Politics & Policy

Mitt Romney’s Ohio Obstacle

Obama’s cash advantage and GM bailout may help him, but Romney is punching back hard.

Mitt Romney faces serious challenges in Ohio, a critical swing state. The economy there is improving, and President Obama is leading in state polls. On the ground, Romney has a large and well-organized campaign, but the question is whether it will be enough.

“It’s a tough state and it has always been a tough state,” says Ed Rollins, a Republican consultant and Ronald Reagan’s former campaign manager. “This year, it’s going to come right down to the wire, and Romney is going to have to push all of the right buttons to win there.”

Over the weekend, Politico reported that internal Republican polling in Ohio now “leans clearly in Obama’s favor, with a high single-digit edge.” Romney advisers pushed back. “Don’t get too worked up about the latest polling,” wrote Neil Newhouse, Romney’s pollster, in a memo to reporters. “While some voters will feel a bit of a sugar-high from the conventions, the basic structure of the race has not changed significantly.”

Still, the Obama campaign appears to be holding steady in Ohio, whose 18 electoral votes are potentially integral to a Romney victory. Following the Democratic National Convention, Obama has maintained a three-point lead in the Real Clear Politics average of Buckeye State polls.

In one poll, Obama’s lead has climbed even higher. A recent survey conducted by Public Policy Polling, a firm associated with Democrats, shows Obama at 50 percent, leading Romney by five percentage points. That is the fifth time this year that Obama has hit 50 percent in an Ohio poll.

Romney, for his part, has yet to reach 50 percent in any Ohio poll. He has visited the state numerous times, including a visit to north-central Ohio on Monday, but his support there remains relatively flat, hovering near 45 percent, according to the RCP average.

Romney did see a slight bounce in Ohio immediately following the Republican National Convention, when a Gravis Marketing poll showed him up by three percentage points, but that was quickly erased in recent days. Gravis’s latest has Obama up by four percentage points.

Republican strategists credit Obama’s Ohio momentum to the president’s cash advantage. According to the Associated Press, $112 million has been spent on televised political ads in Ohio this cycle, which is one-sixth of total TV spending during the presidential campaign.

So far, Obama and liberal super PACs have “outpaced” Republicans in Ohio, the AP reports, and last week, Democrats outspent Romney by a 2-to-1 margin. As Jack Torry of the Columbus Dispatch recently mused, “You would assume Obama is running to be governor of Ohio.”

Over the past three months, Obama’s campaign “spent roughly $20 million to run commercials nearly 40,000 times here,” the New York Times reported this month, while the Romney campaign “spent more than $8 million to run more than 14,000 ads during the same period.”

“We’re still living in the convention bubble,” says former Minnesota congressman Vin Weber, a Romney adviser. “Obama has spent huge sums and that has helped him in Ohio, probably more than in any other state. Now, Romney has the financial advantage. He will come back.”

Obama’s strength in Ohio may also be credited to the state’s economy. While national employment continues to be static, Ohio has seen its unemployment rate drop. Three years ago, in September 2009, Ohio’s unemployment rate was 10.6 percent; now, it is 7.2 percent.

Governor John Kasich, a Republican elected in 2010, has attempted to take credit for Ohio’s success, but his approval rating, according to PPP, is 41 percent, and it has been lower for much of his term. Politically, Kasich’s labor policies have angered many union workers, and the defeat of his collective-bargaining law at the polls last year enthused Obama’s backers.

Together, Obama’s heavy ad campaign and the state’s recovery — however uneven it may be — have been effective at blunting Romney’s attempts to use the sagging national economy to slice Obama’s lead.

Obama’s bailout of General Motors appears to carry more weight in Ohio than in other areas of the Rust Belt, owing to the presence of a large GM plant in northeastern Ohio. On the trail, Obama has underscored this point. “I bet on you,” he told a Toledo crowd earlier this month.

According to PPP, Team Obama’s emphasis on GM and manufacturing, especially during the convention, yielded a favorability bump. Obama’s approval rating in the state is now at 48 percent, as is his unfavorable rating. A month ago, Obama’s unfavorable rating was 51 percent.

Romney’s PPP favorability numbers have also improved, and his 49 percent unfavorable rating is effectively tied with the president’s. But his favorable rating is stuck in the mid-40s, likely due to a daily stream of negative ads about Romney’s career and his former firm, Bain Capital.

A Dispatch poll from August shows that only 27 percent of Ohioans think “Romney’s much-touted experience with Bain Capital is a good thing.” One prominent Obama-aligned ad, which has run in Ohio, features a former Ampad worker who says Bain Capital destroyed his life.

“Mitt Romney made over $100 million dollars by shutting down our plant and devastated our lives,” says the former employee, Mike Earnest, as he talks about how he lost his job. “Turns out that when we built that stage,” upon which corporate executives announced the plant’s closing, “it was like building my own coffin, and it just made me sick.”

Of course, the Ohio picture is not entirely bleak for Romney. The former governor leads in the PPP poll among independents, 46 percent to 44 percent, and Representative Paul Ryan, Romney’s running mate and a graduate of Miami University in Ohio, has fans in the state, if his mid-August rally at his alma mater, which was attended by thousands, is any indication.

Yet as the Cleveland Plain Dealer has observed, “Obama leads among women and senior citizens and has more of his party united behind him.” Those voters are shaping up to be the key variable, and per PPP, Obama is doing well among them and holding onto his base.

Four years ago, Obama won Ohio by 200,000 votes. Obama did not win whites, evangelicals, rural voters, or seniors, but he swept every other demographic. To win, Romney must keep that GOP base firmly with him and make gains, especially near Ohio’s industrial eastern border.

Ohio’s eastern region went to Obama in 2008, but it was often by narrow margins compared with Obama’s bigger numbers in urban areas, such as Columbus and Cleveland. Romney has visited eastern Ohio many times this year, holding rallies in Youngstown and touring factories.

To pick up support, Romney advisers say, the candidate will continue to focus on the state of the national economy as well as criticize the president on issues that are quite specific to the state, such as defense cuts. On Monday in Mansfield, for example, Romney chided Obama for risking National Guard jobs by making a sequestration deal with congressional lawmakers.

Romney’s energy positions are also a factor, since Ohio is a major mining state. In August, Romney held a rally at a coal mine in Beallsville, where he railed against “radical organizations” on the left who are trying to limit mining production.

Romney’s latest Ohio ads reflect these issues. They feature clips from his convention speech and Ohio-specific messages. One Ohio spot called “Defense” hits Obama on the potential defense cuts. Another ad blasts Obama’s record and promises to “keep Ohio jobs in Ohio.”

On the auto bailout, Romney is also punching back. An ad featuring car-dealership owners who were hurt by post-bailout dealership shutdowns has gotten attention. Al Zarzour, a former GM dealer in Lyndhurst, Ohio, looks wistful and says, “The dream we worked for . . . was gone.”

For Romney, winning Ohio won’t be easy, but it may be necessary: Every Republican who has ever won the White House has carried Ohio. There are other paths to 270 electoral votes, but they’re complicated. “Look, if we don’t win Ohio, we don’t win the presidency,” Rollins says.

Robert Costa is a political reporter for National Review.

Robert Costa — Robert Costa is National Review's Washington editor and a CNBC political analyst. He manages NR's Capitol Hill bureau and covers the White House, Congress, and national campaigns. ...

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