Campaigns fighting for votes in battleground Ohio

It’s no mystery why Ohio is the perennial presidential campaign prize.

With 18 electoral votes, it’s a big state and it’s fickle. In the last six presidential elections, Republicans have won Ohio three times and Democrats three times.

That’s why the candidate committees and big name Super PACs have spent more than $74 million in Ohio since May 1, more than in any other state, according to the National Journal database of advertising data.

But winning Ohio involves more than spending huge gobs of money on media advertising. It means setting up campaign offices, organizing get-out-the-vote efforts, coordinating volunteers, and blanketing every corner of the state with appearances from the candidates or their surrogates.

It’s a political truism that no Republican has ever won the presidency without winning Ohio. It’s also a political fact of life that no Republican or Democrat can take the state for granted.

Beginning today and continuing through the next three Sundays, the Dayton Daily News will examine why Ohio is such a battleground and what it will take to win a state that will likely crown the next president.

It starts with knowing the state.

While the money is more than ever, the dynamics of winning Ohio haven’t changed much, said Paul Beck, a political scientist at Ohio State University.

“People may say they know how they would vote today but there are still events that have to take place,” Beck said.

And Ohio has a front row seat for campaign twists and turns in the final two months.

One state, many regions

There’s a fairly standard formula for presidential campaigns trying to win Ohio, according to John Green, director of the Bliss Institute for Applied Politics at the University of Akron.

He said that formula is based on the differences in political ideology in different parts of the state.

“The Democratic candidate needs to get as big a margin in northeast Ohio as possible,” Green said. “The Republican cannot ignore northeast Ohio because that’s where the most people live, and there are a lot of potential Republican votes there. … And then of course southwest Ohio is the Republican stronghold.”

In the past two presidential elections – despite each party winning one – northeast Ohio favored the Democratic candidate by at least a 12 percent margin each time, and southwest Ohio favored the Republican by at least 10 percentage points each time.

“Oftentimes what you’ll find is that Appalachian Ohio and northwest Ohio will become a real focus of the campaigns because those are more likely to be swing areas,” Green said. “The campaigns nail down their bases, their key regions, and then they go out in these other regions, to really compete for votes.”

In the 2008 presidential election, while southeastern Ohio held steady as a narrowly Republican area, it was the Columbus area and northwest Ohio that saw the largest swings.

Northwest Ohio went from solidly Republican in 2004 to almost a dead heat in 2008, with John McCain edging Barack Obama by less than half a percentage point. Central Ohio was the one region of the state to flip allegiances, going from a 5-point Republican advantage in 2004 to a 5-point edge for Obama in 2008.

Three weeks ago, the Ohio Poll, sponsored by the University of Cincinnati, took its latest look at the presidential race in the sate, and the results pointed out the importance of the Cleveland-Akron area.

The poll showed Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney leading in four of Ohio’s five regions, but Obama’s 16-point margin in northeast Ohio — the most populous part of the state — was enough to give him a 3-point lead statewide.

In the 2008 election, northeast Ohio accounted for 2.22 million voters — more than northwest, central and southeastern Ohio combined.

Working unexpected areas

Even in the party strongholds near Cincinnati and Cleveland, the opposition is hard at work. The Romney campaign has three offices in Cuyahoga County, basically surrounding the city of Cleveland. The Obama campaign has field offices in reliably Republican Warren and Butler counties.

When Obama officials opened their Troy office this summer, in consistently Republican Miami County, they said there was good reason for it.

“We believe that there are votes to gain in every corner of this state,” said Greg Schultz, state director for Obama for America. “Democrats historically … focused a lot of our efforts in what some people would call more traditional Democratic areas, at the expense of not having conversations with people in other parts of the state.”

That strategy worked in 2008, when Obama surprised many in Ohio by winning Hamilton County, which had gone Republican in every presidential and gubernatorial election for decades. The last Democratic president to win Hamilton County before Obama was Lyndon Johnson in 1964. The last Democratic governor candidate to win Hamilton County was Richard Celeste in 1982.

Now that “88-county strategy” is being used by Republicans as well.

A senior Romney campaign official pointed to March’s Republican primary, where Romney narrowly won Ohio over former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, but dominated the vote in Cuyahoga County. He didn’t try to argue that Romney would win Cuyahoga County, but said he would run better in the Democratic stronghold than past Republicans have.

President Obama has held 14 campaign and five official events in Ohio in 2012. Romney has made 31 stops in the Buckeye State.

