As the first presidential debate approached early this month, Ohio was living up to its reputation as a battleground state in presidential politics, but it appeared that President Obama had what George H.W. Bush once called “the Big Mo” on his side.
The respected website RealClearPolitics had Ohio in the “leans Dem” category, its average of polling results showing the president ahead of challenger Mitt Romney by 5.5 percentage points.
Obama and Vice President Joe Biden were on the path to gain 269 electoral votes (including Ohio’s 18), just one short of the 270 needed to win the presidency. What’s more, of the seven states then rated as tossups, Obama led in five.
Romney, meanwhile, was looking at 181 electoral votes pretty much in the bag. In short, it looked very difficult for the Republicans to map out a strategy that would get them to the magic number.
But as Bush the elder learned in 1980 (after declaring he had “Big Mo” due to a surprise win over Ronald Reagan in the Iowa caucuses), momentum in high-profile races can change in an instant. By New Hampshire, Reagan had retooled, seizing the momentum back.
After the results of the first debate sunk in, Ohio moved into the tossup category, the RealClearPolitics average of polling results showing Obama up by just 2.2 percentage points. It began to look as if Ohio would be the battleground state.
On the eve of Tuesday’s second debate, tracking by the Washington Post showed Ohio third in spending by the two presidential campaigns (behind Floridia and Virginia) and second in the number of campaign visits (behind Florida).
The Electoral College map showed a vastly changed political landscape. With 11 states rated as tossups, Obama was on target to get 201 electoral votes, with Romney’s count up to 191.
Still, even though Obama’s support was slipping, he was ahead in eight of the tossup states, which, if he won them all, would yield 93 electoral votes — more than enough for an Electoral College win.
Throughout the general election campaign, polling had indicated a sharp divide in the electorate, both sides locking down their bases of support, with few undecided voters left in the middle. What the first debate exposed was an electorate more fluid than it had seemed.
After this week’s debate, the question is whether President Obama’s more aggressive performance (following Joe Biden’s jabs at Paul Ryan in the vice presidential debate) was enough to stop the shift in momentum toward the Romney campaign, or even begin to reverse it.
The next few days will tell the story, with Ohio’s voters arguably at or very near the center of each campaign’s strategy. If Obama can keep or build on his leads in the tossup states, he has more pathways to the presidency than does Romney. But the state’s importance is unlikely to fade. History indicates that Republicans must win Ohio to make it to the White House, while Democrats know that a win in the state acts as a firewall against a GOP victory.
The history of presidential elections in Ohio also indicates that pocketbook issues will be decisive, even with the continuing controversy over U.S. deaths in Libya and a third presidential debate, set for Monday, focused on foreign policy.
The state’s working-class Democrats, especially those in Appalachian counties along the Ohio River, tend to be conservative on social issues, such as abortion and gay rights.
This time, their frustration is with the slow pace of the economic recovery, and it is Romney’s message on jobs that appears to give him traction — despite a stunning lack of specifics or evidence that a prescription of tax cuts and regulatory rollbacks (the same medicine administered by the Bush administration) will yield different results.
For Obama, as with other Democrats, the challenge is to counter the popular notion that because households and businesses have cut back, the government must do so, too.
The reality is, the federal government plays a crucial, if sometimes complicated, role in stimulating the economy, its investments in education, technology and health care essential to rebuilding the fortunes of the middle class.
So, yes, the “job creators” Republicans like to talk about do face uncertainties, but the real problem with the economic recovery lies with the uncertainties felt by the middle class.
Hoffman is a Beacon Journal editorial writer. He can be reached at 330-996-3740 or emailed at firstname.lastname@example.org.