If the race for president can be boiled down to two key counties in one key state, then those jurisdictions are Hamilton and Cuyahoga, here in the Buckeye State. Mitt Romney began a three-stop tour of Ohio on Thursday in the former, and President Obama ended a 40-hour blitz of swing states in the latter.Both campaigns are placing a heavy emphasis on this state as Election Day draws near, but the frequency of Romney’s visits underscore the belief on both sides that he must make up ground quickly to win Ohio’s 18 electoral votes and thus have a shot at the White House.
Meanwhile, as the candidates hold big events in the two counties to draw out their bases of support, their running mates are sniffing out votes in less populous areas of the state.
And so it was that Obama staggered into Cleveland near the close of a whirlwind week that had taken him all over the country.
His Ohio team excitedly talked up the closing rally of the two-day tour all week: Air Force One would fly into Cleveland over Lake Erie just after the sunset, and the president would step off the plane into a sea of supporters.
Sure enough, in that dramatic fashion, Air Force One landed at Burke Lakefront Airport and wheeled once past the entire length of the rally setup. The pilot turned the aircraft around and paraded by again, giving the crowd of 12,000 a full view of the opposite side of the famous plane, then finally turned once more and parked behind the podium.
Obama disembarked and jogged wearily up to the stage, but his first few lines were nearly inaudible. “Ohio, I’ve got to tell you, even though I’ve been going for about 38 hours straight, even though my voice is getting kind of hoarse, I’ve still got a spring in my step,” he said.
Throughout his speech, the president pressed voters to vote early. His stump message is also getting more positive: Voters can trust him (the implicit suggestion, however: they can’t trust his opponent).
“After four years, you know me,” he said. “You know every single day when I get up in the morning, I’m thinking about you.”
He ended on this telling note: “If you’re willing to roll up your sleeves and work with me, knock on some doors with me, make some phone calls with me, we’re going to win Cuyahoga County. We’re going to win Ohio. We’re going to win this election.”
As of last year, the U.S. Census Bureau estimated that 1.3 million of the state’s 11.5 million residents live in the Cleveland-area county, more than 11 per cent of the entire state. (There are 87 other counties.)
Voters don’t register by party in Ohio, but parties count their totals based upon the last primary in which a registered voter participated. And in Cuyahoga, Democrats count 345,000 voters, and Republicans count about 126,000. Overall, as of Oct. 1, some 916,000 Cuyahoga residents were registered to vote.
What’s more, 30 per cent of the county is African-American, whereas just 12.4 per cent of the state is.
In the 2010 governor’s race, Democrat Ted Strickland lost narrowly to Republican John Kasich. But Strickland outperformed Kasich in Cuyahoga, 251,000-149,000, giving him a cushion of more than 100,000 votes there alone.
Four years ago, Obama more than doubled up on John McCain in Cuyahoga, winning 458,000 votes to the Republican’s nearly 200,000. How telling was this margin? Obama won the entire state by a smaller number of votes (206,830) than he won the county by (258,542).
And given that disparity, it’s obvious why the president staged the rally he did there on Thursday night: His team is looking to run up the score in this densely concentrated area.
Romney knows this all too well, of course, which is why he is charging hard to offset that advantage with a heavy presence in the southwestern corner of Ohio, where Cincinnati is located.
When the GOP nominee arrived late Wednesday night, he whipped up some local TV coverage by letting the media aboard to capture him stepping off his plane at the small Lunken Airport, where Republican Sen. Rob Portman was waiting to greet him. (It didn’t get nearly the same treatment on Cincinnati TV as the president’s “historic” rally did on Cleveland TV, demonstrating the benefit of incumbency in granular — but potentially pivotal — ways. Nonetheless, for Romney, every mention and extra few seconds of footage can help.)
On Thursday morning, the former Massachusetts governor held a rally for about 4,000 supporters in a factory called Jet Machine in Bond Hill. That’s in Hamilton County, the state’s third largest jurisdiction behind Cuyahoga and Franklin (where Columbus is located).
Unlike Obama, who is trying to firm up his support, Romney is working to generate enthusiasm. He frequently told the Cincinnati audience that his campaign is about “big change,” big things and big ideas.
“For the last year, and four debates, three presidential debates and one vice presidential debate, the president’s been looking for a plan,” Romney said. “He hasn’t been able to find a plan. He hasn’t been able to define what he’s going to do to make America strong going forward. I have.”
Though Hamilton County is a bit smaller than the two Obama strongholds, it still boasts about 800,000 residents. That means Hamilton has a larger population than that of four states — Alaska, North Dakota, Vermont and Wyoming.
The demographics of the county mirror the state more closely than Cuyahoga does, although it is similarly home to a higher proportion of African-Americans, at about 25.8 per cent. An Obama aide in Ohio told RCP this week, “We will win Hamilton County,” and returning it to the Democratic column could well be the difference if the election remains close.
In 2008, Obama won about 225,000 of the county’s votes compared with 196,000 for his opponent, a much slimmer difference than in Cuyahoga, of course. But two years later, Strickland lost Hamilton to Kasich in the governor’s race, 140,000 votes to 126,000. The voter registration stands at about 564,000.
Central to the Obama team’s thinking is that this is a presidential election, not a midterm, and they’ve built a stronger network of support since Strickland’s loss. They expect to score more votes because they’ve determined where the less-likely voters are, and if those voters don’t cast ballots early, they will drag them to the polls on Election Day. Already, the campaign is building a significant lead among Ohioans who have voted early.
Both sides acknowledge that the president is ahead here, but the Romney campaign issued a memo Thursday afternoon asserting that the race is still very much in play and that they can win it.
“A steady upward trajectory among key voting blocs indicates a close race, but one that is unmistakably moving in Mitt Romney’s direction,” read the memo from political director Rich Beeson and Ohio director Scott Jennings.
Of course, to coax the numbers in Romney’s direction, the candidate and running mate Paul Ryan are spending a large chunk of their time in the state. After the standard-bearer wrapped up the Cincinnati event Thursday morning, he spoke to 3,000 supporters at Worthington Industries outside of Columbus and then traveled northwest to the state’s border with Indiana, appearing before 12,000 supporters at Defiance High School.
The Republican nominee is making a quick detour to Iowa on Friday morning to give a speech on the economy, but he’ll return to Ohio in the afternoon for an evening rally in Canton, where Ryan will join him.
Ryan will tour the state this weekend, making eight stops in some smaller towns that, with one exception, are far from the state’s big cities: He’ll go south from Canton to New Philadelphia, then will wind his way farther south and west to Zanesville, Circleville and Yellow Springs, ending up Saturday evening in Dayton. Then he’ll head north to Celina, Findlay and Marion, which puts him in a rural region due west of where he began Friday night.
Vice President Biden took a similar, three-day tour of the state’s smaller towns last week, but if there’s anything that unnerves the Obama camp about Ohio, it’s the constant visits by both Romney and Ryan, which the president doesn’t have the time to replicate.
He will, however, be back in the state on Monday, when President Clinton will join him for a rally in Youngstown, the heart of car country.
This story was originally published by RealClearPolitics.
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