Romney has 35 field offices in Ohio. Obama has 77 and more offices are planned.

Beck said neither is more important than the other. Visits generate a flurry of local publicity and free advertising in newspapers and local TV newscasts. Visits also energize the volunteers in those field offices and motivate the base to get out the word.

The only number that matters is the statewide vote total, which determines which candidate gets all 18 of Ohio’s electoral votes. But both campaigns say this election could be decided by moving the margins — winning a stronghold county 65-35 instead of 60-40 through better get-out-the-vote efforts, or working harder to persuade a few hundred dissatisfied voters in a place where the opposition might think it can coast.

Economy everywhere, plus regional issues

While different parts of Ohio may have individual concerns — including coal in southeastern Ohio, fracking in the northeast, and farm policy in the northwest — last month’s Ohio Poll shows that the economy is the No.1 issue, by a huge margin, in every part of the state. Health care is the No.2 issue in every region, and it outweighed the topics of abortion, gay rights, foreign policy and terrorism/security combined.

Ohio has fared better than many states, but job growth has been slow. During the last 12 months, Ohio added 100,300 jobs — 2 percent growth — according to a recent report by Policy Matters Ohio, a left-leaning think tank. The report also found Ohio’s median wage fell by $1.33 between 2000 and 2011 and now ranks No. 30 in the U.S.

“When Ohio voters talk about the economy, they may talk about different things — from unemployment to manufacturing to the national debt to trade — but in Ohio, like in the rest of the nation, this election is about the current and future economy,” said Eric Rademacher, co-director of the Ohio Poll, and an assistant professor of political science at the University of Cincinnati.

But the race in Ohio is so close, that even “winning” on residents’ No.1 issue doesn’t guarantee carrying the state.

In the Ohio Poll, likely voters picked Romney as the candidate who would do a better job of handling the economy, by a 49 to 42 percent vote. But when asked who they would choose for president, respondents picked Obama, by a 49 to 46 percent vote.

“Voters choose candidates based on many more considerations than just issues,” Rademacher said. “For example, some voters choose based on party loyalty or political ideology alone. Others choose candidates based on perceptions of the candidate’s leadership qualities. For still other voters, it is a complicated mix.”

According to the Ohio poll, 17 percent of respondents say they are undecided or may change their mind before Election Day. And that means the campaigns are seeking out every issue where they think they can win votes in any part of the state.

The Obama campaign has continued to claim credit for the comparative health and comeback of the state’s auto industry. Last Monday in the auto industry hub of Toledo, Obama pointed to the mid-recession bailout that his administration delivered as a key to Ohio’s economy. The United Auto Workers Union is supporting Obama.

Meanwhile, Romney made a campaign stop at a coal mine in Beallsville, claiming Obama’s policies are hurting coal industry jobs. A senior Romney campaign official called Obama “hostile” to the coal industry, and said that issue will play heavily on eastern Ohio voters. The United Mine Workers union, which supported Obama in 2008, has so far decided not to support either candidate this year.

Three to watch

Mobilizing the base helps in the solidly Republican and even Democratic parts of the state, but what about parts that aren’t clearly in one camp?

If Ohio has any such areas, experts say they’re Columbus, Appalachia and Hamilton County.

Obama easily won Franklin County, where Columbus is the county seat, in 2008 but lost every surrounding county. Columbus is Ohio’s fastest growing city in terms of population and job growth, and a good representation of the state’s complexity: local Democratic leaders and a Republican-controlled Statehouse, a large university, urban and suburban.

More than $12.4 million has been spent on ads in Columbus, and the city ranks No. 7 in the country for ad spending, according to a Washington Post analysis of market buyer data. Cleveland is No. 2.

Eastern Ohio is insulated somewhat from the flood of advertising. With no singular media market, candidates spread their buys across several including stations in West Virginia and Pennsylvania. Appalachian counties swing back and forth, but Beck said they have not been particularly smitten with or attracted to Obama. Beck said that could be in part because of Obama’s race or Democratic policies on energy in predominantly-white coal country.

“[The region] has Democratic potential, but it’s hard to realize,” Beck said.

Hamilton County went Republican in every presidential election since 1964, but Obama captured the county by 20,000 votes in 2008. Polls show Romney leading Obama in southwestern Ohio, but a strong Democratic turnout could keep Hamilton County with Obama.

In the end, Beck said, what matters most is voter turnout. The whole state is one constituency — a vote in Cuyahoga County counts just as much as a vote in Preble County.

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