Former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney’s come-from-behind victory last week in Michigan’s GOP presidential primary demonstrated that voters were more concerned about the economy and jobs than contraception and the culture wars, and that may go double for Republican voters in Ohio when they go to the polls today.
Ohio, with 66 delegates, will be the biggest prize by far among the ten states up for grabs in this crucial Super Tuesday showdown. Romney, former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum, Texas Rep. Ron Paul, and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich will be vying for a total of 437 delegates in the Buckeye State, Alaska, Georgia, Idaho, Massachusetts, North Dakota, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Vermont and Virginia, while Wyoming will begin its delegate selection process. By the time the dust settles late tonight, Romney could all but wrap up the Republican nomination with victories or strong showings in Ohio, Vermont, Massachusetts, Tennessee and Virginia.
Ohio has been the quintessential bellwether state in presidential elections over the past 50 years, going with the winner in twelve of the past thirteen elections. Four years ago, the state chose Arizona Sen. John McCain over conservative former governor Mike Huckabee in the GOP primary, and voted for Democrat Barack Obama over McCain in the general election – and that’s how the 2008 presidential drama played out.
With its large population of low income blue-collar workers, conservative Christians and tea party adherents, Ohio would seem tailor made for Santorum, who is struggling to get back in the game after a second place finish in Michigan and a series of gaffes and missteps that have undercut his once promising charge. But Democratic pollster Peter Hart contends that Ohio Republican voters historically have been more fiscally conservative than socially conservative. For whatever reasons, Santorum’s once double-digit lead over Romney in Ohio has vanished, and the two are locked in a statistical tie in the three latest surveys.
“Romney is really pushing that he’s got a lot of business experience which could resonate with some of the population,” Curtis Reynolds, an assistant economics professor at Kent State University, told The Fiscal Times. “On the other hand, Santorum is pushing that he’s from Western Pennsylvania, so he’s more blue-collar, as opposed to Romney, who might know a lot about high finance but doesn’t understand Ohio and jobs. . . . I don’t know how that’s going to play out with voters here.”
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“Everybody says it’s jobs, jobs, jobs, and that may be trite but it’s absolutely correct,” said Randy Olsen, an Ohio State University economist. “When you have a [national] unemployment rate over 8 percent and on top of that are a substantial number of people who have completely withdrawn from the labor force – that leaves a mark. That’s got to be the biggest issue.”
Santorum came within three percentage points of upsetting Romney in his home state of Michigan last Tuesday claiming the frontrunner status, after scoring victories in Iowa, Minnesota, Missouri and Colorado. But Santorum blew the election in Michigan by giving short shrift to his economic message while pandering to evangelical Christians and tea party adherents. Like most Americans, more than half of the voters in Michigan chose the economy as their most important issue, and Romney won nearly half of those voters.
Ohio’s economy – battered by the recession and the near death of the U.S. auto industry – has been making a comeback in the past two years, thanks largely to the revival of its manufacturing sector. That renaissance has been fueled by the return of the U.S. auto industry to some extent, but more so by the growth of energy production and rising overseas demand for steel and other building materials.
That manufacturing sector of the economy accounts for about a quarter of Ohio’s job growth over the past two years. Another factor is the rapid growth of small businesses – which traditionally have been the engine for job creation. And, after years of exporting jobs overseas, some companies, including Republic Steel and Whirlpool, have moved jobs back to Ohio from Mexico and Asia, as overseas labor and transportation costs have steadily risen.
With an unemployment rate currently at 7.9 percent, Ohio is doing better than Georgia, Idaho and Tennessee, but worse than North Dakota (with its paltry 3.3 percent jobless rate), Alaska, Massachusetts, Vermont and Virginia. At the same time, Ohio ranks right at the top of the Super Tuesday states in home foreclosures, with one in every 616 homes under water, and ranks within the top tier for bankruptcies and poverty.
Republican Ohio Gov. John Kasich, has made a big push to promote new jobs in the state’s private sector -- even while slashing state government jobs -- and has claimed credit for his state’s improved economy. But that improved jobless picture fails to reflect the depth of despair of the long-term unemployed who have dropped out of the market and have little or no hope for the future.
Ohio’s rust belt economy has been hurting for decades -- in the Northeastern part of the state in an arc from Cleveland westward to Toledo and south and east to the factory towns of Akron and Canton, Youngstown and Warren and the gritty cities south along the Ohio River, with a heavy Democratic and union influence. The more affluent and prosperous area is south and west of these industrialized areas, including Columbus, where Republicans draw their greatest support and the unions are much weaker.
Peter Hart, a democratic pollster, said that Santorum had a golden opportunity to broaden his appeal in Ohio and other Midwestern industrial states by shifting his focus from social conservative issues to jobs and the economy shortly after wins in Minnesota, Missouri and Colorado last month. Instead, he pressed on as a culture warrior and it has cost him heavily.
By contrast, Romney has unveiled his “Believe in America” plan for reviving the economy and creating 11.5 million jobs. The plan includes 59 recommendations. Romney would slash the corporate tax rate from a maximum of 35 percent to 25 percent, block implementation of President Obama’s health care reform law, and rewrite or eliminate government regulations.
“Now Romney gets ‘credit’ in terms of the economy,” Hart said. “I don’t think anybody has the slightest idea of what he stands for or who he is in terms of that. All he keeps doing is repeating his resume and his mantra that ‘I’ve managed a company and saved the Olympics and whatever it is. . . If you said what are the 59 things [Romney proposed in a major economic plan], I don’t know anybody who could name any of them. I always felt he was vulnerable on that front, and I think that Santorum could have sort of played off [his] Pittsburgh experience and done more with that, which I don’t think he ever did.”
While the auto industry and manufacturing is essential to Ohio’s economy, the hospital and health care industry, food services and educational institutions provide the greatest employment. The state’s largest employers include Kroger, the Cleveland Clinic Health System, University Hospitals of Cleveland, Catholic Healthcare Partners, Ohio State University and Ohio Health.
Romney and Santorum both opposed the federal bailout of General Motors and Chrysler, a factor that would likely hurt either one of them more in a general election campaign against President Obama than in a GOP primary. Many non-union Republicans have been critical of the bailout, which cost the government an estimated $14 billion.
Romney has a tougher time justifying his stand than Santorum because he grew up in Michigan, the auto capital, and his father once headed an auto company. Moreover, while Romney was willing to risk GM and Chrysler going through a structured bankruptcy without much needed federal cash, he supported the government’s bailout of Wall Street. Santorum opposed the TARP program as well.
After touring a factory with Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio), a supporter, Romney declared, “What I know is the economy. I’ve spent my life in the real economy. I understand why jobs come and why they go. Other people in this race have debated about the economy, they’ve read about the economy, they’ve talked about it in subcommittee meetings, but I’ve actually been in it.”
After weeks of focusing on contraception, education, separation of church and state and other issues, Santorum returned on Monday to his criticism of Romney’s conservative record, contending that his GOP rival is a political opportunist who shifts course depending on what’s “fashionable” at the time.
In an address to nearly 400 supporters in Westerville, Ohio, Santorum blasted Romney for having outspent him “12-to-one” in Ohio and for creating a Massachusetts health care reform plan with an individual mandate that became the model for “Obamacare.”