Thanks to the U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling and murky IRS rules about how much nonprofits can spend on political ads, it’s a sure thing that a record amount of money will be spent on the “air wars” in Ohio this election year.
The weapon of choice will be the 30-second, televised attack ad, with which President Obama, Mitt Romney and their allies and super PACs will cut each other to ribbons.
So, will the race in Ohio, a state crucial to the success of both campaigns, come down to which side can devise the most clever and convincing television ads?
Is there a campaign war room in which an idea has been hatched for an ad that matches the explosive impact of “Daisy Girl,” the 1964 ad by the Johnson campaign that framed the contest with Barry Goldwater as a choice between peace and nuclear annihilation?
The answer is “no” because of today’s fragmented media market. Today, viewers can surf hundreds of channels, or view taped reruns of amateur singing competitions.
Instead, the key to winning Ohio, and the presidency, could be which candidate develops the most effective ground game in the sparsely populated Appalachian counties that hug the Ohio River. In other words, which of the Harvard-educated candidates will play well in places such as Ironton, the county seat of Lawrence County?
To be sure, Obama will still have to win big in Cuyahoga County, and Romney will have to do well in suburban and rural areas, especially along the western edge of the state. But in a close election, decided by, say, 3 percentage points or less, the flip-floppers along the Ohio River are likely to be the deciding factor. To put that in perspective, consider that Lawrence County is home to just 43,000 of Ohio’s 7.7 million registered voters.
The latest Quinnipiac University poll in Ohio, released last month, showed Obama with a 47 percent to 38 percent lead. Still, an amalgamation of five recent polls by Real Clear Politics gives Obama a 2.6 percentage point lead, 46.2 percent to 43.6 percent, within the range of the Appalachian counties being decisive.
The region’s recent election history provides plenty of evidence that its voters can be flipped.
These are counties that went for Jimmy Carter in 1976, but then jumped to Reagan in 1980. They flipped from Bush the elder to Clinton in 1992 and from Gore (a sitting vice president) to Bush the younger in 2000.
In 2004, many went for Bush again, based largely on “values” issues and the president’s carefully crafted image as a steady leader in the war on terror.
Obama made only slight inroads in 2008 (in Belmont, Monroe and Athens counties), even with the help of then-Gov. Ted Strickland, whose old congressional district was in the southeastern part of the state. Overall, John McCain dominated.
Both war and values issues appear to be fading in the harsh economic climate, and there will be no hot-button issues on the November ballot. The only issue likely to appear is a complicated measure to reform the way Ohio’s legislative and congressional districts are drawn. Republicans, who controlled the process after the most recent census, may get wound up about the issue, which would give a citizens commission the power to draw new lines in 2014, well before the next census. But for most voters, it’s inside baseball.
So, that leaves a contest over jobs and the economy.
Chronic poverty and lack of opportunity (and, perhaps Romney’s personal wealth and his history at Bain Capital) should provide Obama with an edge, especially if Ohio’s unemployment rate remains lower than the national average.
Still, anger over the status quo could cause voters in the region to reject Obama’s re-election bid because of a lack of economic expansion and the hope that Romney will do better, even though his prescriptions (lower taxes, less government regulation) contributed heavily to the economic downturn that began in the Bush administration.
No major media market dominates the river counties, blunting the effectiveness of television advertising. Personal appearances by surrogates or the candidates themselves are best. Obama has Strickland in his camp, the former governor working as a 2012 campaign co-chair. Bill Clinton would also be an effective stumper in Appalachian Ohio, reminding voters of the prosperous times under his two terms.
But a squeaker of a race in Ohio could require more.
The candidates would have to get on their buses to campaign the old-fashioned way, in courthouse squares, county fairs and VFW halls. What fun that would be to watch.
Hoffman is a Beacon Journal editorial writer. He can be reached at 330-996-3740 or emailed at email@example.com.