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The Auto Bailout Didn’t Decide Ohio

From the moment political reporters armed with leaked internal polls wrote that Obama led by mid-to-upper single digits in Ohio, the Buckeye State was widely regarded as Romney’s Achilles heel. As early as mid-August, the conventional wisdom held that some combination of attacks on Romney’s tenure at Bain, the auto bailout, the shale gas boom, and a strong local economy was allowing Obama to overcome his national weakness with white working class voters in a traditionally Republican state.

When Obama’s national standing faltered after the first presidential debate, polls showed Obama falling behind in the “new coalition” states while maintaining a slight but consistent lead in the key Midwestern battlegrounds, including Ohio. The president seemed to be defying gravity, and the Obama campaign told reporters that Ohio was the crux of the “midwestern firewall” that provided the president with a critical and durable advantage in the Electoral College. With the polls showing Obama ahead by 3 points with more than 49 percent of the vote, the state appeared poised to provide the president with reelection.

And yet Obama won Ohio by a smaller margin than Virginia or Colorado and only finished one point better in Ohio than he did in Florida. While many believed that the auto bailout and attacks on Romney as an out-of-touch plutocrat would allow the president to win the state with the support of white working class voters, the exit polls show that Obama did worse among Ohio’s white voters than John Kerry. This was not true, however, in the other Midwestern battleground states like Wisconsin and Iowa. Moreover, if there was anywhere that the president should have excelled due to the auto bailout, it would have been northeast Ohio. But the president lost northeastern Ohio’s two classic white middle class bellwethers: Lake County, home to the overwhelmingly white suburbs and exurbs east of Cleveland, and Stark County, home to Canton. The president also lost additional ground in traditionally Democratic stretches of eastern Ohio, where Obama performed worse than any Democrat since McGovern in a stretch of “coal country” along the Ohio River. And Obama’s problems weren’t limited to eastern Ohio. The president performed poorly in southwestern Ohio, including one deeply conservative and culturally southern county where Obama’s performance was the worst by a Democrat since at least 1868.

The president performed better among white voters in the Columbus media market, but the auto bailout and attacks on Bain probably weren't responsible for the president’s strength in the state's best educated metropolitan area. In the farm country south of Columbus, Obama actually did even better than he did in '08, but it's hard to argue that Bain or the auto industry were especially resonant in one of the least industrial areas of the state. Only one area stands out where the results and conventional wisdom on Bain and GM came into alignment: in northwestern Ohio, and especially in the industrial stretch along Lake Erie from Toledo to Cleveland. Even so, Obama’s improvements over Kerry in these areas were largely although not completely offset by his losses in the eastern part of the state. 

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Instead, historic black turnout carried Obama to victory in the Buckeye State. As mentioned prior to the election, much of Obama’s improvement over Kerry was attributable to gains among black voters. In 2004, African Americans represented 11 percent of the Ohio electorate and voted 84 percent for Kerry. In 2012, 15 percent of Ohio’s electorate was African American and voted 96 percent for the president. These figures probably overstate the increase in black turnout, but there’s not much question that black voters are the main reason why Obama did better than Kerry.  In 2004, Kerry won the four counties corresponding to Ohio’s largest black population centers—Cleveland, Toledo, Columbus, and Cincinnati—by 16 points while losing the rest of the state by 11. In 2012, Obama won the four large, urban counties by 25 points while losing the rest of the state by 9.1 points. Since Kerry lost Ohio by 2.1 points, Obama's performance in the predominantly white working class stretches of Ohio didn't overcome the state's red-hue. Instead, black turnout and Obama's strength in Columbus (whether due to minorities or well-educated voters) made the difference. 

Ultimately, Ohio didn't behave much differently than its demographics predicted. Outside of Appalachia and the white south, the president generally fell to levels just above Kerry’s performance among white voters. In a state with a stretch of Appalachia, Obama wound up right near Kerry's final tally, and slightly above it in the western part of the state reminiscent of the rest of the Midwest. Perhaps Obama would have done even worse in Ohio without the auto-bailout. But Obama outperformed Kerry with white voters in Wisconsin and Iowa, suggesting that Obama’s slight improvements over Kerry in the northwestern half of the state weren't attributable to Ohio-specific factors. And although the president had a bright spot in Youngstown, his improvement over Kerry’s performance was indistinguishable from an increase in black turnout in a county where 20 percent of the population is African America. 

The close race in Ohio also raises the question of whether the Obama campaign miscalculated its position in Ohio or the “new coalition” states. The Obama campaign gave the impression that it believed it was stronger in Ohio than it was in Virginia and Colorado and, just for good measure, the campaign appeared to act on their public pronouncements. Over the final weeks of the campaign, Chicago escalated its advertising spending in Ohio from $4.3 million to what is probably an unprecedented $9.5 million to lock-down the state.  Over the final four days of the campaign, the president made six stops in Ohio, three in Wisconsin, but just one in Florida, Colorado, and Virginia. It’s hard to say whether the Obama campaign was more surprised by a 2-point race in Ohio or 3 and 5-point wins in Colorado and Virginia, but it seems that its pollsters must have been surprised by one of them. It’s hard to imagine that Ohio would have received such a disproportionate share of the Obama campaign’s attention if they knew that it would only provide electoral votes 285 through 303.