Ask Steve Ingersol, a 30-something waiter at Applebee’s near Akron, Ohio, how he’s going to vote in November, and he shrugs.
“No matter who the president is, it’s just someone to blame stuff on,” says Mr. Ingersol, a registered Republican who voted for Barack Obama in 2008 because he thought it would be “cool” to have a black president. This time, he says, his vote is a coin toss.
Ingersol doesn’t know it, but he’s a hot commodity in Ohio, part of a key demographic – the white working class – in what could be the decisive state of the 2012 race. If the upper Midwest, from Iowa to Pennsylvania, is the premier battleground region of the country, then Ohio is ground zero. While Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania lean Democratic, Ohio and Iowa are tossups. And with 18 electoral votes (to Iowa’s six), Ohio has more power to swing the outcome.
Chances are, between now and Nov. 6, Ingersol will hear plenty more about his choices. The TV airwaves are already crackling with political ads. The local Portage County Tea Party is armed with voter lists for door-to-door canvassing and phone calls. The unions, too, are revving up. And both the Obama and Romney teams are on track to set up more campaign offices around Ohio than did any previous nominees.
For Mr. Obama, winning Ohio isn’t essential to reaching 270 electoral votes. But it is for Mitt Romney. No Republican has ever been elected president without carrying Ohio.
Last week alone, Obama, Mr. Romney, and Vice President Joe Biden all made campaign appearances in Ohio. First lady Michelle Obama heads to Columbus and Dayton on Tuesday.
And it comes as no surprise that three of Romney’s top campaign surrogates and potential running mates are from the upper Midwest – starting with Ohio Sen. Rob Portman, a former George W. Bush budget director. The others are Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin and former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty.
“[Senator Portman] is worth three to five points in Ohio,” says Ohio GOP chairman Bob Bennett, who has been talking up his state’s junior senator with Romney. “Independents like Portman. And Democrats don’t get mad at him.”
Where every vote matters
Rare is the running mate who can swing a state, but in a battleground as tight as Ohio, every vote matters. Four years ago, Obama won the state by just 4.6 percentage points, even as he was winning Wisconsin by 14 points and Michigan by 16. This year, his margins are down everywhere.
And with most voters already in one or the other camp, “Ohio will be decided by 5 to 8 percent of its electorate,” says Rex Elsass, one of the top GOP admen in the United States, based near Columbus, Ohio.
Which brings us back to Ingersol, the Applebee’s waiter. In some ways, he’s the quintessential white working-class voter – a tough demographic for Obama in 2008 and even more so now. Ingersol is a single dad with no health insurance. But he’s so busy with work and family that the new health-care law is barely on his radar. And it may not be enough to bring him back to Obama.
“I’ve only been to the doctor once in the last 13 years,” Ingersol says proudly, suggesting he can do without insurance. (His kids are covered on their mother’s plan.)
In the Obama campaign’s Zanesville office, it’s health care that drew 23-year-old Chase Flowers to volunteer full time – specifically, the fact that the new law allows his parents to cover him and his sister.
“I tell people that health-care reform kills two birds with one stone,” he says. “It’s controlling health-care costs and helping people with their health.”
But to other Ohioans, “repeal Obamacare” is the ultimate rallying cry of the election. On a recent Tuesday evening, some 200 members of the Portage County Tea Party gathered near Akron for a candidates’ forum and then a pep talk from executive director Tom Zawistowski. Along the back of the room, 5,700 pages of voter names and contact information supplied by the Romney campaign were stacked on tables, waiting for volunteers to take.
Despite the tea party’s ambivalence about Romney, there’s no doubt that on defeating Obama and the state’s senior senator, Sherrod Brown (D) – two steps toward undoing the health-care law – they’re on the same page.
“We’re at war with the Republican Party in some ways: It’s not as conservative as we’d like it to be,” says Mr. Zawistowski, who is also president of the statewide Ohio Liberty Coalition. “But we’re working together on get-out-the-vote. They have resources that we don’t have.”
In his speech to his local tea party, exhorting members to canvass their neighbors, he gets choked up.
“The Supreme Court punted,” Zawistowski says. “They kicked it back to the legislature, to the American people.... My destiny, our destiny is in our hands. I thank God I live in Ohio. I want to fight this fight with you. We will decide.”
One of the biggest questions hanging over Ohio is what kind of residual impact there may be from last year’s battle over public-sector unions. Gov. John Kasich (R) took office in January 2011 vowing to curb collective-bargaining rights in an effort to balance the state budget. But when the law passed, the backlash was fierce – particularly so because, unlike in Wisconsin, it included police and firefighter unions.
