Although many of the battleground states have routinely close presidential elections, none are as close as they are in Ohio. In fact, no state has had a smaller average margin of victory in the last two presidential elections than Ohio at 3.3%. This includes Missouri, Florida, and Iowa, the three next closest on the list. As Ohio veteran Republican consultant Mark Weavers says, “Nobody will win Ohio by 5. Anybody who tells you that doesn’t know Ohio. This state is too close. It’s too divided. It will not be Obama by 5 or Romney by 5.” And he’s right.
Ohio is a microcosm of the country
A relatively large state with a population of just over 11.5 million people, Ohio is diverse in almost all ways. These variables include socioeconomic status, race, ethnicity, religion, ideology, political attitudes, and party ID among others. Although Ohio is a state that leans slightly Republican in its everyday politics, on the presidential level it is a 50-50 state. The campaigns don’t need to change their focus much when they come to Ohio. Ohio, being a microcosm of the country, has a population that looks and acts like the rest of America. Ohioans are concerned about the same issues that most Americans are concerned with. Thus, in 2012, the economy and jobs are priority areas for Ohio voters as is the case with the American population as a whole.
The five Ohios dictate campaign plans
Ohio is actually composed of five very different regions that together encompass a highly diverse and complicated political landscape. Traveling Interstate 71 from Cleveland in the Northeast through Columbus in the center to Cincinnati in the Southwest, one can observe great differences in the history, geography, people, and political culture of Ohio. Northeast Ohio, home to industrial urban centers of Cleveland, Akron, Canton, and Youngstown, is the most populated region of the state and friendly territory for Democratic candidates. Any Democratic presidential contender must carry this region as well as Franklin County in Central Ohio by wide margins in order to offset losses in the suburban and rural parts of the rest of Ohio. Conversely, Republican candidates must dominate in Southwest Ohio — the conservative core of the state — and depress Democratic margins in urban counties elsewhere. Northwest and Southeast Ohio represent two toss-up regions, but are home to only a little more than 1/5 the population of the state.
The arithmetic works out that way
As one of a handful of battleground states, and one of the biggest in that group, Ohio allows a candidate a great advantage should they win the state or lock it up early during the campaign. An Ohio victory allows a Democratic candidate some breathing room if some of the other Republican-leaning battleground states turn red. In 2012, a win for President Obama in Ohio likely means an even easier victory in Democratic-leaning swing states such as Michigan and Pennsylvania—a scenario which would leave him just shy of the 270 electoral votes needed to win. For Governor Romney, a victory in Ohio is an absolute necessity — without a win in the Buckeye State he would need a virtual clean sweep of the remaining swing states — a tall order if the Romney campaign continues to face a strong political headwind as Election Day approaches.
Cohen is a professor of political science and a fellow at the Ray C. Bliss Institute of Applied Politics at the department of political science at the University of Akron, Ohio.