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Why a New Poll in Ohio Spells Trouble for Obama in 2012

Over the past half-century, Ohio has been the quintessential bellwether state in presidential elections. That’s why the nascent Obama campaign should be paying careful attention to a Quinnipiac survey of the Buckeye state released this week, which shows the president with weak job approval numbers and an unimpressive lead over Mitt Romney. The Ohio results bolster the view that if the economy doesn’t improve before next November, a majority of the electorate may well be open to the idea of firing the man they placed in charge less than three years ago.

Ohio has gone with the winner in twelve of the past thirteen contests; the last Democrat to win the White House without carrying Ohio was John F. Kennedy. The last Republican to win the presidency without Ohio? In the 39 quadrennial cycles since the founding of the GOP, no Republican has ever been inaugurated without Ohio in his column. This isn’t because of the raw math of the electoral college; any armchair strategist can find a way for Obama to get to 270 electoral votes without the Midwestern state. It is rather that the formula for winning a national majority is essentially the same as for prevailing in Ohio.

Indeed, Ohio is a political bellwether because it is a microcosm of the country. Its economy is balanced, with shares of its workforce in manufacturing, construction, services, sales, education, health care, and the professions mirroring the national breakdown. Its demography looks a lot like America’s too. The median age of its population is 37.9 years (36.5 for the country); 13.6 percent of its population is over 65, but so is 12.6 percent of the country. African-Americans make up 11.7 percent of the population (12.4 percent of the country). Latinos constitute the only notable difference: 15.1 percent of the country, but only 2.6 percent of Ohioans. This is a double-edged sword for Obama. On the one hand, the paucity of Latinos in Ohio helps to explain why his margin in that state lagged slightly behind his share of the national vote. On the other hand, if the predicted drop-off in next year’s Latino vote comes to pass, it will have much less effect in Ohio than in any other large swing state. [All demographic figures are from the U.S. Census Bureau.]

Now for the Quinnipiac survey, released in two tranches on Wednesday and Thursday. To begin, it finds that the 2010 Republican tide has ebbed considerably. Newly elected governor John Kasich enjoys a woeful 35 percent approval rating, in part because his agenda is out of sync with that of the electorate. Although Ohioans think it’s fair to ask public employees to pay more for health insurance and pensions, only 34 percent support Kasich’s push to limit their collective bargaining rights. Fifty-eight percent think public employee unions should be able to bargain over health insurance, 56 percent oppose banning strikes by public employees, and 56 percent support a referendum to repeal Kasich’s changes to Ohio’s labor laws.

While Kasich made his mark in Washington as a leader on fiscal issues, the Ohio electorate is turning thumbs down on his budget as well. Yes, the people like the fact that the budget was balanced with spending cuts, not tax increases. Still, 54 percent of Ohioans disapprove of the way their governor is handling the budget. Fifty percent think that the newly approved fiscal plan is unfair to people like them; 34 percent think that the cuts go too far, versus only 25 percent who think that they didn’t go far enough; and only a third believe that the cuts will help the state’s economy.

In other words, if the 2012 election in Ohio were a referendum on Governor Kasich’s first two years, Obama would probably be home free. But there’s good reason to believe that it won’t be. Take health care. Fully 67 percent of Ohioans disapprove of the individual mandate in the new federal health care law—Obama’s signature domestic policy initiative. A proposed amendment to Ohio’s constitution blocking the mandate’s implementation may well pass and will certainly keep the electorate focused on that issue. In addition, 78 percent of Ohio’s voters (including 66 percent of Democrats) favor a state bill requiring would-be voters to show photo identification in order to cast their ballots, a change that Democratic operatives believe would reduce their margins in lower-income and minority communities.

This brings us to Obama’s chances. Fifty-eight percent of Ohio’s voters disapprove of his handling of the economy, despite the fact that Ohio unemployment has declined by two full percentage points—from 10.6 percent to 8.6 percent—since February of 2010, versus only 0.5 points (9.7 to 9.2 percent) for the country as a whole. Only 46 percent approve of the president’s overall job performance. The same percentage—46 percent overall, and 40 percent of Independents—feel that he deserves to be reelected. While the survey shows him way ahead of Tea Party favorites such as Sarah Palin, Michele Bachmann, and Rick Perry, Obama’s edge over Mitt Romney is a barely significant four points, 45 to 41.

The most recent NBC News/Wall Street Journal survey shows much the same thing: Obama’s job approval stands at 47 percent, and he leads Mitt Romney by 48 to 41 percent. And the generic question is revealing: Asked to choose between President Obama and the “Republican candidate,” 42 percent of voters said they’d probably vote for Obama, versus 39 percent who opted for the Republican candidate. But fully 10 percent—a share that hasn’t varied much this year—said that it would depend on the identity of Obama’s opponent.

Of course, it’s early, and as a useful Gallup analysis shows, an incumbent’s ratings in the twelfth quarter of his presidency are more predictive than are those in the tenth, the quarter that Obama has just completed. But it’s not too early to see the basic options for 2012. If the economy perks up even modestly, Obama wins. If not, we’re in for a repeat of 1980, when a majority of the electorate was willing to fire the incumbent, but not unless they felt comfortable with the challenger—a sentiment that didn’t crystallize until the pivotal Carter-Reagan debate. So if the Republicans manage to nominate a mainstream conservative who seems reasonable, they may well win. If they nominate Palin or Bachmann, they’ll commit creedal suicide, as each party ends up doing about once a generation. As for Rick Perry—the Republican flavor du jour—it remains to be seen whether he can become the party unifier who energizes the Tea Party base and Main Street conservatives without repelling the moderates and independents who will decide a close election.

William Galston is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and a contributing editor for The New Republic.