U.S. President George W. Bush walks between hay bales enters a campaign event in Ohio
Kevin Lamarque  /  Reuters
President Bush, campaigning in Springfield, Ohio, on Sept. 27, holds an impressive lead in statewide opinion polls, particularly in the south.
By Martin Wolk Executive business editor
updated 10/13/2004 5:34:01 PM ET 2004-10-13T21:34:01

If the presidential election in Ohio hinges on the economy, Sen. John Kerry should have a good chance of winning the crucial state and its 20 electoral votes. These are tough times in the Buckeye State, which was hit hard by the recession of 2001 and has continued to suffer even as most of the country has enjoyed a rebound in job growth.

Yet with just five weeks left before Election Day, President Bush holds an impressive lead in statewide opinion polls, suggesting either that Ohioans are willing to tolerate their state’s weak economy or that they are more focused on issues of war and homeland security.

Pollsters and political analysts say there is some truth to both theories. Democrats overwhelmingly cite the economy as the No. 1 issue in the campaign, while Republicans are more likely to mention either foreign policy or national security, said Eric Rademacher, co-director of the University of Cincinnati Ohio Poll.

“The temptation is to say, let’s find the one issue people are going to be voting on,” Rademacher said. “But some voters really are looking at both. And there may be a third issue there, that we’re not picking up on, that is going to be the tiebreaker.”

Over the course of the next week, MSNBC.com will be taking a close look at the political landscape of the Buckeye State, focusing on the economy and following voter sentiment wherever it leads. From auto supply plants in the northern part of the state to the corn farms in the west and the suburbs and small towns in the center, we will be listening to the voters who are at the heart of an intense battle for the state’s 20 electoral votes.

Mirror of the nation
Ohio makes a fascinating case study because of its diverse mix of big cities, small towns and rural areas that in many ways mirror the nation as a whole. The urban northern tier of the state, from Youngstown to Toledo, tends to vote Democratic, with a strong union presence helping to ensure high voter turnout. But head to the suburbs of Cleveland or the farmlands outside Toledo, and the political demographics shift rapidly from blue to red.

President Bush’s base is in the south of the state, including the Cincinnati area and some of the culturally conservative rural counties in Ohio’s Appalachian region along the Kentucky and West Virginia borders. That leaves a vast battleground in the state’s midsection, including the large population centers around Dayton and Columbus, which were closely divided in 2000.

“This is really a very difficult state to figure out what’s going on,” said Sam Staley of the Buckeye Institute, a libertarian think tank in Ohio.  “It is one of the most diverse states in the nation.”

President Bush carried Ohio in 2000 by a relatively slim 165,000 votes, 3.5 percent of the total cast. Since then Ohio has shed 250,000 jobs, including 180,000 in manufacturing, still the state’s economic engine. The unemployment rate has risen to 6.3 percent from 3.9 percent. To balance the state budget, Ohio’s Republican governor was forced to push through a highly unpopular increase in the sales tax rate to 6 percent from 5 percent, and hundreds of struggling school districts have gone to the voters seeking higher property taxes.

Even as the labor market has rebounded in most of the nation over the past year, Ohio has continued to lose jobs, placing 49th out of the 50 states in the latest job growth update by analysts at Arizona State University. (Only neighboring Michigan had deeper year-over-year job losses.)

Four years ago there were no counties with unemployment of more than 10 percent. Now there are several, including Meigs and Morgan counties in southeast Ohio, where the jobless rate is above 15 percent. Cleveland, with a staggering poverty rate of over 31 percent, now ranks as the nation’s poorest big city, according to recent Census Bureau figures.

Major Market Indices

“The downturn here certainly was a lot more harsh than it was for the country as a whole,” said Richard DeKaser, chief economist for Cleveland-based National City, a regional banking giant. “The gains to date have been meager, and we have not even begun to close the gap in terms of jobs lost.”

Ohio has always been an important swing state, with voters choosing the winner in 13 of the past 14 presidential elections. The exception was 1960, when Ohio went for Nixon. Although the statehouse has been dominated for years by the GOP, President Clinton managed to carry Ohio in both 1992 and 1996, giving Kerry supporters hope.

Both sides have poured money and effort into the state, trying to energize party loyalists and woo the many independent and crossover voters. The two candidates have visited Ohio so often this year they could probably claim residency. Although there are many ways to do the math and come up with the 270 electoral votes needed to win, many analysts believe the Nov. 2 election will come down to the big three battleground states of Ohio, Pennsylvania and Florida. Whoever can take at least two out of those three is likely to win the election, according to this line of reasoning.

A sense that things are different
With its unusually heavy dependence on manufacturing, Ohio has been hit hard by the forces of globalization in recent years, from the auto plants of the north to the steel mills in the southeast. Of the big population centers, only the Columbus area has been spared heavy damage, with its more recession-proof mix of service, government and education jobs.

And unlike the many past manufacturing cycles that buffeted the state, there is a widespread recognition that things are different this time, and that most of the departed jobs are never coming back.

“Unlike some states where there is a fuzziness on issues because the economy is a mixed experience, in Ohio it is pretty clear that the things that made these communities are disappearing,” said David Mermin, a Democratic pollster with Lake, Snell, Perry & Associates. “The key is, of course, they need to believe there is a better alternative, and that is one of the key goals for Kerry.”

Brian Hicks, former chief of staff to Gov. Bob Taft and a Republican consultant, said Ohioans recognize that their state’s economy is not going to recover overnight.

“I think people recognize that there have been worldwide changes in the economy over the past seven years that have really impacted Ohio hard,” he said. “Our challenge in the state is how we regenerate jobs that are more high-tech, knowledge-oriented jobs.”

In recent days Kerry has shifted his focus from the economy to the war in Iraq, accusing Bush of living in a “make-believe” world and failing to acknowledge the deteriorating situation faced by soldiers on the ground. It remains to be seen whether his latest gambit succeeds in winning the fickle hearts of Ohio voters.

And even though Bush is leading the latest polls by up to 11 percentage points, nobody believes the race will be that easy. In 2000 Gore was trailing by 10 points and he gave up on Ohio, canceling his television ads and failing to appear in the state during the final weeks of the campaign. The race ended up far closer than expected, and many Democrats believe Gore could have won the state.

“It’s a long way to Election Day,” said Hicks. “This will be neck and neck all the way to the election.”

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