The Green-Eyed State

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With the election less than a week away, all of the commentariat is aflutter over the nigh-maddening unpredictability of this race. It is considered virtual pundit suicide to make any predictions at all at this point, never mind the steady stream of polling showing general trends in certain areas, partially because those trends are at loggerheads, and partially because no pundit wants to be proven wrong by name. In the interests of avoiding hypocrisy, I can’t blame them.

However, seeing as this false name gives me cover to tell unpleasant truths, I must break what I believe to be hard news to my fellow conservatives: Barack Obama will likely carry Ohio. What’s more, I believe the Romney campaign may agree with me, if their search for other sources of a road to 270 votes in places like Pennsylvania and Michigan are any guide.

This is not to say that I believe Romney is necessarily doomed. History says Ohio predicts the nation’s vote, and that it has been a long time since any Republican won without it, but as anyone with the slightest trace of logical skill will tell you, history is not predictive, merely instructive. After all, before 2008, no black man had ever won the presidency. It is not impossible — especially this year — to conceive of a situation in which Mitt Romney loses Ohio but wins Wisconsin, as well as possibly Iowa and New Hampshire, and thus becomes the 45th president of the United States. In fact, I would say that all of those states — with the possible exception of Iowa, which infamously dislikes Mormons — are better prospects for Romney than the Buckeye State.

What is more, I believe that Ohio no longer represents the perfect bellwether of America that it has in the past, but instead simultaneously represents everything ugly and outdated that the Obama administration has tried to preserve in America, and everything ugly and outdated that the Bush administration embodied while it was in office. Nor do I say this as a snobby coastal elitist looking down his nose at Ohio, but rather as someone who was afflicted with the experience of living in Ohio (and being involved in the state’s politics) for some time, and came away with both an imperfect thumb on the state’s pulse and a visceral revulsion at what makes that pulse quicken.

So let me state forthrightly and honestly that I have never truly believed Mitt Romney was a good prospect in Ohio, and nor do I now. The data bears me out. Of the polls taken since the first presidential debate, Romney has led in one of them by a razor-thin margin, whereas Obama has held commanding leads in dozens. Romney’s momentum has seemed blunt and sluggish, even in the wake of the performance that reinvigorated his campaign, in Ohio. In short, based purely on the polls themselves, the voters there are unimpressed with Romney.

I grant that there are reasons that one can point to why this might be the case in those polls, and why those reasons might obscure the ability of those polls to reflect reality. For instance, it is quite true that many polls have overestimated the number of people who have voted early. Equally, it is true that said overestimation has skewed the likely voter model of many a pollster unrealistically toward the Democrats, since so many avowed early voters have become included in likely voter samples. I do not believe the polls showing five-point leads for President Obama reflect reality. With that said, those polls are the minority among the ones showing a lead for the president, most of which converge to a one- or two-point lead.

I also admit that the polls in Ohio — even the unrealistic ones — show Romney leading among independents. However, this lead is fraught with caveats, as many of those independents may simply be independents who lean Republican identifying themselves as independents, while the independents who lean Democrat lump themselves in with the party they tend to support, as Sean Trende of RealClearPolitics has observed on his Twitter feed.

Nevertheless, I admit that there are scenarios in which the numbers could indicate a forthcoming sleeper Romney win. I simply find those scenarios unlikely, given that any other conclusion requires me to throw out virtually the past month of polling as somehow blind to the contingencies. I am not willing to do that, because my faith in Mitt Romney is weaker than my faith in the laws of probability. Which, by the way, is not a slam on Romney. God made the laws of probability. The Romney campaign is the creation of men.

I could stop here and simply join the likes of Nate Silver in saying I believe Barack Obama will win Ohio on the basis of the state polls. But truly, that is not what motivates my pessimism. Polls can be wrong — catastrophically so, in fact. If my time in Ohio had convinced me that the people of Ohio are amenable to Romney the man, and the message he brings, I would cheerily brush off those polls, as I am inclined to do with the ones showing an Obama lead in New Hampshire (a libertarian state with a distinctly New England cast and a love of fiscal conservatism). The trouble is, my time in Ohio didn’t convince me of that.

In fact, it convinced me of just the opposite.

To illustrate why, allow me to explain the findings of the latest Survey USA poll, which shows Obama leading by three points:

“Romney leads today, as he has in each of the 4 polls, on which candidate would do a better job balancing the federal budget. Obama leads today, as he has in each of the 4 polls, on which candidate is more in touch with the average voter.”

These two sentences explain, in devastating detail, why Barack Obama will win Ohio. Why? Read on to find out.

The musical “1776” includes the line, “Most men with nothing would rather protect the possibility of becoming rich than face the reality of being poor.” When it comes to Ohio’s electorate, this sentence is about as alien as a Michigan State supporter. Most men (and women) in Ohio would rather foreclose the possibility of becoming rich to others than escape the reality of being poor themselves. It is not for nothing that this state gave the socialist Eugene Debs one of his best showings in the early 20th century.

