A super-close look at Ohio, the state that could decide it all

theGRIO REPORT - They say as goes Ohio, so goes the nation – and with good reason...

Luther Vandross was outed as gay after his death.

They say as goes Ohio, so goes the nation – and with good reason.  The winner of Ohio’s Electoral College votes has won the presidential election in all but one election since World War II, when the Buckeye State chose Nixon over Kennedy in 1960. No Republican has ever won the presidency without carrying the state.  Nate Silver’s FiveThirtyEight blog ranks Ohio as the key tipping point state (meaning the state most likely to decide the winner.)

I am no Ohioan, but as Barack Obama’s Ohio get-out-the-vote director in 2008, I learned a bit about a state as unique and heterogeneous as any in America.  Ohio is really better thought of as several smaller regions, each of which is its own electoral puzzle.  Democrats may dominate in Cleveland, Youngstown, and Columbus, but the composition of those Democratic electorates is starkly different.  Similarly, the various Republican strongholds – the working class, Appalachian southeast portion of the state, the suburban, religious conservative stronghold around Cincinnati, the rural areas on the western border with Indiana – each have a character all their own.

This is all to say there is no one “key” to winning Ohio.  That’s why the campaigns have been on the ground for months – or, in Obama’s case, years – building organization and delivering messages that are specifically targeted by region, block, and individual.  Here’s one Ohio campaign veteran’s take on the race and a few things to watch in the campaign’s final days. (Obama won the state by about 260,000 votes out of more than 5.7 million cast in 2008.)

Swing Counties Old…

Stark County in northeast Ohio is one of those counties where you would expect Barack Obama to lose ground from 2008.

Stark represents about 3.3 percent of the total vote in the state, and Obama won it with 52.8 percent of the vote – a veritable landslide in a county that has been among the most swing in the country, let alone the state, over the past generation.  Here are the winners and winning vote percentage in Stark for the past five presidential elections:

Year Winner Percentage
2008  Obama  52.8%
2004  Kerry  50.8%
2000  Bush  48.9%
1996  Clinton  46.4%
1992  Clinton  40.0%

At first glance, a drop by Obama would seem almost certain in this political climate. But unemployment in Stark County is at 6.8 percent, below both the national (7.8 percent) and state (7.2 percent) rate.  Stark County’s economy isn’t exactly booming, but it’s certainly shifting – from an almost exclusively blue-collar, manufacturing base to a heavier focus on service industries like health care – and it is doing so in a rather orderly and robust fashion.   

Also counting in Obama’s corner is that one of the signature achievements of the Obama administration – the auto industry rescue – polls very favorable in Ohio. This likely plays as well or better in a county whose largest employer for years has been the Timken Company, a steel manufacturing company that produces auto parts.

The Obama campaign obviously understands the importance of the area as it is spending money at an incredible clip in the Cleveland-Akron-Canton media market – holding its own against the combination of Romney-Ryan and the Republican SuperPACs.

Stark is a county that Obama would like to win, probably doesn’t need to win, but is fighting like he has to win.  For Romney on the other hand, Stark is exactly the kind of swing county – working class, urban and exurban, overwhelmingly white – that he needs to flip into his column.  Either way, if you’re clicking around on Election Night looking for a bellwether county to follow, look no further than Stark County, Ohio.

 Swing Counties New…

Tucked in the southwest corner of the state, Hamilton County – home to Cincinnati and its suburbs – has long been considered a Republican stronghold.  Until President Obama’s win there in 2008, no Democrat had carried the county since the Johnson landslide of 1964.

In the last three presidential elections, Democrats have increased their vote share in Hamilton from 42.8 percent (Gore) to 47.3 percent  (Kerry) to 53.5 percent (Obama).  To be sure, the qualitative differences between the candidates and the races have something to do with it.  But changing demographics may too.

According to the Census, the population of Hamilton County has decreased by 45,000 in the last decade, and nearly all of that is attributed to the departure of non-Hispanic whites.  Non-Hispanic whites went from being 72.4 percent of the Hamilton County population in 2000 to 67.6 percent in 2011 – a dramatic decrease of about 75,000 in terms of raw population.  (In contrast, in that same time frame, the African American population of Hamilton County has increased by about 6,000 and the Hispanic population by 11,000.)  While some whites are likely fleeing to the northern and eastern Cincinnati exurbs within Ohio, others are heading across the border to Indiana and Kentucky and elsewhere – and taking net Romney votes from a swing state to safe red ones.

