CORRECTION: The graphic published with the original version of this story transposed the U.S. and Ohio election outcome in 1944, 1960, and 2000. The nation voted Democratic while Ohio voted Republican.
CLEVELAND—Saturation television advertising. Swarms of canvassers knocking on doors. Phone banks overflowing with volunteers. And candidates exhorting huge crowds as the leaves on the trees, like the days before the vote, dwindle. These are all quadrennial rites of autumn in Ohio. But this fall, they are unfolding with an unusual, and perhaps unprecedented, twist.
For the first time in memory, it is the Democratic, not the Republican nominee, counting on Ohio as his firewall in an achingly close campaign. Republicans almost always have viewed Ohio as a linchpin in their race to 270 Electoral College votes. This year, holding Ohio is the centerpiece of President Obama’s strategy for repulsing the surging challenge from Republican Mitt Romney.
That has many Democrats walking an emotional tightrope between cautious confidence in Obama’s Ohio advantages and the painful recollection that, in close presidential elections, this state has far more often disappointed than rewarded the Democrats who besieged it. “In the 1980s in Ohio, and even in 2000 or 2004, it was a bad place for a Democrat to be backed into a corner,” says veteran Democratic strategist Tad Devine, who advised both Al Gore and John Kerry when they suffered bitter losses here. “But in this election, against this opponent, with this campaign ... I think the president is going to win Ohio.”
And yet to win Ohio this year, Obama may need to do something Democrats have almost never done in the past nine decades: win a higher share of the vote in the state than he does nationally. Almost always, the GOP nominee has run stronger in Ohio than nationally. That’s not entirely surprising in a place that served as one of the birthplaces of the Republican Party and where two native sons, William McKinley and his legendary political strategist Mark Hanna, stamped the GOP’s modern identity as the pro-business party of small government in the realigning election of 1896.
Since 1924, the only Democratic presidential nominees who attracted a higher share of the popular vote in Ohio than nationally were Lyndon Johnson in 1964, Hubert Humphrey in 1968, George McGovern in 1972, and Kerry in 2004. And of those four, only Johnson (at 1.8 percentage points) improved on his national vote by more than 0.6 percentage points in Ohio. Since World War II, the Democratic presidential nominee has carried, on average, almost exactly 1 percentage point less of the popular vote in Ohio than he did nationally.
That’s obviously a challenging precedent for Obama, who is running at best even with Romney, if not trailing slightly, in most credible national surveys. Even Obama, while winning Ohio comfortably in 2008, drew 51.4 percent of the vote here, pointedly less than his 52.8 percent national showing. All of that suggests Obama would be defying history to take Ohio in an election where he wins the national popular vote by a hair, or tries to amass an Electoral College majority while losing the popular vote altogether. “Relying on Ohio is not where you want to be as a Democrat,” says Terry Nelson, the national field director in 2004 for George W. Bush, who clinched the presidency by defeating the Democratic nominee in Ohio by 118,000 votes after an epic investment from both sides. “I would not be sleeping well.”
One Ohio dynamic this year is familiar: the state’s role as an indispensable tipping point in each candidate’s calculations. Both Obama’s and (to a lesser extent) Romney’s campaigns point to scenarios that allow them to reach an Electoral College majority without winning Ohio. For Obama, the most reasonable is to hold Wisconsin, Iowa, New Mexico, Nevada, Colorado, and New Hampshire (or Virginia instead of those final two); for Romney, it’s to win Wisconsin and every other swing state except New Mexico, Nevada, and either Iowa or New Hampshire—or to break through in a blue state like Michigan. But neither side really wants to test that proposition. For each man, the most direct route to the Oval Office runs through this closely, and deeply, divided state.
That has been an unusually comforting prospect for Democrats through much of the campaign. Obama has led in almost all polls here all year. The president has been lifted by his support for the auto rescue and Romney’s opposition to it; a state unemployment rate now well below the national average; and the successful effort by his campaign and his allies to portray the Republican as a corporate raider indifferent to the problems of working families—imagery with powerful emotional resonance in a state so scarred by decades of factory shutdowns.
Even last week, polls by CBS/Quinnipiac University, Time magazine, and CNN/ORC all showed the president maintaining a virtually identical lead of 4 to 5 percentage points in the state, largely because he is running better with white blue-collar voters here (as well as in Iowa and Wisconsin) than almost anywhere else in the nation. And some Democrats view the misleading new ad Romney is airing in the state about the auto intervention as a backhanded acknowledgment that the issue is hurting him.
Stephanie Czekalinski contributed contributed to this article.
This article appears in the November 3, 2012 edition of National Journal Magazine.