Ohio US election race's 'ground zero'

2012-09-25 09:02

Dayton - With over a billion dollars spent, tons of mud slung and countless campaign appearances, the US presidential election may well hinge on a few thousand Ohio voters like Cathy Lankford.

She is an independent whose vote can be swayed in this key battleground state - not particularly enthused over either candidate for the nation's top job.

No Republican has ever won the White House without taking Ohio and the last Democrat to do so was John F Kennedy in 1960. Ohio was also the state which handed George W Bush a narrow victory in the 2004 election.

While President Barack Obama and Republican rival Mitt Romney remain locked in a tight race just six weeks before polls close, it has narrowed to a few key swing states as they fight for the 270 electoral votes needed to win.

"If the president wins Ohio it will make it almost impossible for Romney to win the White House," said Mack Mariani, a political science professor at Xavier University in Cincinnati.

So it's no wonder Romney will be in Ohio Tuesday and Wednesday for a bus tour, or that Obama will also be visiting the Buckeye state on Wednesday as he fights to hang onto his four point lead in the polls. Especially since early voting starts next week.

9 toss-up states

"This is ground zero," Republican National Committee chairperson Reince Priebus, acknowledging the importance of the Buckeye state, told a crowd of about 1 200 people in Lima as they awaited vice presidential hopeful Paul Ryan on Monday.

There are just nine states currently considered toss-ups, which leaves 100 electoral votes up for grabs.

Current polls show Obama has got 247 electoral votes in his camp, while Romney is trailing with just 191, according to the latest RealClearPolitics tally.

Without Ohio's 18 electoral votes, Romney would have to either sweep every other battleground state to win or else capture states where Obama currently has a solid lead. Either is an unlikely scenario given that the Buckeye state is a microcosm of the nation.

Northern Ohio feels a lot like bordering Michigan because of the blue-collar influence of the auto industry. The southern end feels a lot like neighbouring Kentucky and West Virginia - especially in the Appalachian coal mining towns.

There are several cities - including Cleveland, Columbus and Cincinnati - with the typical American mix of wealthy or middle class suburbs, troubled inner cities neighbourhoods and young urbanites.

'Pluses and minuses for both'

Then there are large swaths of rural counties with farmland for as far as the eye can see.

Ohio has plenty of die-hard Republicans and Democrats but there is also a significant contingent of independents like Cathy Lankford, aged 62, whose votes can be swayed.

Lankford voted reluctantly for Obama in 2008 because she thought rival John McCain was too old for the job. She liked Bush but hasn't warmed to Romney, who she thinks is too rich to understand the troubles of average Americans.

"I haven't decided because there's pluses and minuses for both of them," the recently retired grocery store clerk said.

She doesn't think Obama's done a good job of handling the economy - her husband has been out of work for nearly two years - but she's not sure Romney will do any better despite his background in corporate turnarounds.

Healthcare is also a big concern as Lankford has to pay for her own insurance until her husband gets a job or she's eligible for government-funded Medicare at age 65.

Flooded with ads

"I'm not sure what Obama's going to do is a good idea, but I don't like what Romney's going to do with a [Medicare] voucher," she said as she watched her grandson play at a shopping mall in Dayton, Ohio.

Ohio's airways have been flooded with nearly $125m in political ads to sway voters like Lankford, second only to Florida with $129m.

Obama and his supporters have outspent Romney by nearly $6m in Ohio, according to the SMG Delta analysis commissioned by NBC News.

He also has the advantage of having saved the automotive industry from collapse, while Romney criticized the $80bn bailout in a much-lambasted op-ed entitled "Let Detroit Go Bankrupt".

That has helped Obama with the white, working class voters he had trouble reaching in 2008, said Paul Beck, an emeritus professor of politics at Ohio State University.

"They're people who haven't warmed to Obama, but on the other hand they haven't warmed to Mitt Romney because he's the kind of businessman who's outsourced their jobs," Beck said in a telephone interview.

'Not over yet'

The power of the union vote in Ohio was shown last year when voters overwhelmingly defeated a Republican bill that would have stripped the state's 350 000 public sector employees of most of their bargaining rights.

But Romney could still win the state, even if he loses a big chunk of the blue-collar vote, said Paul Sracic, chair of the political science department at Youngstown State University.

"I don't think this election is over and I don't think it's over in Ohio," Scracic said.

"I still think there's enough undecided voters out there that could still be moved and there's still enough of an enthusiasm gap between Republicans and Democrats in the Republican favour."

Like most elections, this one is going to hinge not on what people tell pollsters, but on which candidate manages to get more supporters to actually show up and vote, he said.