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Published: Sunday, 5/6/2012

Ohio and Virginia could hold the key to deciding the Obama-Romney race

BY JAMES O'TOOLE
BLOCK NEWS ALLIANCE

President Obama's twin rallies in Ohio and Virginia Saturday, the quasi-official launch of a re-election campaign he's actually been fighting for three years, took him from perhaps the most traditional to the newest major battleground in the Electoral College.

Over the next six months, those two states will be seeing lots more first-hand campaigning, as will perhaps a dozen others. That will be accompanied by what's anticipated to be the heaviest barrage of advertising in history along with ever more sophisticated grass-roots ground games.

The frenetic activity in those targets will offer a sharp contrast to most other states, with voting histories painted in deeper shades of red or blue, fated by the unintended consequences of the Constitution to be flyover country for the White House contenders.

With Florida and Pennsylvania, Ohio has been a pivotal state in each of the last three elections. It has voted for the winner in every presidential race for the last half century, and no Republican has won the White House without carrying the state. Polls depict it as another close contest this year.

The latest Quinnipiac survey showed Mr. Obama and presumptive Republican nominee Mitt Romney virtually tied in the Buckeye State.

Ohio is used to being a White House battleground, but Mr. Obama's victory in Virginia four years ago represented a dramatic shift in the electoral map, the first time a Democrat had won the state since the landslide of Lyndon B. Johnson in 1964.

Virginia and New Jersey are the only states that elect their governors in the odd numbered year following a presidential election. In 2009, they offered a corrective to the Democratic euphoria of the previous year when Republicans captured their governors' offices in landslides.

Bob McDonnell now presides in Richmond and Chris Christie in Trenton. Both are now the objects of speculation as potential running mates for Mr. Romney, and both campaigned for him in the primaries.

In the days before his narrow victory over Sen. Rick Santorum in the Ohio primary, Mr. Romney often appeared at the side of another rumored vice presidential contender, Ohio Sen. Rob Portman, who captured his Senate seat in the 2010 elections that also swept Gov. John Kasich into office.

The Christie and McDonnell 2009 victories proved harbingers of the overwhelming GOP tide of the 2010 elections. Now Democrats have at least some reason to hope that that wave could ebb in this year's contests.

Political landscape

A Washington Post survey found the President leading Mr. Romney in Virginia 51 percent to 44 percent, based on his continuing support from young voters, minorities, and the affluent suburbanites in the Washington suburbs who have driven the state's relatively strong economic growth in the face of the economic downturn.

In March, the state's unemployment rate was 5.6 percent, well below the national average, then 8.2 percent. If, as Mr. Romney said, and many analysts believe, "it's still the economy," his challenge in Ohio and several other swing states is compounded by the fact that their economies, while battered by the economic downturn, are still doing relatively better than the nation as a whole.

Ohio's jobless rate spiked to 10.6 percent at the trough of the recession but has struggled back to 7.5 percent, better than the national figure.

"It's a lot better than I would have thought a year ago," said Jim Ruvolo, a former chairman of the Ohio and Lucas County Democratic party. "Clearly the auto industry recovery is going to be helpful … The economy isn't where it needs to be. [President Obama] has to be careful, but it makes this [Ohio] race competitive, and I don't think I would have said that a year ago."

Robert Bennett, a veteran GOP figure, returned to his old post as state Republican chairman this year to help mend a rift in the party hierarchy.

He sees former President George W. Bush's re-election as a model for this year's contest.

"This election will be more like '04, an intense ground game," he said.

He acknowledged that his party and the Romney campaign have some catching up to do after a primary season in which the Obama campaign was liberated to fine-tune its general election machinery while the GOP candidates were concentrating on one another.

"They've been at it a long time. I give the devil his due. They're as smart as we are. In '08, they cleaned our clock on social media. That's not going to happen this time.''

Economic factors

Several of the likely swing states have enjoyed similar returns to relative prosperity. Iowa and New Hampshire, the first contests of the nominating battle, are both expected to be in play in November and both have unemployment rates of 5.2 percent.

At the other end of the jobless spectrum, Nevada, a state that Mr. Obama won easily four years ago, had a March unemployment rate of 12 percent, the worst in the nation, to go along with its dramatically high incidence of mortgage foreclosures.

Florida, another of the most prized battlegrounds, was also above the national average with 9 percent unemployment. The latest Quinnipiac survey, released last week, saw Mr. Romney with a narrow lead in the state, in keeping with other recent polls in a state that Mr. Obama won, 51 percent to 48 percent in 2008.

Two other sizable battlegrounds, Missouri and Pennsylvania, were clustered with Ohio at 7.5 percent unemployment.

Mr. Romney has enjoyed consistent single digit leads in Missouri, where Sen. John McCain squeaked out a narrow victory four years ago.

Electoral math

The Web site realclearpolitics.com, aggregates the most recent stateside polling to project electoral college results. According to that exercise, Mr. Obama has a much clearer road to the required majority of 270 electoral votes, with states accounting for 253 electoral votes considered solid or leaning toward the incumbent. In this preliminary projections, Mr. Romney can count on states with only 170 electoral votes.

Using slightly different methodology, Karl Rove, the Republican strategist, released a map showing Mr. Obama with 220 solid electoral votes and 93 strong votes for Mr. Romney. The Intrade site allows would-be analysts to put their money where their mouths are by betting on the likely state-by-state results. That crowd-sourced projection sees the Democrats entering the general election season with 250 electoral votes, the Republican candidate with 146.

Among the other states expected to be the sites of close battles in November are Colorado and North Carolina, states that along with Virginia represented Democratic breakthroughs in 2008.

Mr. Obama accepted his 2008 nomination in Mile High Stadium, He's scheduled to accept his party's banner this year before another stadium crowd in Charlotte, N.C. Republicans predict that the state will return to its New South Republican roots this fall, but polling continues to show a close race there. In Colorado, most public polls this year have shown Mr. Obama with a single digit lead in the state, although one late-March poll, by Purple Strategies, found a tie in the state.

Block News Alliance consists of The Blade and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. James O'Toole is the Post-Gazette's politics editor.

Contact him at: jotoole@post-gazette.com.



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