As goes the economy, so goes Ohio?

C.J. Ciaramella Contributor
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During the 2010 election season, Ohio GOP Chairman Kevin DeWine had five words written on the whiteboard in his office: “taxes,” “spending,” “jobs,” “debt” and “deficit.”

“If the candidates weren’t talking about them, they were off message,” DeWine said.

Those five words worked. In 2010, Ohio Republicans took the governor’s seat, a Senate seat and 13 of the 18 House seats up for grabs. More than a year later, those five words are still on DeWine’s whiteboard, and as the state gears up for the 2012 elections Ohio Republicans want to hammer Democrats again on the economy and deliver a crucial victory to to the national GOP.

“I think, one year from now, we’re still going to be talking about the economy, joblessness and high gas prices,” DeWine said. “It’s going to be a referendum on Obama.”

In 2008, Obama won the battleground state, considered to be a toss-up for most of the election, by a relatively comfortable 4.6 percent. But it wasn’t cheap. McCain and Obama spent a combined $62 million in Ohio leading up to the election.

Recreating 2008 might be even harder and more expensive for Obama. Since being elected, Obama has visited Ohio more than any other state, often to tout his auto industry bailouts.

(Obama defaults to economic blame game)

It’s been a tough sell. According to a Quinnipiac poll conducted from May 10-16, the president’s overall approval rating was 49 percent but his economic job approval was only 39 percent, with 55 percent of respondents disapproving. In April 2011, eight counties in Ohio had unemployment rates higher than 12 percent.

“People elsewhere talk about the economy turning around, and it just doesn’t seem like it’s there yet in Ohio,” said Bob Kish, vice president of Strategy Group for Media, an Ohio-based political advertising firm. “Especially in Northeast Ohio, people have just kind of given up. They’re so defeated. They’re not used to it.”

Ohio State University political science professor Herb Asher said Democrats don’t have to actually fix the economy; they only have to change voters’ perceptions. The challenge for Democrats is to convince voters the economy is on the right track.

If the depressed mood prevails, it will be a dogfight in Ohio, especially with incumbent Democratic Senator Sherrod Brown up for reelection as well.

An upcoming ballot referendum in Ohio this fall might give insights into how 2012 will play out. Unions are collecting signatures to repeal Senate Bill 5, a bill that limited collective bargaining rights for public-sector unions — very similar to the restrictions passed in Wisconsin. Kish called it a “test-run” for the presidential election.

“Whoever wins, they’re going to use this,” Kish said. “If the repeal is victorious, [Democrats] can say, ‘Look, guys, labor is organized in Ohio.’ Republicans see it an opportunity to squash organized labor.”

DeWine and Asher both downplayed the significance of the ballot referendum, but Asher noted that “whichever side wins will go in definitely feeling like they have some momentum.”

Ohio has been a key battleground state in the last three presidential elections, giving rise to the trope: “As goes Ohio, so goes the nation.”

In 2000, Gore abandoned Ohio to focus on Florida, a move that possibly cost him the election. In 2004, when only three states flipped their allegiance from 2000, Ohio gave Bush the presidency by a narrow 51 percent. Obama’s generous victory in 2008 made Ohio less important in electoral college calculus, but it still garnered much attention from both candidates.

Ohio will lose two electoral votes in the 2012 elections due to the results of the 2010 census, but will likely still be a critical state for Democrats and Republicans.

“In 2012, people are expecting that some states Obama won in 2008 might not be winnable again, so it will come down to the traditional battleground states,” Asher said. “If it’s competitive, Ohio will be a key, even with only 18 votes.”

DeWine said, for the GOP, Ohio is a must-win.

“We know that no Republican wins the White House without winning Ohio,” DeWine said. “With all due respect to the other 49 states, we think Ohio is the only one that matters.”