Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney has a three-day bus trip planned through Ohio this week, and it comes none too soon: Ohio, with its 18 electoral votes in the nation’s industrial heartland, looms as the quintessential battleground state, and right now President Obama holds a seven percentage point lead.
Obama has swung through Ohio more than any other state, except for Virginia, and experts say that if the election were held today, the president would likely win there and in other blue collar states, including Pennsylvania and Michigan. With the auto industry humming again in Ohio after the administration bailed out General Motors and Chrysler, Obama has repeatedly made the case to Ohioans that he pulled their economic chestnuts out of the fire while Romney attacked the plan. The former Massachusetts governor has been haunted on the trail for penning a November, 2008 New York Times editorial that called for letting the companies go through a “managed” bankruptcy and suggested that a “bailout check” would cause the sector’s demise.
“When there were some who said just ‘let Detroit go bankrupt,’ when there were folks who were willing to walk away from all the jobs that are supported here in Ohio by the auto industry, I bet on American workers,” Obama told voters in Columbus last Monday, using a line that appears with some variation in practically all of his rustbelt stump speeches.
Ultimately, both companies did file for bankruptcy, but fewer jobs were lost than expected under the potential disaster scenarios and their recovery was accelerated by the government intervention.. It’s an easy pitch for Obama with the Chevrolet plant in Lordstown, Ohio, turning out the top-selling Cruze compact around the clock, while Chrysler continues to crank out Jeeps in Toledo.
“Obama has a very compelling argument to make that his actions in bailing out the auto industry were central in not only the good times the auto industry is experiencing right now but also avoiding catastrophe,” said David Cohen, a professor of political science at the University of Akron. “Because one in eight jobs in Ohio are somehow connected to the auto industry.”
SKELETONS OF CLOSED FACTORIES
But even as Obama gets credit from Buckeye voters for the $80 billion bailout plan, Romney has drawn thousands to rallies and blasted the airwaves with arguments that the dollops of stimulus spending never delivered anything close to the promised recovery. The skeletons of closed factories still litter parts of the state, and incomes averaged $37,791 last year—almost $4,000 below the national average, according to the Bureau of Economic Analysis.
The former Massachusetts governor has tailored his message to Ohio’s blue collar identities by claiming he would stop China from pegging the value of its currency at an artificially low rate to the dollar, causing the departure of assembly line jobs for plants in Asia. In speeches to Ohio voters, he castigates Obama for the 23 million Americans who are either jobless or underemployed.
“If you have a coach who’s 0-23 million, you say it’s time to get a new coach,” Romney told a crowd in Cincinnati this month. “We’ll crack down on China and any other cheaters.”
With almost a week before absentee balloting starts, the question is whether the Ohio cities along Lake Erie respond to Obama’s description of a blue-collar economy restored under his watch , or if Romney’s pledge that an aggressive trade policy will stop the practice of off-shoring jobs to China can expand his GOP base beyond Ohio’s rural counties.
Some Republicans have expressed concern that Romney has not been spending more money or appearing more frequently in rural counties where he needs a strong turnout to win the state – and where his “47 percent” comments threatens to undercut support among working-class voters otherwise inclined to vote for him, according to The New York Times.
Ohio voters have backed the winner in the past 12 presidential elections, with a mix of Democrats and Republicans that make it a perpetual swing state. Obama beat Arizona Sen. John McCain there 51.5 percent to 46.9 percent in 2008, a 262,224-vote margin of victory.
ENERGY AND TECH LEAD THE WAY
Economic turmoil is nothing new to the state—which has endured decades of politicians pledging that they will succeed in creating an industrial rebirth where their predecessors have failed. But what makes Ohio unique in 2012 is an economic comeback that—for the first time in decades—appears stronger than the rest of the country. Manufacturing jobs are up 3.1 percent this year, as the prospect of energy jobs from shale oil and gas has emerged alongside collaborations involving the state’s universities and research institutions that are jumpstarting the formation of tech companies.