The Mystery of Ohio

The following was initially published at Yi! News on March 6th. 

On Tuesday, Ohio – along with nine other states – will hold its Republican presidential nomination contest. In the run-up to “Super Tuesday,” however, the Buckeye State has commanded the lion’s share of media, and candidate, attention. And rightfully so.

Ohio’s primary awards 66 delegates. While they are allocated proportionally, a large defeat would be crippling for either Rick Santorum or Mitt Romney. Its centrality to the general election cannot be overstated. Since 1944, only one candidate (J.F.K.) has lost Ohio and won the presidency. Thus, both Santorum and Romney desperately need an Ohio win to convince an uninspired base and unhappy establishment that they are viable threats to defeat President Barack Obama.

But how did we get here? Why is Ohio such a bellwether?

Numbers tell part of the story. Ohio has three major metropolitan areas and 18 votes in the Electoral College (compare that to the 14 votes populous New Jersey has). It has the ninth largest economy in the country. But size alone does not give a state importance in presidential politics. Just ask California (55 votes) or Texas (38).

What makes Ohio such a bellwether is its striking similarity to the country as a whole. It is a veritable microcosm of the broader nation in a number of ways.

Much of this similarity lies in its political diversity. The state spans the ideological gamut. The cities proper (Cleveland, Columbus and Cincinnati) are by many accounts liberal, but are surrounded by suburbs that range from Reagan Democrat to borderline libertarian. Between the metro areas lie heavily rural pockets that, as a whole, are largely Jacksonian.

A stark display of this diversity became apparent to me the last time Ohio found itself in the limelight. On the infamous night of “The Decision,” I attended a Lynyrd Skynyrd concert about 45 minutes south of Cleveland (ironically, about 10 minutes from where LeBron James was born). Skynyrd was promoting their “God and Guns” album, and the crowd was a petri dish of political scientists’ archetypes. There were college students guzzling Bud Lights; Baby Boomer couples adorning polo shirts and khakis; working class men and women sporting tattoos but not sleeves; and suburban 20-somethings (like myself) trying to mesh. It was not the typical liberal portrayal of Middle America as uneducated, poor hillbillies waving Confederate flags. Rather, it was an inclusive group that had both wealthy and lower class attendees. Many of the same people wearing tattered jean shorts drove home in BMW’s.

Across these various classifications exists a number of sometimes overlapping, sometimes conflicting interests and concerns, just like in American politics. Agriculture is hugely important to some in the state, as it creates something like $90 billion of annual economic output. Farmers want both low taxes and taxpayer subsidies. They compete with manufacturing interests, which push for tariffs and other import controls on the very same equipment used by farmers. Ohio’s large population of academics favors sustainable development and largely centralized urban planning that brushes against both agricultural and manufacturing interests. Urban social liberals often find themselves at odds with a state that is roughly 3/4 Christian. And on the list goes.

Ohioans are broadly representative of a nation that Washington D.C. and Manhattan often forget about. Many people in the state make a living driving trucks, herding cattle and melting steel. They hunt, they fish, they watch NASCAR and yet they can’t be bucketed with the monolithically rural deep south.

This same representativeness makes Ohio a tough state to campaign in and creates unique problems for both Romney and Santorum. For the former, there is a serious problem of genuineness. Romney’s persona is ill-suited for a Midwest state that values passion and conviction. This disarms what is his biggest strength, and could also be Santorum’s biggest weakness: policy “flexibility.” A candidate in Ohio must be able to talk to free-market advocates one day and protectionist manufacturers the next. Furthermore, while the state is fairly religious, residents are most concerned with preventing another 15 straight months of 10+ percent unemployment.

If Santorum were better known to Ohioans, he would almost certainly lose. He is too extreme to appeal to the many shades of Republican in the state. But that is not the case; many primary voters have only had very limited exposure to the former Pennsylvania senator. He will likely win Ohio this time around.

If he makes it to November, the incumbent will win Ohio and re-election. And the trend will continue.

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