How Ohio Began To Slip Away From Mitt Romney

Tom Kludt

With each recent poll, Ohio has begun to look less like a swing state and more like a road map back to the private sector for Mitt Romney.

A series of miscues on important Ohio issues and a successful effort by President Barack Obama's campaign to define the Republican challenger have made Romney's odds look increasingly long in the Rust Belt bellwether. Eight of the 12 public polls conducted after the Democratic National Convention have shown Romney with at least a 4-point deficit and one on Wednesday showed him down by 10. No Republican candidate has ever won the White House without carrying Ohio.

Doug Usher, managing partner of research at the bipartisan polling firm Purple Strategies, said the reasons why Romney has lagged behind start with the automotive industry, which figures so prominently in both the state's economy and the Obama campaign's pitch to Ohio voters.

Democrats there have jumped at the chance to highlight Romney's opposition to the restructuring of the U.S. auto industry, epitomized by his 2008 New York Times op-ed with the now-infamous title, "Let Detroit Go Bankrupt." But those attacks against Romney are of a piece. The Obama campaign has also hammered the former Massachusetts governor's career at the private equity firm Bain Capital, as well as the murky nature of his tax returns. Meanwhile, Romney's surreptitiously recorded remarks made at a swanky fundraiser earlier this year gave substance to the caricature Obama and Democrats have drawn of the Republican nominee.

For a candidate running in a state like Ohio, that amounts to a potential coup de grâce.

"You combine the 'let Detroit go bankrupt' quote with the '47 percent' remark and you create a pretty powerful narrative across the country, but especially in Ohio," Usher told TPM.

The PollTracker Average shows Romney has always had trouble gaining traction there, but his deficit has grown even wider as the attacks have begun to stick.

Plenty of critics — including some Democrats — cried foul when the Obama team opened the general election campaign with a flurry of criticism toward Romney's time at Bain Capital, the private equity firm he helped found. But there has long been reason to believe that Ohio provided fertile ground for such a strategy. A survey from Purple Strategies in June showed that Bain-centric attacks carry far more potency in Ohio than other battlegrounds. The state's populist champion, Sen. Sherrod Brown (D), urged the Obama campaign to keep bringing the heat to Romney's professional biography, predicting to TPM earlier this summer that drawing attention to layoffs by companies bought out by Bain would strike a chord with Ohio voters.

To gauge the effect of the Obama campaign's focus on Bain, consider Romney's low favorability rating in Ohio. Half of Ohioans currently have an unfavorable view of Romney, according to the PollTracker Average. His favorability rating there has marginally improved since the doldrums of the summer, when Bain scrutiny was arguably at a fever pitch.

Compounding matters for Romney in Ohio, his central campaign message has often been muddled by a prominent in-state surrogate. Republican Gov. John Kasich has frequently touted Ohio's steadily declining unemployment rate, but his rosy outlook undermines the message pushed by Romney, who has tried to parlay economic pessimism into votes. Nationally, Romney has lost his previously consistent edge on the economy over the last month, and Obama has also claimed the upper-hand on the issue in Ohio. Tuesday's poll from the Washington Post showed Ohio voters preferring Obama over Romney to handle the economy, 50 percent to 43 percent.

Matthew Henderson, communications director for the Ohio Republican Party, told TPM that the state's successes underscore the urgency to replace Obama and give Kasich a stronger partnership with the White House.

"Just imagine what we could do with an ally in Washington," Henderson said.

But if Ohio Democrats are brimming with confidence, it may also come from strength in numbers. The Obama campaign boasts 96 offices in the state to the Romney campaign's 36. A low number of undecided voters this year places an even greater emphasis on efforts to get out the vote, which could make a robust field organization an even greater asset. Early voting is slated to begin in Ohio next week.

Seth Bringman, an Ohio-based Democratic consultant, credits the Obama campaign for remaining engaged in the state since 2008, saying the Romney campaign's ground operation "started light-years behind and they have not caught up."

"I don't know what [the Romney campaign's] strategy is, quite frankly," Bringman told TPM. "They made a run at it, but it just seems like their playbook was to rely on super PAC ads while the Democrats knew we had to outwork them on the ground. And we certainly have done that over the past year."

Henderson dismissed the disparity in organizational size, suggesting that some of the Obama camp's offices are merely for show.

"If you drive past a lot of their headquarters, the lights are off. They're just there to have a presence," Henderson told TPM. "Our folks on the ground are fired up. They're knocking on doors every day. Our state party has made 28 times more phone calls than we had at this point in 2008."

Echoing the line voiced by the Romney campaign on Tuesday, Henderson also pushed back against recent polling data, saying many of the pollsters have been including too many Democrats in their samples.

"They're heavily weighted toward Democrats and it's not really reflective of the way the rest of this state thinks," Henderson said. "Everything on the ground is telling us that this race is still neck-and-neck."