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.