And now, ladies and gentlemen, we bring you the Buckeye State
Electoral Votes: 20 (21 in 2000)
Like several large states in the north-eastern quadrant of the country - such as Illinois & New York - Ohio's relative decrease in population over the last decade led to the loss of a congressional seat, and with it, an electoral vote. Nonetheless, it remains an important state. It is one of only seven states with 20 or more EVs, and after Pennsylvania and Florida, it's the third-largest swing state. And Ohio is not merely a swing state - many consider it a bellwether state. Ohio has correctly picked the winner of every presidential election from 1964 on: In other words, as goes Ohio, so goes the nation (or vice-versa). Of course, Ohio did fail to pick the winner of the popular vote last time out... but that's a whole `nother kettle of fish.
In a way, I think Ohio could be the Republicans' Pennsylvania in reverse. If they can't win Ohio, it puts them in the hole for 20 EVs, which is a huge amount for a race that everyone expects to be very close. What's more, if Ohio (a state which many say has been trending Republican) tilts to the Dems on election night, it probably signals broader electoral weakness for the GOP. I'm not saying that if the GOP loses Ohio, it'll mean there was a rout, but I will say that if they don't take it, they probably can't win the whole shebang.
So what's going on on the ground in Ohio? First and foremost, there's the employment situation. (Is there any state where this is not a major issue?) When Bush came into office, Ohio's unemployment rate was 3.9%. It's now soared to 5.8%. (Side-note: These numbers are on a seasonally-adjusted basis. This is important because it makes it possible to compare different times of the year - in many places, there are temporary bumps in summer employment, for example. Unfortunately, the county-by-country maps I pulled up for Pennsylvania were not seasonally adjusted, so I won't be using those anymore.) In a state with a population of some 11.4 million, that's a lot of out-of-work - and unhappy - people.
More specifically, we once again find ourselves looking at the steel tariffs. The analysis isn't terribly straightforward, unfortunately. While steel makers favor the tariffs, steel users naturally oppose them. Ohio, as it turns out, is home to both manufacturers and consumers of steel, and the two sides are fighting it out. (The sad fact is, though, that despite the tariffs, Ohio's steel-making industry is still suffering and will never return to its glory days.) Bush seems to be pretty screwed here: If he rescinds the tariffs, he destroys whatever goodwill he might have won among the steel-makers, and if he keeps them in place, then he'll continue to anger the steel-users. If Bush thinks he can maintain a cavalier attitude toward the steel users ("Who else are they gonna vote for? A Democrat?"), then he may indeed be in for a rude shock when these otherwise reliable Republicans defect.
Now, getting back to the political situation: Ohio indeed is pretty heavily Republican. Apparently, it's quite common to register to vote in Ohio without selecting a party affiliation. In 2000, only 32% of all registered voters actually belonged to a particular party. But of those 7.5m registered voters, 1.4m were Republicans, whereas just 1.0m were Dems. What's more, both of Ohio's Senators, 12 of 18 Congressmen and the Governor are all Republicans. And Bill Clinton never cracked 50% here - Ross Perot pulled down sizable chunks of the vote both times, letting Clinton carry the state. The anecdotal evidence also looks bad: Commenters all note that the state Democratic Party is in disarray. Considering that Jerry Springer was even remotely considered a viable Senate candidate, this claim seems bleakly accurate.
But is the situation truly that bad for Democrats? It seems that everywhere you go, Bush's approval ratings have dropped dramatically in the last half year, and Ohio is no exception. According to the University of Cincinnati's Ohio Poll (PDF), Bush's approve/disapprove numbers were a lofty 76/20 back in April. As of September, those numbers had plummeted to 55/43 - you can almost hear that kerplunk. Indeed, this is the lowest approval rating Bush has gotten from Ohioans during his presidency, and a majority now disapprove of his handling of the economy. Furthermore, Republican Gov. Bob Taft (PDF) has a lousy approval rating of 44%. Of course, Governors everywhere have been taking hits lately, but Taft's approval was regularly in the 60s last year, so this decline seems particularly bad. I can't interpret these trends as representing anything other than anger at incumbents. Out in California, the target of this wrath may have been a Democrat, but if my take is correct, these sentiments are going to hurt the party in power all around - and nationally speaking, that party is the GOP.
(And in case you were curious, Sen. George Voinovich is up for re-election next year. Polls show him with a sizable lead (PDF) so far, but his likely opponent, State Sen. Eric Fingerhut, only has about 50% name recognition.)
The sentiment in the comments is that the get-out-the-vote (GOTV) effort will be critical here for Democrats, as it often is. (Typically, for the GOP, suppressing voter turnout is advantageous.) My hope is that the amazing grassroots work currently going on in Howard Dean's name will continue through the general election season, whether or not he is the nominee. If we can sustain this kind of involvement, then we stand a fighting chance in Ohio. But I still think it remains a major uphill battle. The Democratic infrastructure is weak, and the Republicans remain the majority party by a substantial margin. Fortunately, we don't need Ohio in order to win, but I think we should definitely fight for it because we can't afford to be complacent about a single electoral vote.