Oh, Whoa, Ohio!

The media line right now is that Obama is pulling away from Romney in the all-important state of Ohio, which, as all political junkies know, is not just a swing state—it is the swing state, as no Republican has ever won the White House without winning Ohio.    (The Wall Street Journal‘s lead story today is “Electoral Drama Shifts to Ohio.”)  I spent Monday and Tuesday in Ohio, and most everyone I spoke with—admittedly a small and skewed sample mostly of the very good people of Ashland—says these poll numbers and media analyses just don’t feel right.  But what do we know, anyway?

Everyone seems ready to hit the Panic Button like we’re under “launch on warning” conditions of the late Cold War—everyone’s worried about pushing it in a moment of panic, but it never really happens because. . . well, in a political campaign, the metaphor means what, exactly?  Bring in James Baker!  Never mind that he’s 145 years old by now, and isn’t even on Twitter.

A few observations.  First, generally speaking nail-biting elections have become the new norm for Republicans for a while now.  I recall vividly early September back in 2000 when people were fretting that George W. Bush was faltering against Al Gore.  Something must be done!  Panic buttons must be pushed!  No, an old sage said to me; it’s up to Bush.  He has to do it.  No one can help him much from the outside.  The “experts” say debates don’t really change the course of elections, but I remain skeptical of this.  The Nixon-Kennedy debates surely made a difference; I think it made some difference in 1980, perhaps in 1976 (when Ford liberated Poland), and probably in 2000, when Gore’s erratic debate performances underscored doubts about the guy—well-founded doubts, as Gore’s subsequent madness has made clear.  George W. Bush’s faltering performance in the first debate against John Kerry in 2004 sliced into his steady lead at the time.  So let’s stay tuned; there’s a still a lot of time between now and November for things to change.

Second, everyone should have a look at this post on BattlegoundWatch.com from “keithbacker” that weighs the situation in Ohio.  It notes that Romney suffers from the lack of a clear or forceful message, and that the auto bailout is popular in Ohio.  He leaves out one other factor: the natural gas boom, which is helping to revive Ohio’s economy, may be rescuing Obama here.  “keithbacker” notes that Governor Kasich is giving a mixed message, as his celebration of improving conditions in the Buckeye State help Obama there.  It would be the most bitter of ironies if hydrocarbon energy, which Obama hates and would like to kill, turns out to have been his lifeline.

The mention of Kasich raises one other item—the large loss as the polls last fall of the referendum on public employee union reforms.   I listened to the radio spots last fall and thought the unions were going to win.  Kasich and the Ohio Republicans clearly overreached and didn’t bring the same calculating prudence that Scott Walker showed in Wisconsin.  This loss should have been a warning sign to the GOP that Ohio is tricky terrain.

Third, “keithbacker” notes that the Romney campaign has a strong ground game in Ohio, and this might make the difference.  Back in 2004, while Democrats were publicly boasting about their ground game, the Bush campaign quietly went about building and executing a much better one, and it made a huge difference.  If there’s one thing I’d expect a Bain Capital-style presidential campaign to do well, it would be the election day get-out-the-vote ground game.


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