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President Barack Obama speaks in Akron, Ohio, on August 1. Polls show Ohioans consistently backing Obama over Romney. (Jim Watson/AFP)

Obama’s Trump Card: Ohio

Three reasons why the Buckeye State is helping the president beat the odds.

BY Theo Anderson

Can Mitt Romney lose Ohio and win the election? Not likely. 

Assuming that President Obama takes Ohio and that Romney wins Florida, Romney would need to win 50 of the remaining swing state's 53 electoral college votes. If Romney loses both Ohio and Florida, where he now trails by about a point, he has essentially no chance of winning. (This analysis is based on the Real Clear Politics electoral map.)

The critical question, then, is whether Romney can win Ohio. With the standard caveat that anything could happen between now and November, it looks increasingly doubtful.

The Real Clear Politics average of polls over the past month gives Obama nearly a five-point lead in Ohio, with the most recent poll giving him a six-point lead. As with polling at the national level, the numbers have moved very little over the past several months. Romney has led in just three of the 23 polls released since the beginning of the year. The average of polls released in April gave Obama the same five-point lead that he now enjoys.

Obama beat John McCain by a seven-point margin—53 to 46 percent—in the popular vote in 2008. The faltering economy was often cited as the reason for Obama’s victory. The same bad economy is now cited as Obama’s great weakness. So why is Ohio the exception to the rule this year, and why does it make the electoral-college math look so daunting for Romney?

There are at least three reasons.

The first is that Democratic Sen. Sherrod Brown is also up for re-election. That matters because Brown is campaigning day in and day out, across the state, making the case for Obama and for progressive policies. He’s ranked by the website Progressive Punch as the most progressive member of the Senate overall, and he’s learned to connect with the voting bloc that Obama struggles most to win over: white, working-class men.

Brown would be a liability for the Obama campaign if he were a weak candidate. But he’s opened up a wide lead over his Republican challenger, Josh Mandel, and he is campaigning from a place of strength. The most recent poll shows him with a 12-point advantage. A poll in June showed him with a 16-point lead. Brown’s success reflects his skill as a campaigner, but it’s also the result of self-inflicted wounds by Mandel. PolitiFact assessed 21 of his campaign claims and judged five of them to be “pants-on-fire” lies. Five more were rated false or mostly false, and four were half-true. Only seven were rate true or mostly true. By contrast, 16 of Brown’s 24 campaign claims were rated true or mostly true. The Obama camp couldn’t have scripted this race more to their liking.  

A second reason for Obama’s lead in Ohio is the state of its manufacturing sector, which cuts for Obama—and against Romney—in specific ways. Brown has been touting the success of the auto-manufacturers’ bailout, since many of the companies that build parts for vehicles are based in Ohio. He claims the bailout saved more than 800,000 jobs in the state. That number is almost certainly an exaggeration: It’s from a report that estimated the number of jobs created by all car manufacturing in Ohio. But it’s also certain that without the bailout, Ohio’s unemployment rate would be substantially higher than where it now stands, 7.2 percent, which is a full point below the national average.

But there’s plenty of bad news on this front as well. In May, the state lost 1,400 manufacturing jobs. In the five years prior to that, Ohio lost nearly 120,000 manufacturing jobs. Obama’s campaign has used these facts to its advantage by blanketing the state with ads that describe Romney’s work at Bain Capital, which is notorious for the way it offshored jobs, closed plants and fired workers when it “restructured” the businesses it bought. The ads portray Romney as the face of the very forces that have devastated the state’s manufacturing base. While Obama gets credit for the good news about manufacturing, in other words, Romney gets credit for the bad news. Not a good position to be in.

Unions are Obama’s third advantage. The rate of union membership has been declining in Ohio for decades, as it has across the United States. It’s now at 13.4 percent, down from 21.3 percent in 1989. That’s low, but it’s still better than the national average of 11.8 percent.

More importantly, unions in Ohio are reinvigorated and eager to flex their political muscles again. Last fall, they mobilized to repeal a bill passed by the state legislature that would have curbed the collective bargaining power of public employees. Though Republican Governor John Kasich worked hard on behalf of the bill, it was repealed by a wide margin: 62 to 38 percent. That effort has energized the unions to take on new fights. As a story in the Cleveland Plain Dealer put it in May, “the success became more than a win. It was a transformation, at a time of declining union membership and political apathy.” This surprising influx of union energy will provide organizing power and enthusiasm to both the Obama and Brown campaigns.

Another factor that could play an important role this fall is the Catholic vote, but it’s too soon to know which way it will break in Ohio, where Catholics make up about a third of the electorate. U.S. Catholic bishops have been outspoken on behalf of pro-life issues, and have tried to make supposed threats to “religious liberty” an important factor in this election. Those efforts benefit the GOP.

But there has been significant pushback from Catholics on the Left. This summer, a dozen nuns took to the road on a two-week bus tour with stops in nine states. The purpose was to protest the priorities set forth in the budget plan that’s being touted by Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wisc.), and to make a plea for economic and social justice. “We cannot stand by silently,” the nuns explained on their website, “when the U.S. Congress considers further enriching the wealthiest Americans at the expense of struggling, impoverished families.” The tour made six stops in Ohio, the most in any state.

These factors—Sherrod Brown’s campaign, Ohio’s relatively strong economy, revitalized unions and the renewed focus on Catholicism’s social-justice tradition—are a perfect storm of bad news and bad luck for Romney. Can he win the presidency in spite of them? Stranger things have happened.  A month or two of terrible economic data before the election might trump them all.

Short of that, Romney’s best hope is to stay in close touch with the Catholic bishops. It’s going to take a miracle.

 

Theo Anderson, an In These Times staff writer, is writing a book about the historical and contemporary influence of pragmatism on American politics. He has a Ph.D. in American history from Yale University and teaches history and literature seminars at the Newberry Library in Chicago.

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