The Corner

Can Romney Win Ohio?

With poll numbers feeding a conventional view that Mitt Romney may be losing Ohio, Matt A. Mayer, the president of Opportunity Ohio, a free-market think tank in Ohio, and the author of Taxpayers Don’t Stand a Chance, considers Romney’s Buckeye chances in an interview with National Review Online.


KATHRYN JEAN LOPEZ: Is the election over in Ohio? Is the whole election over?

MATT A. MAYER: No, but it is getting more difficult for Governor Mitt Romney to make up the ground needed to win Ohio. In a turn-out election, the problem Republicans face in Ohio is identical to the problem Republicans face nationally with the electoral college: Winning must come using a low-margin-of-error strategy. Electorally, Romney will win a majority of states, but those states possess too few voters and, therefore, too few electoral votes. That means he must win a majority of the five to nine toss-up states, with most of those being small states. Keep in mind, over the last five presidential elections, the Democratic candidate has won three times by margins of 100, 109, and 192 electoral votes. In contrast, the Republican candidate has won twice by electoral margins of just 1 and 16 electoral votes. If Romney pulls out a win, he won’t do much better than George W. Bush’s 16 electoral-vote victory in 2004 — with Ohio’s 20 electoral votes pushing him over the line.

Romney faces the same challenge in Ohio. Despite the fact that he will win a clear majority of counties in Ohio, those counties have too few voters in them to win Ohio. The low-margin-of-victory strategy requires Romney to over-perform in the twelve key counties in Ohio that decide the election. Those counties consist of four red counties (Butler, Clermont, Delaware, and Warren) and eight blue counties (Cuyahoga, Franklin, Lorain, Lucas, Mahoning, Montgomery, Summit, and Trumbull). These are the counties where candidates consistently win by 15,000-vote or -more margins. If Obama’s vote advantage coming out of those twelve counties is north of 400,000 votes, he will win Ohio. The Obama campaign has been actively at work in those counties for over a year. With the long Republican primary, Romney has not had much time to ramp up and do the ground work needed to catch up. At the state level, the nasty and divisive internal Republican party fight over control of the Ohio Republican party between Governor John Kasich and Ohio Republican party executive director Kevin DeWine in the spring and summer squandered vital resources and delayed mobilization of election activities. Plus, as some GOP operatives have noted, Governor Kasich, with an eye on 2016, hasn’t put in much of an effort to help Romney and has promoted a message (“Ohio’s doing great!) that’s contrary to the Romney message and appears to be more beneficial to President Barack Obama.

In terms of the broader election, I don’t want to be the one who contradicts Karl Rove’s view that Romney can win without Ohio, but he can’t. It isn’t just that historically no Republican has won the presidency without Ohio’s electoral votes that “proves” that point. It also is the fact that Ohio is a bell-weather state, so if a candidate cannot win Ohio — especially a candidate operating under a very-low-margin-of-error strategy — the likelihood that that candidate wins enough of the other five to nine toss-up states is not high. We are seeing that in the polling results in Colorado, Florida, Iowa, New Hampshire, and Virginia. The election isn’t over, but it appears that Romney will need a big Obama misstep to win.#more#


LOPEZ: What are you seeing on the ground? Is Ohio leaning Democrat?

MAYER: The anecdotal evidence on absentee-ballot voting is mixed. Absentee-ballot requests are high in Clermont County, a key red county, but also solid in Democratic strongholds. The most troubling anecdotes I’ve seen and heard of late are the lack of Romney signs in front yards (and I drive all across Ohio fairly frequently) and the difficulty the Romney campaign is having getting volunteers in key locations. Because the Obama campaign has been hard at work for such a long time and had the Senate Bill 5 collective-bargaining repeal ballot warm-up campaign in 2011, I’d give Obama the advantage in the ground-game war.


LOPEZ: As you ask in your book: “What color is Ohio,” anyway, as a recent historical matter?

MAYER: Politically at the top-of-the-ticket, Ohio is purple, and, other than with Governor Bob Taft’s reelection in 2002, victories have been tough for Republicans. Bush won Ohio by just 165,000 votes in 2000 and 118,000 votes in 2004; Democratic Governor Ted Strickland won in a historic landslide in 2006 by nearly 1,000,000 votes; Obama won Ohio in 2008 by over 260,000 votes; and Governor Kasich, in a national Republican wave year, won by less than 80,000 votes. (As Rob Portman won his Senate seat by 660,000 votes — tell me again why Romney didn’t choose him as the vice-presidential candidate?) I think Romney had an opening with Obama’s war on coal, but, there again, Governor Kasich proposed a tax hike on energy companies that weakens the contrast between the parties. This cognitive dissonance leaves voters with the feeling that the difference between the two parties is less than meets the eye. As a result, they fall back to the guy they personally like. For now, they seem to like Obama more than Romney.


LOPEZ: What will it mean for Ohio’s standing if Romney were to win the presidency without the Buckeye State?

MAYER: He won’t. The electoral math (as I wrote in May 2011 and in more detail in my book), just doesn’t work for him. He should have selected Ohio senator Rob Portman as his running mate, which would have given him a better shot at winning Ohio.


LOPEZ: A poll from the Susan B. Anthony list suggests that the issue of the HHS mandate could make a difference with swing voters in Ohio, among other states. Does this ring true to you?

MAYER: Romney’s struggles in Ohio right now certainly aren’t due to his social-issue stances. The base, both fiscal and social, has never warmed to Romney the candidate. We saw that when he got fewer votes in the 68 counties won by Rick Santorum in the competitive 2012 primary than Mike Huckabee did in 2008 when the primary in Ohio wasn’t competitive. That said, base Republicans want Obama out so are highly motivated to support Romney to achieve that end.


LOPEZ: What does an Obama reelection mean for taxpayers in Ohio?

MAYER: An Obama reelection means higher taxes, more regulations, and continued attacks on Ohio’s coal resources. 


LOPEZ: How would Romney help?

MAYER: Sadly, I am not sure a Romney win would change much given the fiscal crisis in Washington, D.C., that limits his ability to act. On a positive note, Romney appears to be more open to the idea of competitive federalism in which states take back control and money on issues such as Medicaid, education, and transportation. With Speaker John Boehner being from Ohio, the state should have more influence in how the federal government moves forward on the big issues.


LOPEZ: Which counties is the Romney campaign focusing on most right now? What’s within reach? What’s not?

MAYER: My guess is that the Romney people are hoping to pull out a victory in Hamilton County (Cincinnati) and Franklin County (Columbus), as those wins would help keep Obama below the 400,000 victory mark in the twelve key counties mentioned above, thereby making the results in the other 76 counties relevant. I think he stands a better chance in Franklin County than in Hamilton County because the northern suburbs in Franklin County still possess a lot of Republican votes. In contrast, many of the Republicans in Hamilton County have moved to Clermont, Warren, and Butler counties, which form a ring around Hamilton County. 

For your readers, if they don’t want to spend election night waiting for the big twelve Ohio counties to report in their vote totals, they should focus on the results in Lake and Sandusky County. Out of Ohio’s 88 counties, those two counties have accurately predicted the statewide winner in 28 out of 28 races from 1998 through 2010, as well as the Senate Bill 5 referendum. If Ohio is a bell-weather for America, those counties are bell-weathers for Ohio.


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