In any Presidential election, Ohio will always find itself in the center of the storm. Its hearty helping of electoral votes along with its perpetual swingy-ness makes it the ultimate prize among the make or break states. This year, conventional wisdom asserts that the path to victory must go through Ohio. But is Ohio really a must win? For Mitt Romney, the answer is a definite yes: he needs Ohio (along with North Carolina, Florida, and Virginia) to have any shot at getting to 270. Even with such an impressive sweep of the toss-ups, Romney will need at least four more electoral votes from one of the remaining smaller swing states.
With a week to go, Ohio is President Obama’s to lose as polls continue to indicate a small yet consistent advantage among likely voters. Ohio may be Obama’s firewall, but unlike Mitt Romney, it is not his Waterloo. Obama could lose Ohio and all the other major swing states and still have a plausible yet narrow shot at re-election. Call them the salvation states: New Hampshire, Iowa, Colorado, and Nevada. Assuming Obama holds his safe bets (and let’s not kid ourselves, Wisconsin is still safe), winning those four will keep him in the White House with 272 electoral-college votes.
It’s fun to play with electoral-college math like this (well, fun for nerds) but how realistic is this scenario really? It would probably depend on how the President lost Ohio. If Obama loses by 2 or 3 points, it may signify a strong and unexpected shift in fortunes that likely will cost him at least one of the four. But, if we see a repeat of 2004, and the margin defeat in Ohio is razor thin, Obama may still carry all of the smaller swings. Here’s how.
A shifting electorate that compromises Obama in Ohio may not be sufficient to topple him in the other four. Mitt Romney’s strategy relies almost entirely on winning over white voters, and if he wins Ohio, it will reflect unforeseen movement with that demographic. In 2008, John McCain narrowly won the white vote in Ohio (despite losing Ohio overall), but got thumped by white voters in Iowa and New Hampshire. What this suggests is that even if Romney successfully increases his lead among white voters in Ohio, it may not automatically translate into substantial gains in the Granite and Hawkeye States. Romney could also face the same reduced enthusiasm with white voters in Nevada and Colorado (in addition to a sizable and unfavorable Hispanic voting bloc). Nevada is clearly Obama’s strongest of the group (Nevada all but guarantee’s the President’s reelection should he win Ohio), while Colorado remains very tenuous for either candidate. But these four diverse states stand as the last chance for Obama should the unthinkable happen in Ohio.
The salvation strategy is no doubt unpalatable to both campaigns. For Romney, it makes his Herculean task of getting to 270 just that much more difficult. And though this math gives Obama a thousand times more breathing room than Gore or Kerry ever had, it leaves no room for error. As a political strategy, it is weak sauce, but like a backup parachute, it's worth the effort.
I think that the Obama campaign is well aware of the value of their last-ditch safety net. Hillary Clinton can certainly speak about Obama’s knack of accumulating small-state victories to balance out defeat in a bigger state. Ohio, Florida, and Virginia may dominate the last throes of campaigning, but it’s a guarantee that each of the salvation states will see a visit from Obama, Biden, or the First Lady more than once before voting day.