Ohioans are poised to pick the next president — just as soon as we make up our collective mind how we’re going to vote.
Political analysts, party leaders, and pollsters agree that as the race between President Obama and Mitt Romney has tightened to a virtual tie nationwide, barely a week before Election Day, it’s increasingly likely that Ohio will contribute the decisive vote that provides the tipping point in the Electoral College.
“Ohio is central enough to the electoral math that it now seems to matter as much as the other 49 states put together,” Nate Silver, the New York Times’ election forecaster, said last week. He told Toledoans: “I am not sure whether I should be congratulating you or consoling you.”
Bob Bennett, the chairman of the Ohio Republican Party, is even more emphatic. “Ohio will elect the next president,” he declares. He quickly adds: “And it’ll be Romney.”
That last part isn’t so clear. According to a poll out today, sponsored by The Blade and the state’s other largest newspapers, likely Ohio voters are split right down the middle: 49 percent for the President, 49 percent for his Republican challenger. (Our endorsement of Mr. Obama’s re-election appears on the adjacent page.)
So Ohio could well determine the outcome of this year’s election, just as Florida did in 2000 on a razor-thin vote margin. Remember those thrilling days? Butterfly ballots, hanging chads, and dimple dents? A month of lawsuits and recounts? The U.S. Supreme Court — on a 5-4 vote — essentially naming George W. Bush president over Al Gore?
If the eyes of the nation and world are going to focus on our state, we don’t want it to be because of a similar fiasco here. So the state and local officials who run Ohio’s elections need to do everything they can to make the voting machinery work flawlessly.
That means no screw-ups by the Lucas County Board of Elections, in handling provisional ballots or anything else. That means the state officials who had to be ordered by the U.S. Supreme Court to open early voting in person to all eligible Ohioans next Saturday, Sunday, and Monday don’t allow anyone to be disfranchised.
That means that the record number of absentee ballots Ohioans are likely to cast this year get counted efficiently, and the tally is announced promptly. Ohio Secretary of State Jon Husted doesn’t want to worry about who will play him in the made-for-HBO movie.
That means no tolerance of self-appointed “poll watchers” who try to intimidate voters. It means no reprise of Ohio’s electoral golden oldies: long lines of people still waiting to vote at poll closing time, supposedly state-of-the-art voting and vote-counting machines breaking down, poorly trained election workers directing voters to the wrong precinct.
There’s already been a hiccup: The Ottawa County election board sent an announcement to voters in three precincts that not only identified a wrong location for their polling place but also gave a date for Election Day that was two days late. Not a fatal error, but it had better not set a trend.
Some observers worry that if the Ohio vote is so close that election officials here can’t declare a winner until they count provisional ballots, the next president’s identity might remain unknown until after Thanksgiving. Mr. Bennett says that’s unlikely; he predicts that Mr. Romney will carry Ohio by a larger margin than current polls suggest, so that the outcome won’t have to turn on provisional votes.
In any event, he says he’s confident that Ohio won’t become this year’s equivalent of Florida a dozen years ago.
“Common Cause, which is not a conservative organization, ranked Ohio in the top five [states] in election laws and voting,” he told me. “And vote fraud is not a big issue in Ohio. Does it occur? Maybe a little bit. Will it make a difference? Probably not.”
Two polls released last week — one by Quinnipiac University for CBS News, the other by Time magazine — gave Mr. Obama a comfortable five-point lead over Mr. Romney in Ohio. But they were the exceptions. Most other polls place the advantage for either the President or Mr. Romney within the margin of survey error — that is, a toss-up.
The Ohio newspaper poll suggests that President Obama enjoys a sizable advantage among early voters. That’s not surprising; research from past elections shows that early-voting Ohioans tend to be female, older, poorer, less educated, and urban. That generally makes them more likely to vote Democratic. Of course, then-Gov. Ted Strickland won the early vote in 2010 — but ultimately lost to Republican challenger John Kasich.
The GOP credits its ground game in Ohio with turning out early voters in numbers that are exceeding the party’s expectations. Democrats say that the other party is bluffing and that they are doing even better in early voting than they did four years ago. Take your pick.
Five weeks ago, Mr. Obama had a five-point lead in the Ohio newspaper poll; now it’s a dead heat. The new poll suggests that Republican voters in our state are more enthusiastic about the election than Democrats, but that Democrats are more strongly committed to voting.
Ohioans prefer the President to make foreign policy but back Mr. Romney on the economy. Women tend to side with the President, men with Mr. Romney. Older and better-educated voters tend to support Mr. Romney; African-American voters overwhelmingly back Mr. Obama.
The President’s role in the auto industry bailout gives him an edge among independents, who represent about 10 percent of Ohio voters. But such voters also are slightly more likely to think that Mr. Romney won the debates.
That is, Ohio voters remain all over the map. But this year, Ohio is the map.
So make sure you vote, fellow Ohioans. And to the folks who will count the votes: Please get it right.
David Kushma is editor of The Blade. Contact him at: email@example.com