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.
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 contributed to this article.
This article appears in the November 3, 2012, edition of National Journal Magazine.