Kingmakers and Heartbreakers: Ohio's Crucial Independent Voters

Which way will they turn the presidential election?

Do not trust anyone who claims to know what is going to happen in Ohio on Election Day.  The sheer number of variables in play here are plenty, and even the most experienced political observers are having difficulty decoding the Buckeye State.

Polling the electorate in Ohio is tough, and many public polls over-sample Democrats enough to skew results beyond their stated margin of error percentages.  This is nothing new for Ohio, though, as typical polling of just about any race in Ohio will show whether the election is an issue race or an election of officials.

At the time of this writing, the RealClearPolitics average has Obama up by just over 2 points but that includes a number of polls that are Democrat-heavy.  Regardless, the RCP number is probably a good measure of where the race actually is in this state.

There are two polls that seem to have figured out how to get realistic numbers in Ohio.  Rasmussen Reports’ most recent poll shows the race tied and has been within the margin of error for months.  The Ohio Poll by the University of Cincinnati is the other but they have not released a poll on this race since late August when they declared the race a toss-up.

There is, however, one piece of good news for the Romney campaign that seems to have been overlooked by most commentators covering the race in Ohio.  In all 19 of the public polls released since the first debate, Mitt Romney has gained and held the lead among Ohio’s independents.  Ohio’s independent voters have determined the winner in at least five recent major elections in the Buckeye State and are considered to be kingmakers or heartbreakers in any election here.

Polling only tells part of the story.  Republicans in Ohio tell of great strides being made on the ground and momentum appears to have shifted in their direction.  A recently released memo from the Romney campaign on the state of the race in Ohio highlighted a few items that illustrate that shift.

Ohio Republicans are outperforming their share of voter registration in absentee requests and early voting by over 8.5 points thus far.  They also claim to have closed the gap in early voting and absentee voting in the last two weeks as well by outperforming in Ohio’s largest counties.  This demonstrates that Republicans are impacting the momentum of the voting as Election Day approaches.

3.7 million voter contacts have been made by Republican volunteers on the phone and 1.8 million door knocks on the ground signify a vast improvement over 2008 totals.  Consider that Ohio’s Republicans have knocked on 21 times as many doors and made three times as many phone calls in Ohio compared to 2008.  They are expecting to knock on the two millionth door and make their sixth millionth voter contact since May.

One other factor that may have a significant impact this cycle is a holdover from the previous election.  Ohio’s labor unions came out in force against the Republicans’ attempt to reform public sector pensions and flaunted their power in a crushing defeat of Issue 2, a statewide referendum on Senate Bill 5.  It appears, however, that the Obama campaign failed to encourage continuing that momentum, as the unions have largely been silent this time, perhaps in part because of the administrations ongoing War on Coal, which has heavily impacted the southeastern part of Ohio.

Romney’s debate performance and Obama’s mishandling of the Benghazi terrorist assassination of our ambassador are two things driving momentum in Ohio.  In a purely unscientific survey of Ohio voters on Facebook, jobs and the economy still rank as top issues of concern, but a few sleeper issues have emerged as well.

Few people would suspect that national security and foreign affairs weigh on Ohio voters, but it is real, and if the sentiment expressed in these discussions are widespread across Ohio, Obama’s performance as Commander-in-Chief has been a dismal disappointment and potentially fatal for his re-election hopes in Ohio.

Tea Party concerns were also well represented in my survey.  The unrestrained growth of government and government spending were common themes, as were concerns about the national debt and the diminishing value of the dollar.  There is a wide mistrust of government in general and of this administration in particular that is motivating Tea Party activists in Ohio to work hard to defeat President Obama at the polls.

The sleeper issue that might have the most impact, however, is energy.  Whether it is the price of gasoline or the Environmental Protection Agency meddling in coal and oil policy, a significant number of Ohio voters will be affected by this election; the aftermath of which will likely determine whether thousands of energy sector jobs materialize in Ohio or not.

Ohio voters are well aware of the consequences of their vote.  Historically, no Republican has ever captured the White House without winning Ohio and this is another election season where Ohioans will likely decide the race.  The winner of Ohio’s 18 electoral votes will be whichever side maximizes turnout on Election Day.  Republican counties to watch are Butler, Hamilton, and Warren, all in the southwestern part of the state.  Democratic counties to watch are Cuyahoga, Franklin, and Montgomery.  If turnout is higher than 2008 in the red counties and we see an increase in Republican turnout in the blue counties, then it will be a good night for Mitt Romney.

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