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Obama Leads Every Poll in Ohio—But That Doesn’t Mean He’ll Win

If you take a quick look at the electoral map, Ohio really stands out. Here’s a white working class state that Bush carried twice but where Obama still seems to be doing quite well. Not only is Obama competitive, he leads in every poll conducted over the last two months—occasionally by a substantial margin. On balance, Obama’s up by 5 points in the RealClearPolitics average, despite a slimmer national lead and Ohio’s Republican-lean. But while Chicago has every right to be pleased with their position in Ohio, Romney’s chances are much better than Obama’s lead in the polls suggests.

According to the most recent RCP average, Obama is averaging 47.4 percent of the vote in Ohio. There’s nothing wrong with holding 47.4 percent of the vote, but it doesn't show any special strength. It’s not much better than the other swing states—Obama even has 46.7 percent in North Carolina—and it’s not as much as Kerry won eight years ago. So Obama appears to hold the dependably Democratic vote and not much more. Again, there’s nothing wrong with only holding the dependably Democratic vote in July, but Ohio is a state where the dependably Democratic vote alone doesn’t get the job done.

Obama's large lead can be ascribed to a simple reason: Romney hasn’t consolidated the conservative base. Polls show Romney down to just 42 percent of the vote in Ohio, an outright unimpressive showing, far lower than his average in the other true battleground states. This suggests that plenty of Republican-leaning Ohio voters remain reluctant to embrace their nominee. It is a little surprising that Romney can’t reunite the McCain vote, given the degree of opposition to President Obama and his ability to unify the GOP elsewhere.

But sooner or later, these Republican-leaners are going to come back to Romney. So there’s good reason to believe that Romney can make the jump to 46 or 47 percent without much difficulty, and that would effectively inaugurate a dead-heat in the Buckeye State. The question is whether Romney’s early problems indicate broader issues that might prevent Romney from true swing voters. For instance, it’s possible that the Bain and outsourcing attacks are especially resonant in a state hit hard by globalization. If the attacks are disrupting Romney’s ability to unify McCain voters, then there’s good cause to believe that the ads are resonating with undecided voters.

The upshot: Neither candidate has an easy road to victory in Ohio. Romney needs to reclaim Republican-leaning voters and then persuade undecided white working class voters who might not approve of Obama’s performance, but are probably quite skeptical of any candidate persistently linked to outsourcing and closing factories. And Obama’s route isn’t any easier; he’s trying to win voters who don’t approve of his performance in a Republican-leaning state. While Romney's path might be somewhat longer, Obama fans shouldn't celebrate until their candidate completes the hardest leg of the race.