out full-page ads in 100 of the state’s rural newspapers in the hopes of boosting Republican turnout. “The message is, Rural Ohio rules Ohio,” Burress says. “If rural Ohio shows up, they win every time.”

The state’s formidable union activists, meanwhile, believe they retain an advantage after overturning a 2011 law that curbed collective-bargaining rights for public employees, a measure Romney supported at the time. Their efforts echo Obama’s habit of saying Romney “isn’t one of us.” Says Tim Burga, the Ohio head of the AFL-CIO, of voters: “Mitt Romney doesn’t share their values. They can’t trust him when he talks about the plight of the economy. He has an investor-class mentality.” As former Democratic governor Ted Strickland puts it, “It’s a long way from Steubenville, Ohio, to Geneva, Switzerland.”

With all this politicking going on and the whole world watching, turnout is expected to set records. Bennett, the GOP chairman, estimates that turnout could edge toward 6 million, far more than the 2008 totals, with some 75% of Ohio’s 7.9 million registered voters casting a ballot.

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