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

State of Saturation
If there is one thing all Ohio voters can probably agree on, it’s that the final day won’t come soon enough. Ohio isn’t just ground zero in the Electoral College. It’s also an epicenter for one of the biggest ad binges in history. The campaigns have forked over $177 million to win Ohio, more than any other state, according to an NBC analysis. According to recent reports, Romney and his allies will drop $12 million on television in the last week of the campaign; Obama and his allies will spend $7.9 million. In the Columbus media market, perhaps the most bombarded in the nation, the bile is ubiquitous.

“I feel like a baby at a rock concert. You just want to shut down,” says Ruth Milligan, a Romney supporter who the morning after the final debate was eating breakfast at Tommy’s Diner, a Columbus favorite with checkerboard floors and red vinyl booths. She sat with two female colleagues, each bemoaning the silliness of the final days, with the outsize emphasis on quips about Big Bird, binders and bayonets. “Leave us alone,” Milligan sighed. “How many undecided voters can there be?”

The answer is, Not many. Most polls here show that fewer than 10% of voters are still willing to change their mind, except perhaps on whether to toss their television sets. Commercials for local House and Senate races jostle for space with super-PAC spots and candidate contrasts. Political combat is pretty much the only product for sale on the airwaves.

In one typical commercial break during the evening news, a Democratic super-PAC ad blistering Romney for proposing to gut education segued into a Republican National Committee ad assuring voters that “it’s O.K. to make a change.” That bled into a Romney super-PAC spot that warned of “crushing debt” and depicted dejected voters hanging their heads and grimacing. “Demand better,” it said. Even for voters who unplug the television, there is no respite, given the ceaseless barrage of mailers, door knocks during dinnertime and as many as 10 phone calls each day from the two campaigns and their supporters.

Yet it’s hard to blame the campaigns for pulling out the stops. The whole election could come down to people like Judy Kamalay, a 60-year-old Obama volunteer from the outskirts of Columbus. She is a one-woman rebuttal to claims that enthusiasm for the President has plummeted. Until last year, she was a registered Independent, and she cast a ballot for George W. Bush in 2004. But when she lost her job in 2009, she chalked it up to Bush Administration missteps.

In January, she assumed an unpaid role as a “neighborhood team leader,” and as the election approaches, she has worked 40-hour weeks hosting near nightly phone banks in her tidy one-story home in a suburban subdivision. Obama, she says, “really speaks to my values.”

On a warm evening 14 days before the election, Kamalay sits at a makeshift desk in her foyer, surrounded by jars of markers and leaflets explaining the dos and don’ts of canvassing. Nearby, at Kamalay’s glass dining table, sits Sherry Kovach, a 59-year-old social worker. They have spent just about every weeknight together lately, and they like to joke that they “met over the Internet”–through a campaign social network. All the hours dialing leery neighbors has been grueling work. “I’m very passionate about this,” Kovach says, wiping a tear. “Ohio is the state.”

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