Why Ohio Is the Most Muddled Swing State Ever

Why Ohio Is the Most Muddled Swing State Ever

By Erin McPike - December 26, 2011

COLUMBUS, Ohio -- When NBC's Brian Williams announced on Nov. 4, 2008, that then-Sen. Barack Obama had won this state's 20 electoral votes, the ballrooms at the Capitol Hyatt Regency in Washington erupted. That was where the Democratic campaign committees were hosting their Election Night celebrations, and it was then that Nancy Pelosi, Harry Reid and their followers knew the party had clinched the White House. The official projection that Obama would become the 44th president came just moments later.

It was here four years earlier, after an emotionally turbulent day for the Democratic nominee, that John Kerry's presidential dreams died, largely because his campaign didn't know much about the developing American phenomenon known as exurbs -- and how to target the voters living in them.

To keep his job in 2012, President Obama doesn't have to win Ohio's 18 electoral votes -- down two this cycle after heavy population shifts away from the Rust Belt. But if he does win them, another four years residing at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. are virtually guaranteed. It won’t be as simple as pouring millions of dollars into advertising, because the path to victory in Ohio has become murkier than ever, and the state’s voters are growing increasingly fickle.

The president isn’t popular here -- a September Quinnipiac poll put his approval rating at 42 percent -- but neither is the new Republican governor, John Kasich (pictured), whose approval ratings are dancing around the mid-30s. The governor has been dealt several blows recently, including voters' rejection last month of his plan to limit collective bargaining for public unions. Potentially perilous for Obama, on the other hand, is the federal government’s delayed decision on a $2 billion loan guarantee to create a uranium enrichment plant in the state, which also delays an expected explosion of jobs in an economically depressed area of southern Ohio.

Complicating matters for both parties is the population shift, which could further influence a pattern of wild swings in voter sentiment that have swept the state in recent elections.

A Unique Place

With Pennsylvania and the western tip of New York on its eastern border, Ohio is a gateway to the Midwest. It has one of the country's most balanced blends of corporate, manufacturing and agricultural interests, with agriculture being the dominant state industry. And with that blend comes a host of issues that make the Buckeye State among the country’s most diverse.

Roger Geiger, vice president of the state chapter of the National Federation of Independent Business, pointed out that that is what makes Ohio one of the most competitive and critical swing states in presidential elections. It’s a “consumer test state,” he said, meaning that companies often descend upon Ohio’s many markets to test new products and messaging.

Geiger also noted that it’s a hard state to navigate through, as it has no single dominant region; it’s split among three big metropolises, Cincinnati, Columbus and Cleveland, with a host of second-tier cities including Toledo, Youngstown, Dayton, Akron and Canton sprinkled around the state. With the population spread out geographically, it is also possibly the most difficult state to pin down politically.

Indeed, the top talking point heading into next year's election is how hard-hit Ohio’s economy has been since the recession, even though the state’s unemployment rate was slightly lower last month than the 8.6 percent national average (8.5 percent). The rate, however, is compounded by these two data points: In the recent census, Ohio was second only to New York for slowest rate of population growth over the last decade, and those two states are the only ones in the country that will lose two congressional districts via redistricting. In light of all that, the presidential campaigns competing in the state must figure out a path to victory.

In 2006, Democrats demolished their Republican statewide opponents by much wider margins than Democrats won in less-reddish swing states that year; Ted Strickland secured the governor’s mansion by 23 percentage points, largely due to how badly his predecessor, Republican Bob Taft, and scandals associated with him, soured voters on the GOP. Just two years later, Democrats flipped a few more congressional seats, but Obama won the state by a slim, four-point margin -- partly because Ohio Republicans weren’t jazzed about John McCain and stayed home. A year ago, Strickland narrowly lost to Kasich, while the Democratic lieutenant governor, Lee Fisher, got trounced by President Bush’s budget director, Rob Portman, for an open Senate seat.

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Erin McPike is a national political reporter for RealClearPolitics. She can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @ErinMcPike.

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