Does Ohio really matter?

Byline: | Category: 2012 | Posted at: Sunday, 28 October 2012

Gripped by the memory of trench warfare less than two decades before, both France and Germany built a line of heavily armed fortifications stretching north along their shared boundary from the point where both countries met the Swiss border.  The German Westwall (often called the Siegfried Line after the name of its WWI predecessor) was not nearly as strong as its French opposite: the unbreachable Maginot Line.  But in the end it didn’t matter, all because of a little place called Belgium.

Conventional political wisdom holds that Ohio is, as the state’s slogan goes, “the heart of it all.”  Since 2004 both parties’ candidates have put more money, people, and resources there than anywhere else in the nation.  As such, both sides know every bit of its ground.  It is political trench warfare in the Buckeye State this year, just as it was four and eight years ago. 

The use of new technology has improved the efficiency of campaigning.  And since Ohio is so important, new technologies are employed there first.  Micro-targeting produces micro-gains.  That may give one side or the other a few inches, or in political terms–households, but since Ohio is the juiciest electoral prize within one percent of the nation’s political 50-yard line, every inch helps. 

But new technologies are expensive.  They can’t be employed everywhere at once.  Even more dear is the cadidate’s time.  In the last days of a race, trailing candidates camp out in Ohio, because it becomes the must-have electoral prize that a popular vote losing candidate cannot hope to win without.

Ever since Al Gore dedicated insufficient resources to Ohio, no subsequent presidential candidate has dared to make that mistake.  As a result, both John Kerry and John McCain made good showings there even as they lost the overall vote.  Kerry lost nationally by 2.4%, but fell short in Ohio by just 0.3% less.  Four years later, John McCain, while losing by 7.3%, trimmed his losses in the Buckeye State to only 4.6%.  Ohio is on the critical path to securing an electoral victory if one fears being on the trailing side in the popular vote.  That is the reason why the last two losing candidates lost by smaller amounts in Ohio:  it was where they made their last stand.

However, on the side of the popular vote leader, Ohio isn’t necessarily key.  That is because usually within a few fractions of a percentage of it are other states with enough electoral votes to win.  While Bush took Ohio with a slim majority of only 118,000 votes, a switch one-tenth that size would have given him Wisconsin’s 10 electoral votes and would have made Ohio unnecessary.  Had he secured a slightly larger popular lead than he had, it was likely that the Badger State would have gone his way.  

The more time and resources the trailing candidate devotes to Ohio, the more vulnerable he becomes in other states.  That’s what happened four years ago, and that is what confused me about the state of the race then.  Fixated on Ohio, I ignored its flanks.  As I pointed out on Friday, even if John McCain had taken Ohio and every other state to its right (Florida, Indiana, and North Carolina), he was still going to lose the race.  Either one of Colorado or Virginia was going to make Ohio moot.  Behind in the polls overal, McCain could not have defended them all.

Take a look at an updated version of the chart I showed the other day. 


Florida is now off the list of contested states.  Of the states that Romney has to win, only Virginia and Colorado remain.  Every other state in the red box is now a must win for Obama.  When you’ve lost the popular vote advantage, no matter how strong you are between Lake Erie and the banks of the Ohio, you have no margin for error anywhere else in the land.

Sean Trende said to cautiously optimistic Republicans like myself, “Guys, the national polls are interesting, but until polls start showing Romney ahead in NV/IA, WI, or OH, he’s losing.”  That’s true, but only to an extent.  The deeper one candidate’s penetration of the popular vote, the wider becomes the political front.  With another point or more of separation, even Michigan gets added to that list.  Only one of them has to switch. 

The bottom line is that if Mitt Romney’s popular vote margin is large enough, no matter what happens in Ohio, some other state is going to play Belgium to Obama’s Maginot Line. 

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8 Responses to “Does Ohio really matter?”

  1. RM3 Frisker FTN Says:

    Visit the National Popular Vote website. Ponder the chuckle you will have IF Romney wins the popular vote but looses the Electoral College THEN the nine jurisdictions that passed the National Popular Vote law in their jurisdiction hem and haw that their electoral college votes now belong to Romney not Obama. In the end Romney wins the popular vote and wins the electoral college. Chuckle loudly that the progressives will have to eat their unintended consequences.

    The nine jurisdictions that will have egg on their faces are Vermont, Maryland, Washington, Illinois, New Jersey, DC, Massachusetts, California and Hawaii. That’s 132 electoral votes.

  2. Dustin Says:

    It’s interesting you mention Sean Trende. He has been adamant, to the point of near-dismissiveness at times, that this still is Obama’s election to lose. Not that it’s tied, mind you, but that Obama’s ahead.

    Meanwhile Cost & Jordan & Co. are outright predicting a Romney win unless Obama turns out his base in numbers greater than 2008.

  3. Red Ink News » Does Ohio really matter? Says:

    [...] <:::::> [...]

  4. danoso Says:

    The bottom line is that if Mitt Romney’s popular vote margin is large enough, no matter what happens in Ohio, some other state is going to play Belgium to Obama’s Maginot Line.

    Yep. If Romney wins by 5 pts, state by state analysis is irrelevant. Whether it’s OH or some other state, whatever one turns out to be ‘the’ swing state will already be on the north side of Romneys 270 EVs.

  5. sestamibi Says:


    Nice try, but it doesn’t work that way. The National Popular Vote initiative doesn’t become effective until states with a majority of electoral votes ratify it. That hasn’t happened yet, so if Obama wins the states you listed, he still gets their electoral votes.

    I live in a battleground state with a tight senate race (NV), so I’ll be out for Romney and Heller but not until election day.

  6. Bill Woods Says:

    @RM3 Frisker FTN
    The National Popular Vote laws only kick in if the states that have passed it have at least 270 electoral college votes. They don’t, so it isn’t a factor in this year’s election.

  7. unixguy Says:

    @RM3 Frisker FTN

    The NPV doesn’t take effect until states representing 270 EC votes have all passed the NPV law, so Romney wouldn’t actually win those EC votes.

    However, it is an interesting argument to bring up with people who support the NPV (who generally seem to be liberals, in my experience), to show them why this is a bad law. (Considering that voter turnout in the blue east coast states might be depressed this year due to hurricane Sandy.)

  8. mikebuzz Says:

    As an Ohio native (Cleveland area), I have seen this trench warfare firsthand and it has me wondering if Romney hasn’t suckered Obama into a massive all-in war here in the Buckeye state that is bleeding away opportunity costs that could have been used to shore up other states. Romney can afford to squander resources here because the electoral momentum is now flowing his way in the rest of the country. Obama has to reverse that somehow but the assets he’d need to do that are being squandered in the race to win Ohio.