This year, as in previous presidential election years, the road to the White House -- at least for Republicans -- runs through Ohio. But even though Mitt Romney won the crucial Super Tuesday primary here, the weakness of his victory hasn't propelled him very far down that road.
Going back to the days of Abraham Lincoln, no Republican candidate has been elected president without carrying Ohio. There's no reason to expect the battleground-state precedent to end this year. Assuming Mr. Romney will be his party's nominee, if he doesn't win here in November, he almost certainly loses, period.
His primary performance doesn't offer great cause for optimism in the general election. Despite huge advantages in campaign money, experience, and organization, the former Massachusetts governor beat Rick Santorum by fewer than 11,000 votes among Republicans statewide -- about one vote per precinct.
Some perspective: Mr. Romney collected roughly 454,000 primary votes last week. In the Ohio Democratic primary four years ago, candidate Barack Obama got 600,000 more votes than that -- and he still lost to Hillary Rodham Clinton by more than 200,000 votes.
Since President Obama ran unopposed on the Democratic ballot this time, it isn't surprising that the overall 25-percent voter turnout last week was way down from the 46-percent primary turnout four years ago. Republican turnout was about 9 percent higher than in 2008.
But that year, John McCain effectively had the GOP nomination locked up by the time the campaign hit Ohio. So this year's meager turnout suggests a lack of enthusiasm among Ohio voters about the Republican field, despite its increased competitiveness.
Matt Mayer, the CEO of Provisum Strategies, a political advisory firm in Dublin, Ohio, says the odds that Mr. Romney will be denied the GOP nomination are "slim to none," despite continued wishful thinking among some Republicans about a late entrant or a brokered party convention. But in the absence of a big external event this fall similar to the financial meltdown in September 2008, Mr. Mayer adds, a GOP win in Ohio this November is unlikely.
"The conservative base doesn't think much of Mitt Romney," says Mr. Mayer, a visiting fellow at the conservative Heritage Foundation. "If the base isn't with you, then you have nowhere to go."
Mr. Romney "barely won Ohio even after grossly outspending his opponent," Mr. Mayer told me. "He isn't going to outspend Barack Obama and Big Labor here. And Ohio is going to be ground zero yet again -- there's no way mathematically a Republican can win without Ohio."
Look at the map of last week's primary vote by county. Despite his slight statewide plurality, Mr. Romney won just 19 of Ohio's 88 counties, including those surrounding most of the state's largest cities: Columbus, Cleveland, Cincinnati, Dayton, Akron, and Youngstown. Mr. Santorum, a former U.S. senator from neighboring Pennsylvania, took the rest, including all of the counties that make up the Toledo metropolitan area. Mr. Mayer notes that seven of the counties Mr. Romney won are "blue" counties that he expects to go Democratic in November.
According to exit polls, Mr. Romney did best among Ohio Republicans who earn more than $100,000 a year, college graduates, party loyalists, self-described moderates, voters who identify the economy as the most important issue to them, and those who make defeating Mr. Obama a higher priority than ideological purism. That's consistent with his performance in primaries in other states.
As predicted, Mr. Santorum did best among evangelical, Tea-Party, socially conservative, and blue-collar voters, who said he understands the concerns of "average Americans." Many of them said they were especially motivated to vote.
Yet Mr. Santorum still managed, in just a week, to blow a lead over Mr. Romney that polls suggested had been as large as 11 points. And Mr. Mayer argues that many Ohioans voted strategically for Mr. Santorum simply to try to slow Mr. Romney's march to the nomination.
Mr. Santorum also appealed to younger voters more than Mr. Romney did, although the real winner of Ohio's youth primary was "let's stay home." Just 7 percent of registered voters under 30 turned out last week, compared to 25 percent in 2008, according to an analysis by Tufts University's Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning & Engagement.
Republican leaders insist that come November, primary voters who prefer Mr. Santorum or Newt Gingrich or Ron Paul will rally behind Mr. Romney as their only option for beating President Obama. But nothing says these folks have to vote at all.
What can Mr. Romney do to win over more of Ohio's red-county Republican voters, as well as independents and Reagan Democrats? Maybe he'll quit trying to have it both ways on health-care reform, claiming to find daylight between the ObamaCare law he vows to repeal and the program he enacted in Massachusetts, even though they share key features -- most notably the individual mandate for buying health insurance.
Perhaps he'll decide that the federal aid that was essential to the survival of General Motors and Chrysler -- companies that employ large numbers of Ohio workers -- wasn't such a bad idea after all. If Mr. Romney wants to gain votes in northwest Ohio, maybe he'll stop running away from supporting a new bridge between Detroit and Canada.
Mr. Mayer says Mr. Romney needs to pick a vice-presidential running mate who can attract substantial numbers of swing-state votes. He suggests Ohio Sen. Rob Portman, Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels, or former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush.
Maybe Mr. Romney will do all these things to try to win his showdown in Ohio with Mr. Obama, who carried the state in 2008 with the most votes any presidential candidate ever has gotten.
And maybe by November, it still won't matter.
David Kushma is editor of The Blade.
Contact him at: email@example.com