Even with its population loss, Hamilton is likely to account for nearly 7.5 percent of the statewide vote, as it has for the past two elections.  Romney absolutely has to not only win the county, but with close to the 53 percent that Bush won in 2004 to have a chance to carry the state – which would equate to a vote margin of about 30,000 raw votes.

Even with history on Romney’s side and the overall campaign narrative recently shifting his way, demography may be destiny.  Either way, the results in Hamilton County will be important to watch not only as an predictor of the 2012 results, but also to see if Ohio is going the way of Pennsylvania: a traditionally purple state that may be shifting more blue.

What To Watch For: Black Votes In Red Counties

In 2008, Barack Obama bested John Kerry’s performance from 2004 in 75 of Ohio’s 88 counties.  But, although the Democratic base in all-important, heavily-black Cleveland was incredibly fired up and ready to go in October and November of 2008, Obama did not see significant gains there over Kerry in 2004.  Kerry’s campaign had done a very good job in turnout in Cuyahoga County, and Obama only earned about 10,000 more votes than Kerry had. In fact, Obama’s biggest improvements (in terms of percentage of the vote) were in some of the most heavily Republican counties in the state like Allen (Lima), Butler (Middletown), and Marion (Marion).

This was no accident.  The campaign and its allies invested in a coordinated, six-month field and paid communications effort that targeted pockets of Democratic and Democratic-leaning voters in small cities and towns who had long been ignored because they lived in traditional Republican areas.  Many of these targets were small, but significant black communities – even neighborhoods – that had simply not been given attention because they had the misfortune of being too isolated.  Maybe they received direct mail, but they were in the wrong media market to get TV commercials or the wrong county to get any sort of grassroots field support.

I remember one story – perhaps apocryphal, but certainly illustrative – of field organizers in 2008 who knocked on doors in heavily black neighborhoods in Lima (Allen County had gone 66-34 for Bush in 2004) that had literally never been canvassed before.   The 2008 campaign understood that an Obama vote in Lima was just as valuable as one in Cleveland.  And so while we still lost those counties, we lost by less – 20 points instead of 30 in Allen and Butler, 10 instead of 20 in Marion, and so on.

Across a few dozen counties, those numbers add up quickly.  So while the three big cities (Cincinnati, Columbus, Cleveland) get all the glory, it may be that the winning margin this time is in the few thousand black voters in cities like Lima (26.4 percent black), Middletown (11.7 percent), and Marion (9.6 percent) that voted for the first time in 2008 and need to be turned out once again. Ninety-eight percent of black voters in Ohio backed Obama in 2008, so turning out a black voter there essentially means you are getting an Obama backer.

Early Voting

 In 2008, I had planned and organized an entire program – not-so-cleverly named “Barack the Line” – around keeping voters in line after polls closed at 7:30.  (Voters have the right to cast a ballot so long as they were in line by that time.)  Live entertainment, food and hot coffee, hand-warmers – you name it, we had it all lined up (sorry) and ready to go.

Cue the panic at 7:15pm when I got reports from my staff in Cleveland, Cincinnati, Columbus, and Toledo – all was quiet on every front, with short, manageable lines in pretty much every base area across the state.  Turns out we had banked so many early votes – particularly in urban areas, through a program called “Vote Corps” – that the normal Election Day evening chaos turned to eerie calm.

A similar early voting strategy is not just a luxury, it is in my opinion the most important ingredient for an Obama victory in Ohio this November. Democrats rely more than Republicans on blocs of voters, particularly those under 30 and minorities, who are less consistent about voting. Some of these voters cast ballots for the first time in 2008 and stayed home in 2010. Early vote gives Democrats weeks to repeatedly contact and make sure these voters show up, as opposed to just a single day.

That’s why the Obama campaign and its allies have fought so hard against Republican-led efforts to shrink the number of early voting days in the state.

Jim Messina, Obama’s campaign manager, has said that the Obama campaign is specifically focused on early turnout of “sporadic voters”– those voters who have shown a propensity to miss elections before, or who a statistical model predicts are more likely to have a family emergency, a long work day, or just an ill-timed nap, and miss voting altogether. (Okay, I doubt they have a model for predicting nap timing – but you get the picture.)

A record 1.7 million (nearly 30 percent) of voters in Ohio cast ballots early in person or by mail in 2008, and I believe the 2012 Obama campaign needs to bring that number up closer to one third to feel comfortable going into Election Day.

Addisu Demissie is co-founder and principal at 50+1 strategies, a California-based political consulting firm. He was previously national political director at Organizing for America. You can follow him on Twitter @asdem.