Romney surge in Ohio tests both campaigns’ strategies

Republican Mitt Romney appears at a rally in Lebanon, Ohio. He's riding a surge of support in the battleground state.
(Jim Watson, AFP/Getty Images)

CINCINNATI — With a sudden infusion of cash and a major investment of time, Mitt Romney has redoubled his efforts to win Ohio, trying to overcome President Obama’s months-long lead in the crucial campaign battleground.

Ohio has been on the winning side of every presidential election since 1964, largely for the same reason that consumer-products companies like to use the state as a test market — it closely resembles the nation in miniature. But the resemblance is not perfect; the state has leaned just slightly more Republican than the country as a whole, meaning that a GOP nominee who cannot carry Ohio is unlikely to win nationwide. None ever has.

As recently as two weeks ago, with polls consistently showing a strong Obama lead here, demoralized Republicans openly talked of long-shot strategies to amass a majority of electoral votes without Ohio’s 18.

Now, with Romney riding a wave of enthusiasm since the first presidential debate and the national polls in a dead heat, that talk is gone. Instead, an intensifying fight is directly testing the two campaigns’ core strategies.

The Obama strategy called for a summerlong advertising barrage to set the terms of the debate early and a massive campaign organization to hold the line against any late-developing Romney surge.

Democratic strategists believed that in a state with a long history of manufacturing, Obama’s bailout of the automobile industry in 2009 and Romney’s opposition to it would give the president a strong opening argument with the white, blue-collar workers who make up Ohio’s swing vote. They hoped to build on the success of a union-backed campaign last year that overturned a new state law restricting collective bargaining by public employees, including police and firefighters.

Interviews with voters show that the campaign’s aggressive efforts to portray Romney as a wealthy businessman out of touch with the lives of ordinary voters has succeeded in sowing doubts even in the minds of some Republican-leaning Ohioans.

But Romney’s strategists argued all along that here, as elsewhere, voter unhappiness with the direction of the country would keep Obama vulnerable. All they needed, Romney advisors argued, was an event that would cause people to give Romney a second look.

For voters like Molly Johnson, the Oct. 3 debate provided that moment.

“The debate was huge for me,” Johnson said as she and two friends, both Romney supporters, watched their young children play in the grass before the high school homecoming game in Blue Ash, a Republican-leaning suburb north of Cincinnati.

“Smaller government is a big thing for me,” she said, “but I do have concerns about whether Romney is too much supporting big business” to keep rich people rich.

“I understood Romney,” she said of the debate, and she now leans toward him, although she “wouldn’t say 100%.”

The Republicans have moved quickly to try to solidify votes like hers. Romney has spent at least part of each of the last five days in Ohio, drawing crowds of unaccustomed size and enthusiasm, if still smaller than Obama’s. Wednesday, about 9,500 supporters waited for hours on a bone-chilling evening in Sidney, in the state’s rural west, to cheer Romney on.

“I’m overwhelmed by the number of people here,” the Republican told them. “There are even people out there,” he said, pointing into the distance, “that’s another county over there.”

At the same time, Romney’s campaign and allied “super PACs” have begun pouring money into Ohio’s already-saturated airwaves. Four Ohio media markets were among the nation’s top 15 for political ads in September; Obama had the advantage in each one, according to data analyzed by the Wesleyan Media Project, which tracks campaign advertising.

Last week, Romney and his allies drew even. Sources familiar with the ad buys said the Republican campaign doubled its purchases of time going into this weekend, and Democrats expect to be significantly outpaced in coming days.

That’s bad news for the state’s beleaguered voters. In addition to the constant ads, “every other phone call during the day is politics,” sighed Julie Ruskin, an Obama supporter from Symmes Township, another northern Cincinnati suburb.

The ads on both sides mix general campaign themes — jobs and the economy, Medicaid, taxes — with state-specific appeals. Romney has wooed voters in eastern Ohio coal country with attacks on Obama’s environmental policies; Obama fired back with an ad featuring miners who say their bosses pressured them to attend a Romney rally. In recent days, Romney also has charged that the administration’s defense policies would cost jobs at a General Dynamics tank plant in Lima.

To counter the expected Republican advantage on the air, Obama will rely on his formidable get-out-the-vote operation, based in 120 offices in every part of the state. Already, just over a week into early voting here, that has begun paying off.

The early vote so far comes to nearly a fifth of the likely turnout, election officials estimate, and so far has been disproportionately from areas that went for Obama in 2008. (An NBC/Wall Street Journal/Marist poll released Thursday showed that 18% of likely voters said they already had cast ballots and 63% supported Obama.)

“It’s huge,” Amy L. Searcy, director of the Board of Elections for Hamilton County, which includes Cincinnati, said of the early vote. In 2008, when Obama became the first Democratic presidential candidate to carry the county since Lyndon B. Johnson in 1964, 109,000 early voters cast ballots either in person or by mail.

“We’ll beat that level in the next week,” Searcy said.

Democrats depend heavily on younger and poorer voters, many of whom do not habitually turn out. Early voting gives them repeated opportunities to get to the polls and allows the campaign to focus election-day resources on squeezing out the last remaining supporters.

The huge rallies that have been a signature of Obama’s campaigns, including the roughly 15,000 who heard him at Ohio State University in Columbus on Tuesday, help drive that process. A large “Vote Early” banner floated above the crowd, and buses took students and others directly to early-voting locations.

On Saturday, campaign officials announced a rally later this week featuring President Clinton and Bruce Springsteen in Parma, just south of Cleveland in heavily Democratic Cuyahoga County. Obama himself has made 15 trips to the state this year and has scheduled another for the morning after this week’s second presidential debate.

And both sides are carefully studying their own polls.

“That’s the measure,” White House senior advisor David Plouffe said, commenting on Romney’s prospects after the debate. “Is he going to take the lead in Ohio? If he doesn’t, he’s not going to be president.”

Matea Gold, Kathleen Hennessey, Seema Mehta, Michael A. Memoli and Paul West contributed to this report.