The Keys to Ohio: Five Counties that Could Decide the Presidency

There are five counties that hold the key to winning Ohio -- and with it the White House.

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Mitt Romney waves to supporters during a campaign rally at Worthington Industries on Oct. 25, 2012 in Cincinnati, Ohio

Columbus, Ohio 

Don’t begrudge Ohio its role as the nation’s premier presidential bellwether. For one thing, it’s no fun, as Ohioans themselves will tell you. (Spare a thought for the more than 90% of voters who have long since made up their minds, yet were forced to endure some 60,000 ads over the past month  — enough for 80 straight days of viewing, if that sort of torture were your thing.) And if one state must hold the fate of the nation in its hands, Ohio is as good a place as any. Perhaps no state better encapsulates the character of the country — its demographic diversity, its classic tensions between progressive cities and rural conservatism.

The local adage is that there are “five Ohios,” from the swath of Democratic territory in the northeast to the stretch of southwest Ohio that skews as conservative as the Deep South. As in the rest of the U.S., the presidential candidates are contesting the Buckeye State along familiar battle lines, with Barack Obama hoping to bank enough votes from urban population centers to offset the rest of the state’s conservative inclinations. Though his closing argument is peppered with paeans to bipartisanship, Mitt Romney has made many of his recent campaign stops in conservative enclaves where he hopes to spike turnout. On Sunday, as Hurricane Sandy loomed menacingly off the Atlantic Coast, Romney canceled a planned swing through Virginia to join running mate Paul Ryan on a trip across Ohio, campaigning in Celina, Findlay and Marion — each of which sided with John McCain four years ago.

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Within the five Ohios, there are five counties in particular that hold the key to winning the state — and with it the White House. Not all are swing counties. But they are the linchpins of the state that is as likely to determine the election on Nov. 6 as the other 49 put together:

Cuyahoga County

The largest county in Ohio, Cuyahoga is home to more than 10% of the state’s population. It is a Democratic stronghold, home to rusting manufacturing hubs like Cleveland. In 2008, Barack Obama won Cuyahoga County by 258,000 votes, more than his final margin statewide. Cuyahoga is Obama’s bulwark against the remainder of the state’s conservative inclinations, and he has lavished attention on it accordingly, visiting the area multiple times in October to promote early voting. In this union-heavy stretch of the state, Obama’s auto bailout is a particularly potent weapon.

No Republican has won Cuyahoga County since Nixon, and Mitt Romney is unlikely to be be the exception. But his aides profess confidence that they can hold down the President’s margin of victory by convincing union members that Obama has capitulated to China, thus contributing to the exodus of manufacturing jobs. They are targeting tony Cleveland suburbs like Rocky River as a source of potential gains, and note that voter registration in Cuyahoga is down. If Romney can mitigate the damage here, he vastly improves his chances of capturing the state.

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Franklin County

Home to Columbus, this central Ohio county is more affluent, more educated, and more politically moderate than the rest of the state. The economy is relatively strong, thanks to the two recession-proof industries (the nation’s largest university, and state government) and nascent financial-services and medical sectors. The Columbus media market is sprawling, reaching nearly a fourth of the state’s 88 counties, but Franklin is the prize. While the city tips Democratic, the suburbs lean Republican. Buoyed by young voters and suburban women, Obama won Franklin by 116,000 votes in 2008, more than twice Kerry’s margin of victory. Both campaigns are clawing for every vote they can muster here. On Thursday, Romney swept in for a rally at a steel-manufacturing factory just north of Columbus, not far from his statewide headquarters.

Hamilton County

Former Governor John Gilligan once quipped that Hamilton County, nestled at the southwestern fringe of the state abutting Kentucky, was the kind of place where voters “hunt Democrats with dogs for sport.”  Until 2008, Hamilton County had gone Democratic in a presidential race just four times in 100 years. That changed when Obama rode increased African-American turnout to a 30,000 vote victory. But Republicans have designs on snatching it back, and though the county’s demographics are changing, they are still on the GOP’s side. Ringed by some of the reddest counties in the state, Hamilton houses a strong network of social-conservative activists as well as affluent white-collar voters who work at Fortune 500 companies like Proctor & Gamble. Like Franklin County, Hamilton shapes up as a battle between conservative suburbs and a Democratic urban center, though Cincinnati is one of the most conservative metro areas in the Midwest. Romney’s secret weapon here is Rob Portman, Ohio’s junior Senator and a top Republican surrogate who hails from Cincinnati.

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Stark County 

The Republican ticket spent Friday night rallying at a high-school baseball field in North Canton. It’s not hard to figure out why: Stark has sided with the winner in 10 of the last 12 presidential elections, and in nine of those races, the victor’s margin has been within two points of his statewide share of the vote. “If a candidate is doing well very here, that tends to reflect the rest of the state,” says Ohio Republican Party chairman Bob Bennett. Obama eked out a victory here in 2008; Bush did the same four years before. Like much of the state, Stark County is packed with white, working-class voters — a cohort that has bedeviled Obama this election cycle.

But the President’s support has proved resilient with this group in Ohio for two reasons. First, the auto bailout has insulated many communities from the depths of the recession. (Unemployment in Stark County sits at 6.5%, below the national average.) And secondly, Democrats have been particularly successful in Ohio at painting Romney as a rapacious plutocrat out of synch with white, working-class values. “If they’ve got issues with the President,” says Tim Burga, president of the AFL-CIO in Ohio, “they’ve got to have an alternative. They know Mitt Romney does not share their values. He’s not one of us.” TIME’s poll of Ohio last week showed the President nabbing 43% of white voters, several points higher than he has performed in national surveys.

Montgomery County 

Last week Obama and Vice President Joe Biden made a joint appearance in Dayton, the biggest city in this swing county surrounded by a sea of red. Obama won Montgomery with 52% of the vote in 2008, but Republicans say they expect to make gains by campaigning against potential looming defense cuts. Montgomery County is home to Wright-Patterson Air Force base, the largest in the world and the biggest employer in Ohio, and Romney’s team has claimed Obama’s policies will cost the base some 450 jobs. When the two candidates sparred in their foreign-policy debate over the origins of the so-called “sequestration” agreement that could result in cuts to the U.S. military, they were squarely targeting active-duty service members and contractors who have flocked here.

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Correction: This story originally misstated the location of Romney’s Friday night rally. It was in North Canton, not Canton. It also inaccurately said former Ohio Governor John Gilligan was a Republican.