My Ohioans did it again. In every election since 1964 (and almost every time since 1904), the winner of this state ended up taking the presidency – hence the clichés “America’s bellwether” and “as Ohio goes, so goes America”. Having spent six years of my life studying politics at The Ohio State University not so long ago, I can’t help but identify and sympathize with Buckeye voters, a group of people that every four years gets to decide the fate of the U.S. and, some might add, the world. This is a heavy burden for many reasons, including being exposed to the fanfare of presidential candidate fly-ins (82 of them this time), thousands of attack-counterattack TV ads (that typically target only “undecideds” and/or “independents”), as well as dozens of phone calls and door knocks reminding you to get out and vote for the right person (in the final week of the 2008 campaign, Team Obama said it knocked on a million Ohio doors per day).
The phrase “key battleground state” that every news outlet likes to attach to Ohio refers to its electoral-college vote clout (the 2010 Census reapportionment gives it 18 votes until 2020) as well as its recent record in presidential elections, which is marked by small margin-of-victory numbers (4.6 percentage points in 2008, 2 in 2004, etc.). The state has a remarkable red-blue balance overall; since 1998, the state voted for three Democratic and three Republican candidates each). Also remarkable were the results of pre-election state polling in October, which showed a tied (or at least tightening) race between President Barack Obama and his GOP challenger Mitt Romney (see, for example, the discussion of the RCP poll of polls from 30 October).
To be sure, electoral pathologists – those friends of yours obsessing about assorted ‘paths to presidency’ – had probably explained to you that each candidate could have won an electoral majority without Ohio (e.g. Obama would have had to grab one or two bigger states considered tossups plus all reliably blue states, and Romney would have had to hold onto all normally red states while pulling off multiple upsets elsewhere). This type of electoral math is both fun and fantastic, but reason tends to swiftly restore the status quo ante: it’s all about “Ohio, Ohio, Ohio!”
Tuesday’s drama ended right after 11 pm Eastern Time, when the news organizations called Ohio for Obama; less than two hours later, Romney conceded the race. To examine this outcome, let us begin with two issues identified by the media as key to this election: the auto and coal industries, and the thousands of jobs each of them provides to the state. (Compare, The Globe and Mail’s Ohio postcard of 25 October or The Economist of 27 October to the endorsement editorials in The Columbus Dispatch [Romney], The Cincinnati Enquirer [Romney], The Plain Dealer [Obama], or my favourite OH newspaper, The Blade [Obama]). In a nutshell, while some Ohioans liked what the president did with the former (that 2009 bailout of GM and Chrysler helped the manufacturing sector in the northern part of the state), others hated what he did with the latter. (Being viewed as too green on energy was expected to hobble Obama’s re-election chances in the coal-mining counties of the Appalachian part of the state).
Whatever the explanatory merits of simple storylines like these, unofficial returns bear this one out. The website of Ohio Secretary of State’s office has Obama winning by about 2 percentage points, which is lower than in 2008. The president indeed carried the populous Cuyahoga County (centered on Cleveland) plus a string of smaller counties in the northeast by sufficiently large margins, while Romney won large parts of the coal country. What went on elsewhere in the state was more important, however. Though Romney ran strong in most traditionally Republican rural areas, he severely underperformed in the remaining half dozen big urban counties, which account for almost 40% of the statewide vote. Even Hamilton County (Cincinnati), historically a GOP bastion, went to Obama by about 20,000 votes again. (For the county-by-county comparisons over time, see Rich Exner’s page at The Plain Dealer; U.S. politics junkies might also consult a map of the 2008 precinct-by-precinct results provided by Stanford’s Spatial Social Science Lab).
Demographically, Obama probably carried the state in the same manner as he did four years ago. How many Ohioans voted will not be known until late-arriving absentee ballots and provisional ballots are counted, but the turnout (about 68%) can safely be described as well above average. This surely helped the president: by getting its base to register and ballot (including via early in-person voting), the Obama campaign succeeded in maximizing Ohio’s Democratic potential once again (against a stream of ‘voter fraud’ legislation targeting qualified minority voters). What exit polls seem to be suggesting is that the president bested his challenger among female, young, college-educated as well as minority voters. And what of Ohio’s white working class males (those without a university degree), who sit at the center of any “annoying, all-purpose pet theory” of U.S. presidential elections? Here, it appears that the president succeeded in avoiding a large margin of defeat, and it will be interesting to see why. The success in capitalizing on Romney’s casino capitalism sounds like a plausible hypothesis (and a nice extension of the auto bail-out storyline); but let’s recall that in 2008 Obama won 56% of votes from union households, which was lower than the national average.
What about the role played by ‘non-fundamentals’, specifically Obama’s race? Estimating this particular effect is challenging at any level of analysis, but both survey-based and non-survey-based studies have suggested that in 2008 Obama lost about 5 percentage points of the national popular vote due to racial intolerance on the part of some voters. A meaningful decline in this number would be my candidate for a feel-good story of the 2012 election.