COLUMBUS, Ohio – There are only two plausible explanations for what is going on this week in this swing state central to virtually all Mitt Romney’s victory strategies.
Either many top Ohio Republicans are in the grips of the worst panic attack since an Orson Welles 1938 radio drama convinced thousands that the earth was under attack by Martians. Or more likely, judging from the comments of these GOP insiders, Romney’s hopes of carrying Ohio are fast dwindling to something like the odds of winning the Powerball jackpot.
Presidential candidates have rebounded from downbeat polls before, especially when we are still five weeks from Election Day. So Romney’s problem is not just the recent Ohio surveys that show him losing to Barack Obama by as many as 10 percentage points. Instead, what is striking is the funereal interpretation that downcast Ohio Republicans derive from these numbers. Maybe Romney isn’t down by 10 points, they argue, but the GOP presidential nominee seems destined to lose by a solid 5 points – and in closely divided Ohio that represents a loss of nearly landslide proportions. (That would mean that Obama would slightly improve his 2008 victory margin against John McCain.)
Many of the well-known Ohio Republicans I interviewed offered their blunt assessments only after they were guaranteed complete anonymity. That is often the Faustian bargain of political journalism in 2012: robotic talking points on the record or something resembling honesty with no names attached. The reason, though, that I am emphasizing the don’t-quote-me part of the equation is that I was stunned by the vehemence of the thumbs-down-on-Mitt verdict. All but conceding the state to Obama, these Republicans were offering what may be the biggest rejection of Ohio since Philip Roth wrote “Goodbye Columbus.”
The Romney problem in Ohio is not so much campaign strategy as the candidate’s inability to transcend who he is. “The Obama people have convinced Ohio voters of two things,” says Curt Steiner, a well-connected Republican public relations strategist. “That Mitt Romney doesn’t believe anything. And what he does believe is all anti-middle class.”
And Mark Weaver, a Republican campaign strategist and lawyer with a doggedly optimistic assessment of Romney’s chances here, concedes, “The Obama campaign has been usually good at character assassination.”
At 7:28 a.m. Friday on WSYX, the ABC affiliate in Columbus, viewers saw a frequently broadcast Obama commercial deriding Romney for his sneering at the 47 percent of Americans who don’t pay federal income taxes. The male voice-over concludes, “Instead of attacking folks who work for a living, shouldn’t we stand up for them?”
Republican insiders privately concede that Romney’s “47 percent” comments at a fund-raiser have been devastating because they validate pre-existing concerns about Bain Capital, the candidate’s wealth, and his impolitic affection for overseas bank accounts. Fifty-eight percent of Ohio voters in a recent Quinnipiac University/New York Times/CBS poll predicted that the policies of a Romney administration would “favor the rich.”
Scott Jennings, a native Kentuckian who directs the Romney campaign in Ohio, stalwartly rejects any whiff of defeatism about his candidate’s chances of carrying the state. Wearing a cream-colored cowboy hat, a souvenir from a Wednesday night Rodney Atkins country-music fund-raiser for Romney, Jennings argues: “Public opinion is a process and not an event. Campaigns go up and campaigns go down. We’ve still got 40 days to go. There can be a lot of seminal events.”
Not surprisingly for a nuts-and-bolts campaign operative, Jennings emphasizes the Romney campaign’s ground game and the superiority of those efforts compared to 2008. (Given the sense of doom hovering over the McCain campaign after the collapse of Lehman Brothers, it is not a difficult benchmark to beat). Jennings confidently throws around Ohio numbers like 1 million door knocks and 3 million volunteer phone calls. This type of personalized voter contact can indeed matter in a close election, which is why Obama carried such unlikely states as Indiana in 2008. But the problem for a reporter – especially one who has heard similar claims in many prior presidential campaigns – is that ground games are difficult to assess before Election Day.
I came to Ohio to test a theory: that Obama might face some of the same political problems that upended Democratic Gov. Ted Strickland in 2010. Personally popular, Strickland nonetheless lost a 2-point race to John Kasich, who hammered home the state’s declining jobs numbers since the incumbent took office. In politics, causation matters far less than results. Richard Nixon, for example, had little to do with putting a man on the moon. But he was the lucky president at the end of the phone line in 1969 when Neil Armstrong – an Ohio native – made a giant leap for mankind.
As is sometimes the case in political reporting, clever hypotheses do not survive their first contact with actual data. While Ohio’s unemployment rate was over 10 percent during the run-up to Strickland’s reelection, it is now 7.2 percent, nearly a percentage point below the national average. Working for Obama, as well, are results of the auto bailout in a state where more than 800,000 jobs are tied to the car industry. In a recent Washington Post poll, 64 percent of Ohio voters said that the federal loans to General Motors and Chrysler were mostly a good thing for state’s economy.
Kasich, the son of a mail carrier, did not have Romney’s problems in connecting with economically frightened voters. As Terry Casey, a longtime Kasich adviser deeply involved in the 2010 campaign puts it, “Because of John’s blue-collar roots he didn’t seem like a guy born with a silver spoon in his mouth.” While sorting out a governor’s personal responsibility for the economic performance of his state requires a vast array of mathematical models, Casey boasts: “If Obama ends up winning, he should send a big thank-you note to John Kasich. Kasich may be the most valuable player in turning things around for Obama in Ohio.”
What often matters in politics is the trend line – and in Ohio, despite lingering misery, there appears to be a small uptick. When asked the are-you-better-off-than-four-years-ago question in the Quinnipiac/Times/CBS poll, 29 percent of Ohio voters said that their lives had improved and an equal number said that their personal situation had worsened.
In 1984, even though national unemployment was over 7 percent, Ronald Reagan could credibly run for reelection with a “morning in America” theme because economic growth had outpaced virtually all projections. The same may be true this year, to a lesser extent, for Obama in Ohio.
With roughly 1 million no-excuses-needed absentee ballots being mailed early next week to Ohio voters who requested them, the political clock begins ticking louder for Romney. The familiar remedy for a candidate who is trailing in the polls and dogged by an inconsistent message is to throw off the handlers and reveal himself. As upbeat GOP strategist Mark Weaver says: “Romney needs to spend more time in Ohio and speak from the heart. And he’s beginning to do just that.”
The potential pitfall for Romney in Ohio, though, is the person behind the political veneer. As a Ohio Republican insider, who resisted my pleas to put this colorful metaphor on the record, told me, “Romney is a guy who is used to talking to the board of directors instead of the shareholders or the employees.”
When a presidential nominee is perceived by his own party as not being able to talk even to Americans wealthy enough to own stock, there are deep political problems from Lake Erie to the Ohio River.