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.

“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.
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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