What Happened in Ohio: The Rest of the Story (Part 6)

By Matt A. Mayer

This second to last part will discuss several items that tell the rest of the story.

For much of October, like many people, I couldn’t figure out why the swing state polls and the national polls were so divergent. More pointedly, I couldn’t figure out why my models kept coming out with a slight advantage for President Obama. When the spin over the expected Republican ground game, the depressed Democratic vote, and the massive crowds attending Romney-Ryan events were added to the mix, something seemed wrong with the swing state polls and my own internal models.

On November 1, Charlie Cook wrote a column in National Journal titled, “Obama Can Thank Early Negative Ads for His Advantage,” that broke through the clutter and explained the split. Here is what Cook wrote:

In the states that have experienced the minimalist campaign, the popular-vote numbers are even or maybe up for Republican nominee Mitt Romney by a bit. For people who live there, the campaign effectively started with the first debate. Many undecided voters were pleasantly surprised by Romney, who presented himself as moderate, reasonable, intelligent, and earnest. He also came across as more of a problem-solver than the ideological robot voters had seen earlier in the campaign through their binoculars.

But for those in the battleground states, who had seen Romney’s head bashed in last summer by the Obama campaign’s attacks on Bain Capital, plant closings, layoffs, outsourcing, and income taxes—not to mention bank accounts in Bermuda, the Cayman Islands, and Switzerland—skepticism has persisted. Much more than in the rest of the country, Romney’s scar tissue continues to get in the way of these swing-state voters fully embracing this new and improved Mitt. Sure, after the debates, particularly the first one, many undecideds moved his way. But the ranks of new Romney supporters are smaller and more hesitant in the swing states than in the other states, where viewers didn’t witness the hits on his image inflicted by President Obama’s campaign and Priorities USA, the leading Democratic super PAC.

Cook’s observation made total sense. If you lived in a state like Ohio where the negative Romney ads played all summer, Governor Romney had been defined for you. The first debate, while impressive, had to compete against what you “knew” about him already. For the vast majority of Americans who did not live in swing states and had not seen the negative ads, the first debate gave you a glimpse of Governor Romney that was impressive. National polls, containing far more non-swing state voters, would naturally be far more positive for Governor Romney than swing state polls. Duh.

Failing to run positive biography ads in the summer to counter the negative Obama campaign ads will go down as one of the most inexplicable decisions made by the Romney campaign. Did the former Massachusetts governor not learn anything from the 2004 summer attacks on Massachusetts Senator John Kerry? Governor Romney has a very powerful personal story, especially about his generosity and charitable work. Too bad most Americans in swing states never heard about that biography.

In terms of ads, the Left’s attack on the Citizens United decision that opened the doors for outside group spending is somewhat laughable. First, the Left’s all-too-silent complaints about the spending by Big Labor makes its whining about Citizens United slightly hypocritical. The single largest spender in political campaigns over the last two decades is Big Labor. If the Left wants to even the playing field, then it should advocate for removing all restrictions on candidates and political parties tied with total transparency on donors. This approach would respect the Constitution and ensure we knew who was giving to campaigns.

More importantly, the hundreds of millions spent by outside groups didn’t work. For those of us on the Right, understanding why those ads didn’t work is vital to making sure they do work in the future. The ads played an important role in defining the other side and supporting candidates who share our beliefs. The problem is that the ads started in the last few months of the campaign and in such high volume that the ads fell on deaf ears and blind eyes.

In many ways, the ads are like a downpour on a farmer’s field after a drought. Because the fields have hardened since the last rain, getting so much rain so quickly doesn’t allow the water to penetrate the fields. Instead, the rain hits the hard ground and runs off. In some case, the hard rain damages the planted crop. For the ads to be effective, those ads need to be preceded by a someone who is doing the spade work on the ground throughout the year and in off-years. A permanent ground game, like the Obama campaign had, will ensure that when the hard rain falls, the ground can absorb it.

Next, Governor Romney’s decision to tap Congressman Ryan simply didn’t make sense. Don’t get me wrong, Congressman Ryan is a fantastic candidate and one of the best politicians in the Republican Party. The problem is that he had little name identification in Wisconsin, let along in the rest of the country. As one of eight congressional members in Wisconsin, his statewide name appeal was limited. From an Electoral College standpoint, Wisconsin is a state that has not voted for the Republican presidential candidate since Ronald Reagan in 1984. Electorally speaking, it would be nice to win Wisconsin, but it isn’t needed.

With its 18 electoral votes, Ohio is an electoral necessity for Republicans to win the presidency. Ohio last went for the Republican candidate in 2004, so it is obviously winnable as THE swing state. If you need to win Ohio to win the presidency, I cannot imagine why Governor Romney didn’t choose Ohio Senator Rob Portman as his running mate. It is impossible to say that Senator Portman would have helped Governor Romney win Ohio, but he certainly would have helped him close the 107,000-vote deficit in Ohio. By how much? We will never know.

Finally, due to all of the items discussed above and in Parts I-V, Ohioans simply liked President Obama more than Governor Romney. On some of the key questions, Ohioans saw President Obama as more like them. Here is what the Ohio exit poll showed:

  • On who is more in touch with them, President Obama bested Governor Romney 50% to 46%;
  • President Obama’s favorability-unfavorability rating finished at 55% to 43%, a 12 point positive margin;
  • Governor Romney favorability-unfavorability rating finished at 45% to 50%, a 5 point negative deficit;
  • Ohioans felt President Obama’s policies favored the rich, the middle class, and the poor at 10%, 43%, and 36%, respectively;
  • Ohioans felt Governor Romney’s policies favored the rich, the middle class, and the poor at 56%, 35%, and 1%, respectively;
  • On who cares about people like me, President Obama won that question 84% to 15%.

It simply is too hard to win when you are seen as more out of touch, less liked, and more interested in helping the rich versus the rest. It doesn’t matter if that last item is actually true, in presidential politics, perception crushes reality. And that, dear readers, is the only story that really mattered on Election Day.