White, working-class voters in Ohio are supporting President Obama at higher levels than in other swing states, making it tougher for Mitt Romney to catch the incumbent in perhaps the most vital of all battlegrounds.
Even as the GOP nominee has inched ahead in polls of swing states like North Carolina, Florida and Colorado, Romney has been unable to crack Obama’s slim but steady advantage in polls of the Buckeye State.
Both candidates have acknowledged the importance of Ohio’s 18 electoral votes to their chances, and plan to spend much of the campaign’s home stretch crisscrossing the state in a final push for undecided voters.
“On Nov. 6, I’m counting on Ohio to vote for big change,” Romney said Thursday at a rally in Cincinnati, a GOP stronghold. “We need to make sure Ohio is able to send a message loud and clear: We want real change. We want big change.”
Romney has been campaigning hard in the state, flooding the airwaves with ads that blast the president for threatening the coal industry. He’s made repeated trips to Ohio with running mate Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), and plans at least another dozen rallies in the state before Election Day.
To win Ohio, Romney is likely going to have to build on his lead with the state’s white voters, a bloc that he is carrying resoundingly in other parts of the country.
While Romney is winning white voters nationally by a margin of 53-39 percent, according to a recent IBD/TIPP poll, he holds only a 49-44 advantage with that bloc in Ohio, according to a SurveyUSA poll released this week.
And while nationally the candidates split evenly among white voters who have not attended college, in Ohio the president holds an 8-point advantage with that group.
Democrats argue Obama's support for the auto bailout, a still strong union organization in Ohio, and a particular sensitivity by manufacturing workers to Romney's private-equity background have combined to toughen the terrain for the Republican.
But GOP officials say Romney is quickly erasing Obama’s lead in Ohio, and argue there are encouraging signs for him in early and absentee voting.
“You can slice and dice the demographics, but the fact of the matter is, we’re on an upward trajectory, we're winning independents, and we’re seeing an enthusiasm gap where Republicans are more excited to go to the polls than Democrats,” said Romney campaign spokesman Scott Jennings.
One of the factors that might be driving white Ohio voters into the president’s column is the success of the auto bailout, which the Obama campaign credits with saving the industry.
"It's had a major impact with voters," said David Cohen, a professor of political science at the University of Akron. "In Ohio, something like one in eight jobs are connected in some way to the auto industry, and the bailout was a real boon to the Ohio economy, and something the president has been able to talk about every single time that he's visited."
AFL-CIO Ohio spokesman Mike Gillis said 82 of the state's 88 counties have companies tied to auto production. He said voters who work for them are not part of what’s considered Obama's winning coalition in other states — young voters, women and Hispanics.
"Middle-class, blue collar workers, this issue is going to be big to them," Gillis said of the bailout. "I think the president has made inroads with those voters."
The auto bailouts were first initiated under former President George W. Bush. However, Obama has hammered Romney in speeches and campaign commercials for a 2008 New York Times op-ed he wrote that was titled "Let Detroit Go Bankrupt."
Romney has pushed back on the attacks, arguing that he was suggesting a "managed bankruptcy" for the auto companies, but Obama and other Democrats have countered that only the federal government had enough money to issue the loans during the economic panic of 2008.
"Ohio has turned around and is helping to lead the nation in recovery, and that's something that's not lost on working-class folks," said Obama campaign spokesman Frank Benenati. "That's not to say we're where we need to be at, but we're headed in the right direction."
Romney’s attacks on Obama’s economic record might also be a tougher sell in Ohio, which has an unemployment rate of 7 percent — almost a full percentage point below the national average.
Allies of the Romney campaign believe voters will be receptive to the message that Republican Gov. John Kasich, and not Obama, is responsible for the state’s turnaround, though.
The Republican faces another obstacle that is unique to Ohio. Paul Beck, a political science professor at Ohio State University, said "the Republican brand has been kind of dirtied among white, working-class voters" because of Senate Bill 5, legislation championed by Kasich that would have barred public sector strikes and limited collective bargaining rights for public employees.
The legislation was overturned last year in a ballot initiative that rallied coal-country union members that might otherwise be in Romney’s camp.
Another factor at play is the Obama campaign’s demonization of Romney’s business career. Priorities USA, the super-PAC that supports Obama, has been particularly aggressive with commercials that feature manufacturing workers who lost their jobs after Bain Capital took over their companies.
The Romney campaign says the commercials are grossly unfair — many feature employees whose companies were bought long after Romney left Bain — but they are a mainstay on the Ohio airwaves.
Despite all that, Romney remains within striking distance in Ohio. The SurveyUSA poll released Tuesday shows Obama leading the state by just 3 points — within the margin of error — and the president’s lead has eroded significantly this month.
Romney has worked diligently to rally Christian conservatives in the western part of the state, and seen his ground-level efforts boosted by Ralph Reed’s Faith and Freedom Coalition, which many credit for delivering Ohio for Bush in 2004. Democrats have battled back with their own “Souls to the Polls” program in African-American churches.
The Republican nominee has also aggressively attacked Obama in commercials and on the stump over his handling of China in an attempt to peel away some of the manufacturing workers who are leaning toward the president.
Aides to the Romney campaign express confidence that they have enough boots on the ground to counter Obama’s forces.
“We’re running the most robust ground game that has ever been run by a Republican in Ohio,” Jennings said, adding that the GOP has already knocked on 21 times as many doors and made three times as many phone calls as the John McCain campaign did in 2008.
Team Obama also believes it has the momentum. Democrats report that in precincts that voted for Obama in 2008, early votes are up 54,000 from the same time in 2008, versus around 26,000 early votes in McCain precincts. Polls show the president with a double-digit lead among early ballots cast.
“With our ground game, our enthusiasm, we’re going to keep Ohio blue,” Benenati said. “Our only focus is to continue to dominate the early vote.”