Suddenly, traditionally Republican-leaning unions had common cause with their liberal union brethren. Last November, their efforts paid off: Ohio voters repealed the collective-bargaining law with 61 percent of the vote.
“[The law] was probably an overreach,” says GOP chair Bennett. But “we were outspent 2-1/2 to 1.”
Governor Kasich remains unpopular – a blow to Romney’s chances in Ohio, Democrats say – even though statewide unemployment has steadily declined to 7.2 percent in June, a percentage point below the national average. But it’s too soon to say whether the police and firefighters will stick with the more liberal unions in supporting Obama in 2012, despite Romney’s anti-union positions.
“It’s going to take some work. I wouldn’t say it’s an automatic thing,” says Robert Davis, political director of the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) Ohio Council 8 in Columbus. Even the membership of his own union, he says, is one-third Republican.
For Senator Brown, support for unions has already paid off. Last Tuesday, the state Fraternal Order of Police (FOP) endorsed Brown against Republican challenger Josh Mandel, the first time the organization has backed a Democrat for the US Senate since 1988.
The Ohio FOP has yet to state a choice to the national FOP for a presidential endorsement, but Romney’s support for the anti-union ballot measure last October, along with the union’s Senate endorsement, does not bode well for him. Republicans say that the police union’s political preferences are all about labor issues, not about how the rank and file will vote.
One issue that clearly boosts Obama is his 2009 bailout of the auto industry. One out of 8 Ohio jobs is auto-industry related; 80 of the state’s 88 counties contain auto supply manufacturers.
Still, there’s no denying that the sputtering economic recovery casts a shadow over all else in Ohio, as it does nationally. Ohio ranks ninth in the nation on home foreclosures. And if the battle for Ohio boils down to the southeastern, Appalachian part of the state, Obama could be in real trouble. Coal is king there, and the Environmental Protection Agency’s new regulations on coal-fired power-plant emissions are deeply unpopular.
Southeastern Ohio is also socially conservative – no to gay marriage and abortion, yes to guns – which is another strike against Obama. But it’s also economically liberal in its support of the social safety net. That’s why some political observers call it Ohio’s ultimate swing area.
Former Gov. Ted Strickland (D), who represented southeastern Ohio in Congress for 12 years, says he won’t deny that coal will sway some voters. “But it won’t be the determinative factor,” he says. “All along the Ohio River, where steel mills have closed, I think the outsourcing of jobs is a more powerful issue in a generic kind of sense.”
A long winning streak
Ultimately, the battle for Ohio will be waged statewide. From the liberal northeast to the conservative southwest, the Buckeye State is in many ways a microcosm of the country. One exception is its small Hispanic population. But for now, Ohio is the reigning bellwether in presidential politics: It has voted for the winner every time since 1964, the longest streak of all 50 states.
When ads funded by outside groups are included, Team Obama expects to be outspent on TV and is banking on its ground game. Four years ago, the Obama campaign opened more than 100 offices around the state. This time, the campaign plans to outdo that. State campaign director Greg Schultz has been on the job since March 2009.
The Romney campaign, delayed by a tough primary battle, has had to play catch-up. As of July 16, there were 23 joint Romney–Republican National Committee “victory centers” in Ohio versus 36 Obama for America offices. All told, Romney and the RNC plan more than 60 or 70 victory centers, says a Republican source.
But it’s not the number of offices that matters, says the Romney campaign. “What’s clear is we are going to be able to match Barack Obama volunteer for volunteer, door-knock for door-knock, phone call for phone call between now and November,” says Christopher Maloney, spokesman for the Romney campaign in Ohio.
What’s also clear is that Romney can’t match Obama as a stump performer. As of July 24, the president and his top surrogates – Mr. Biden and Mrs. Obama – will have been here 47 times since Obama’s election. Biden may be his secret weapon, the “scrapper from Scranton” who can speak to white, working-class voters in a way that the Obamas can’t.
All those Obama visits play right into Romney’s hands, says Mr. Elsass of the Strategy Group for Media, the GOP ad firm. “Barack Obama,” he says, “energizes our base in a way that Mitt Romney can’t.”
In a sign that Democrats will let no challenge to their ground game go unanswered, the Obama campaign filed a federal lawsuit last Tuesday against Ohio election officials, saying new restrictions halting early voting three days before the election are unconstitutional.
The Obama campaign, joined by the Democratic National Committee and the Ohio Democratic Party, says the new rule is unfair, since military and overseas voters are allowed to vote in person until the day before the election. Four years ago, the Obama campaign saw early voting as crucial to winning Ohio.