Why is Obama looking so strong in Ohio?

September 10, 2012

When Mitt Romney campaigns in Ohio on Monday afternoon, he'll do so in a state where he has some work to do. Recent polling has shown President Obama holding a slight lead in the Buckeye State, which has long been considered a must-have for Romney to win the White House in November.

If Obama wins Ohio, Romney will have to defy history to win the White House: No Republican has ever been elected president without carrying the Buckeye State. There is still plenty of time for Republicans to turn the tables (and we should underscore that the race remains very close), but right now, the president has put himself in a good position to claim the state's 18 electoral votes.

So why is Obama doing as well as he is in Ohio -- particularly when compared to other 2008 swing states? (Check out this chart we posted last week comparing swing state performance between 2008 and 2012 for Obama.)

Everything in this election starts and ends with the economy, and Ohio is no exception. And, things are looking up in the Buckeye State. The unemployment rate in July was 7.2 percent, about a point below the national average. And it's down from where it was about two years ago, when 10.6 percent of the state was out of work.

Who deserves the credit for the turnaround is a key point of contention in the campaign. First-term Gov. John Kasich (R), whose agenda has been lauded by the GOP but derided by Democrats, touted his state's economic progress in his speech at the Republican National Convention, and credited his administration's policies.

"We went through it and eliminated those things we didn't need, but we prioritized those things we really did need," Kasich said in Tampa, after he mentioned balancing the state's budget without raising taxes.

But Democrats, unsurprisingly, don't agree. A key pillar of Obama's pitch in the state is the impact of the auto bailout that was opposed by many Republicans, including Romney. Obama's campaign has been running ads promoting the program as a success, and he's been talking about a lot it on the campaign trail.

"John Kasich stood up there and told everybody that Ohio is now number one in the Midwest in job creation, fourth best in America -- which got folks kind of confused, because if it’s all Obama’s fault and nothing is going right, what’s going on in Ohio?" the president asked a crowd at a Labor Day rally in Toledo. "Now, I guess the theory was that it’s all the Governor’s doing. But I think we need to refresh his memory -- because a lot of those jobs are autoworker jobs like yours."

As he continues to make his case to Ohio voters, recent polling shows Obama's message is helping him. A new poll from automated Democratic pollster Public Policy Polling shows Obama leading Romney by a slight five-point margin. A recent Quinnipiac University/New York Times/CBS poll showed Obama leading Romney by six points, while two other recent polls showed the race was about even.

Kasich's approval ratings, meanwhile, have not been good. While they have improved since last year, the early unpopularity of some of his policies -- including a move to curb collective bargaining for public employees that was rejected by voters in a referendum last fall -- has taken its toll.

But of course Obama is not running against Kasich. He is running against Romney, who isn't ceding the auto bailout issue to the president. Romney has taken to the airwaves with ads arguing that the auto bailout has had a detrimental effect on car dealerships in Ohio.

And while Obama's head-to-head polling looks promising for his supporters, a deeper dive into the numbers suggests Romney also has reasons for optimism. The Quinnipiac University/New York Times/CBS poll, for example, showed Obama and Romney running dead even when it comes to who would do a better job on the economy.

Beyond the debate over the economy, there is the question of which candidate voters better identify with. Romney's business background (and Democratic efforts to portray him as wealthy and out of touch), for example, may mean he will have a harder time connecting with voters in the rural, southern part of the state than Republicans like George W. Bush or Ronald Reagan.

In the end, Ohio's own economic picture may not be enough to boost Obama to a win there. Some historical analyses have shown that the national economic picture is more important. And even for voters looking only at the local picture, 7.2 percent unemployment may be lower than the national average, but it's not the 5.5 percent figure it was at as recently as 2006.

That said, Obama's standing in Ohio right now could be a lot worse. And without Ohio, Romney faces a tough road to 270 electoral votes. November isn't here yet, but it's just around the corner. And Romney needs to move the needle in the Buckeye State to secure a win there.

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Sean Sullivan has covered national politics for The Washington Post since 2012.
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Aaron Blake | September 10, 2012