That spirit is still alive today, and you can see it in the attack ads the Obama campaign and its allies have chosen to emphasize in their never-ending barrage of this state’s electorate. Nowhere has the Bain Capital line of attack been more fiercely emphasized than in Ohio. Conservatives may have entertained themselves with a bit of a joke about the left’s hypocrisy when the Obama campaign attempted to “otherize” Mitt Romney with an ad calling him “not one of us” for being an outsourcer, but the Ohio electorate wasn’t laughing. The Obama campaign has been diabolically intelligent in their focus on this state, because they realize that even if Ohio voters accept the caricature of President Obama as a neo-Marxist, anti-colonial black radical with a hatred of the rich and of America, that caricature of Obama still has an advantage over Mitt Romney because of two simple facts:

Mitt Romney is rich, and doesn’t hide it, and Mitt Romney is smart, and doesn’t hide it.

It is the latter part that truly damns Romney’s prospects. As anyone who has looked at the Bush-era election cycles should be able to tell, Ohio voters will vote for a spectacularly wealthy candidate like George W. Bush, so long as he is opposed by an egghead like Al Gore or John Kerry, who also happens to be rich. Similarly, in 2010, neither John Kasich nor Ted Strickland emphasized their technocratic brainpower in running to be Ohio’s governor, and as such, the more successful but still homegrown Kasich ended up winning. If Romney’s IQ appeared to be 50 points lower, he would not have to worry, because Obama’s self-conscious egghead persona would do all the work for him.

But the problem is, unlike Bush, Romney does not hide his intelligence, and unlike Kasich, Romney is not a native son. His demeanor screams East Coast, and his background screams Harvard Business School. His time at Bain Capital boils down to one case study after another of failed industries collapsing when Romney exposed them to the harsh light of the market and the cold gaze of mathematically inclined investors. Ohio’s likely voters, by contrast, are a churning cauldron of people whose industries are obsolete (hence their affection for the auto bailout), whose jobs require little more than a strong pair of arms (hence the unions’ outsized power), and who look at the mathematical giants of finance and the market and see the nerds they used to beat up in high school just itching to have their lunch money taken by gangster government because they don’t do “real work.” This is not simply my impression of Ohio, either. The career of Senator Sherrod Brown would be impossible were it not buoyed by these factors.

This means that even in the most pessimistic situation, where Ohio voters are forced to choose between the caricature of Obama and the caricature of Romney, they would still choose Obama. “Hell,” your average unionized auto employee would grunt, “he might hate America, but at least he hates the bastards who think their goddamn equations can take my job. I ain’t voting for some pasty-faced, lily-livered bastard who got out of line and thinks he’s better’n me. They both went to Harvard, but at least Obama is gonna take the money away from the people who don’t work.”

Again, this is not simply my jaundiced take on the state. The focus on Romney’s “47 percent” comments by the Obama campaign, and Bill Clinton’s endless harping on the fact that the 47 percent are people who “work,” are evidence that they get it. The Romney campaign, meanwhile, is talking about the only thing it can talk about, which is the fact that Obama has punished those very workers with regulations and burdens more than he’s gone after the upstart nerds on Wall Street whom they despise.

Maybe that point will work, but I doubt it. As the Survey USA poll shows, Ohioans believe Obama understands the concerns of “average voters” (read: mediocrities) more, and that is something that the Organizing for America juggernaut in Ohio will capitalize on. Moreover, Ohio went for a rich person in 2010, and Kasich’s approval ratings suggest that they feel burned. They won’t be making the same mistake twice. Romney is rich, he made his money doing something that requires working with your brain, rather than your hands, and he’s clearly never worn a blue collar in his life.

If, as Henry Adams said, politics is the systematic organization of our animosities, then Ohio’s animosities align against Romney. Unlike the coal workers of Pennsylvania, who have coexisted easily with their wealthy, suburban, Ivy-educated neighbors in Philadelphia since the founding of the University of Pennsylvania, Ohio’s workers are an embittered, undifferentiated mass who have witnessed a brain drain to the point where virtually no one manages to outrun the curve. Unlike the voters in Wisconsin, who have recognized the limits of progressivism and given people like Romney the chance to turn their state around, Ohioans still long for a day when unions can beat up bosses and take their money to distribute to the masses. Unlike the voters in New Hampshire, who are overrepresented by affluent suburbanites interested in looking out for themselves and would like to live free or die, Ohioans are happy to let them take the latter option so long as they get the money that group’s freedom produced. The ghost of Eugene Debs floats, cackling, over the state, and Mitt Romney lacks the electoral proton pack necessary to dispel him.

The Buckeye State has become the Green-Eyed State, and in the battle of envy versus hope, envy is a 75% favorite. Nate Silver can take that one to the bank.

Thomas William Andrews is the nom de plume of a conservative writer living in Washington, D.C.