But when a survey released last Saturday night for a consortium of Ohio newspapers showed the two men tied at 49 percent, it sent a shiver of recognition through Democrats who have seen the state frequently function as Heartbreak Hill for the party’s presidential nominees. “Ohio usually decides who the president is, but I don’t think anyone can guarantee Ohio for anyone,” says Denny White, the Ohio Democratic chairman during the 2004 election. “If I were Obama, I wouldn’t bank on Ohio in my win column.... Never underestimate the Republicans for getting their vote out in the last minute.”
Between Lyndon Johnson’s victory in 1964 and Obama’s in 2008, Democrats also carried the state behind Jimmy Carter in 1976 and Bill Clinton in 1992 and 1996. But Johnson and Obama were the only Democrats since 1940 to reach 50 percent of the popular vote in Ohio; Carter won the state by only 11,000 votes, and Clinton never exceeded 47.4 percent here. (Clinton could win the state with such modest totals because Ross Perot drew a substantial third-party vote in 1992 and 1996.)
Most often, the state has disappointed Democratic nominees. The late Lee Atwater, the premier Republican political strategist of the 1980s, often said that the principal goal of GOP Electoral College strategy was to drive Democrats into a position where they could not win a majority without taking Ohio—a state he believed would always break for the GOP in a close race.
After Clinton’s two plurality victories, the state reverted to that form in 2000, when Al Gore, after investing heavily, felt compelled to abandon Ohio in late October to shift staff and money toward Florida. “I still remember vividly because I had to make the decision,” says Devine, who coordinated Gore’s Electoral College strategy. “This was after about two weeks of us just getting hammered in tracking polls and having focus groups that were awful.... I said we have to turn out the lights here.”
Four years later, Kerry’s final tracking polls showed Ohio tied and his field staff told him that he would carry the state and the presidency, recalls Devine, who also played a senior role in that campaign. Kerry actually reached the vote target his staff had told him was necessary to win Ohio; but Bush held the line by generating larger margins than anyone anticipated from rural and exurban communities across the state’s heavily evangelical southern half.
That experience helps explain why relying on Ohio is such an unsettling prospect for some Democratic thinkers. Unlike, say, Colorado or Virginia, where Obama can reshape the playing field by registering large numbers of young people and minorities, the electorate is much more static in Ohio (where the population has grown only 2 percent since 2000). Jim Messina, Obama’s numbers-crunching campaign manager, says he expects the minority share of the Ohio vote, which reached a modest 17 percent last time, to increase by only about half a percentage point in 2012. Democrats here always face the risk that, as Nelson says, “if everybody comes out and votes as they have historically done, then Republicans will win.”
Obama has made unprecedented investments of staff, advertising, infrastructure, and time to disrupt that equation. Devine, the Democratic strategist, believes that the magnitude of this effort leaves Obama better positioned than Gore or Kerry to reverse the state’s slight traditional tilt to the GOP. “When you have been bombarded with a level of messaging that is unique to a presidential campaign [now],” he says, “a lot of the historical stuff doesn’t apply.” Indeed, this week’s Ohio surveys consistently show Obama still leading.
A huge effort from the AFL-CIO’s Workers’ Voice program is bolstering Obama here as well; the federation is organizing 80,000 shifts of door-knocking and phone-banking with the aim of contacting 2 million working-class voters behind a message of economic populism. “It’s jobs, the economy, health care, all the things that working families care about,” says Michael Ruff, the area campaign coordinator in Cuyahoga and surrounding counties. And from ads on hip-hop radio stations to vans blaring Obama speeches from loudspeakers as they cruise through inner-city streets, the efforts to encourage African-Americans to the polls are virtually nonstop.
But Romney and running mate Paul Ryan have also virtually taken up residence in the state, and they are being supported by their own outside groups, such as the Faith and Freedom Coalition, which is in the process of distributing 1 million voter guides in 5,000 churches statewide. A drive through the state’s conservative southeast corner shows that by far the most common yard sign is one that reads: “Stop the war on coal. Fire Obama.” In another election that seems destined to divide the country almost exactly in half, Ohio is once again the Battle of the Bulge.
This article appeared in print as “The Ohio Twist.”
Stephanie Czekalinski contributed
This article appears in the Nov. 3, 2012, edition of National Journal.