Columbus, Ohio: "Welcome to the United States of Ohio,’’ she said and smiled. Julianne Williams, a young voter in Columbus, Ohio’s capital, is right. If you are anywhere in Ohio or are following television where you are constantly bombarded by ads promoting the two candidates in the US presidential elections, you can’t be blamed if you think the entire election is about Ohio.
At the Sheraton Hotel in Columbus, an entire wall is dedicated to emphasising Ohio’s umbilical cord with White House. 'The Mother of Presidents’, it says, pointing out that eight American Presidents have called Ohio their home, the most from any state in the country.
"It is insulting that we are the centre of all attention only in the last six months,’’ says Alex Fischer, CEO of Columbus 2020, an investment promotion agency. "Where the hell were they the last three and a half years? Now they are here all the time, clogging our airwaves and roads.’’
Karen Redelberger, a mother of two boys and a marketing professional, however prefers to see the brighter side of this political desperation to win Ohio. "It means we are that important, that we have influence. Come election season, we are on America’s map. On the radar as it were.’’
The scramble for Ohio’s votes is because of the need to secure the 18 electoral votes from this state. Ohioans are also known to reward and punish the political class and keep swinging between choosing Republicans and Democrats. It is because of this battleground nature of Ohio that both parties pull out all stops to try and win this Buckeye state.
Both President Barack Obama and Governor Mitt Romney have chosen to spend a good part of the last weekend before the crucial Tuesday in Ohio to seduce its voters one last time. Romney has already been here more than 40 times since summer, and Obama and his surrogates head to this gateway to the Midwest every week. In fact, Romney has toured some semi-rural areas in the state, where no Presidential candidate has ever canvassed before, thrilling voters no end.
It would not be an exaggeration to say that whoever wins Ohio wins the Presidency. The state has not voted for a loser since the Presidential election in 1960 when John F Kennedy won the election while losing Ohio. The stakes are higher for Romney because no Republican candidate has ever made to the top job without carrying Ohio. Losing Ohio would mean either of the two candidates would need to do the math and win many smaller states to compensate for the loss of these 18 votes, a tough scenario. In the American system, whoever gets to 270 electoral votes wins the contest.
Not that everyone in Ohio is complaining. Certainly not the television stations. Of the whopping one billion dollars that have been spent by both sides on campaigning on television, 20 per cent significantly has been spent just in Ohio. Conservative estimates indicate that each television channel would make between $30-40 million by the time the dust settles on this election. "Elections are good for Ohio’s economy,’’ says Prof Paul Beck, Professor of Political Science at Ohio State University.
For Ohioans, these elections are also critical to their immediate future. The state that is home to several auto majors like GM, Chrysler, Honda and is the third largest manufacturing state after California and Texas, took a huge hit post 2008. According to Americans for Tax Reform group, 88,000 Ohioans have lost their job since Obama took over.
"The recession was deep and painful and the accompanying job losses were traumatic,’’ says Eric Burkland, President of the Ohio Manufacturers Association. President Obama’s trump card is the auto bailout that he is selling to the voters here since one in eight jobs here (it used to be one in five jobs a decade ago) is connected to the auto industry. One of the Democratic Party’s controversial slogans is "Osama bin Laden is dead and General Motors is alive’’.
No wonder then that Ohio is like ground zero for the jobs debate. The subject dominates the narrative in the Ohio election campaign, with the Romney camp stressing the need to have a CEO-like approach in White House. The Republican’s track record as a businessman is projected as the magic wand that will rid Americans of their economic misery.
Romney however, put his foot in the mouth when he claimed at a rally in Ohio that Chrysler was planning to ship production of jeeps overseas. It was immediately denied by Chrysler, giving a handle to Obama camp to brand Romney as a liar.
A look at Ohio’s political map will tell you how divided this state with a population of 11.5 million people and 7.7 million registered voters is. Urban areas tend to lean towards the Democrats while the rural patch and the suburbs prefer the Republicans. Interestingly Ohio has a Republican Governor and a Democrat Mayor in capital city Columbus, proof that the state does not believe in putting all its eggs in one basket.
An indicator of voter enthusiasm is that a significant number of Ohioans have opted to vote early. At least 40 per cent of them are likely to have voted before Tuesday. In 2008, about 35 per cent voted early and most of them for Obama, a fact that is not lost on the Romney camp.
Latest opinion polls indicate a 2-4 per cent lead for Obama, but Team Romney believes Ohio is too close to call before D-day. Chairman of the Ohio Republican Party Robert Bennett points out that even in 2008, an election where Obama’s slogan of hope and change was unbeatable, he secured only a lead of 4.6 per cent over his Republican rival, John McCain. This despite winning in many traditional Republican areas. Team Romney believes the disappointment with Obama this time will be enough to negate that lead.
What could, however, help Obama is that Ohio’s economy over the last year or so has begun to get better. Unemployment at 7 per cent is below the national average of 7.9 per cent and significantly lower than 9.4 in November 2010.
Nevertheless, some of the corporates, who are open about backing Romney, are worried about the possibility of a second term for Obama. Steve Shepard, Executive Vice President of the PNC group, the sixth largest financial services group in the US, says, "Four more years of similar policies would mean delay in major projects, investors would hold on to cash.''
At an election rally in Lima, a small town in Ohio, John Boehner, Speaker of the US House of Representatives and a Republican, says, "There is really no talk of hope and change in 2012. We are only hoping for change.''
Point is whether Ohio is hoping as well.
TS Sudhir is travelling in the US as part of an exclusive group of 25 journalists from 25 countries, to report on the Presidential Elections. The tour is organised by the Foreign Press Center, US Department of State.