Must-win Ohio is under siege

Mitt Romney greets supporters in Las Vegas on Friday. He will be back in Ohio next week, with a three-day bus trip with running mate Paul Ryan.
Mitt Romney greets supporters in Las Vegas on Friday. He will be back in Ohio next week, with a three-day bus trip with running mate Paul Ryan. (DAVID BECKER / Getty Images)
Posted: September 24, 2012

NEW LEXINGTON, Ohio - In this, the seat of a divided county in a divided state in a divided country, political consensus is easy to come by on one point: Make it stop! Please.

"Every commercial break, you get five political ads in a row," said Diane Ogden, doing paperwork one afternoon last week in her family's insurance and real estate agency here on Main Street. "We are just saturated."

In the Columbus media market, home to the broadcast stations she watches, 18,482 presidential campaign ads aired during a typical late August week studied by Kantar Media CMAG, which tracks political ad spending. That was three times more than in the close 2004 election and double the volume of four years ago.

Most of the spots are negative: President Obama, hapless failure; Republican Mitt Romney, heartless plutocrat.

The ads will not let up in Columbus, or Cleveland or Cincinnati or Toledo because Ohio is perhaps the most closely contested political real estate in the nation, a pivotal swing state with 18 electoral votes. Democratic and Republican strategists alike consider it a must-win.

Ohio has voted for the winning candidate in every presidential election since 1964, the longest current streak in the nation. Not only that, but when their votes are averaged across the 12 presidential cycles since then, Ohioans have come within 1.3 percentage points of the national popular vote, according to the SmartPolitics project at the University of Minnesota.

And Perry County, about a 45-minute drive southeast from Columbus, has been a bellwether, matching the statewide results more closely than any other Ohio county in five of the last six elections. The only miss: 2008, when it went for Republican John McCain over Obama, 50 percent to 47 percent.

Perry County is divided in two with its own figurative Mason-Dixon Line south of New Lexington. The southern part, hilly and rocky, has two coal mines, and national and state forest land - some of it reclaimed from played-out strip mines. Farther north are prosperous farms and a few bedroom communities for commuters to Columbus.

"It's the glacier and Appalachia." That is how Thad Cooperrider, a Republican farmer who is running for county commissioner, describes the split in the county, between the Appalachian foothills to the south and the rich dirt deposited to the north as glaciers ground through the continent eons ago.

Politically, southern Perry County tends to vote more Democratic, while Republicans are concentrated in the north.

"If Obama wins, I am scared for small business," Cooperrider said. "There are too many regulations, and Obamacare was just the icing on the cake for me."

He farms 1,000 acres in Thornton, at the northern end of the county, with corn, soybeans, and wheat, as well as hogs. He also has a project crossbreeding Longhorn cattle with Black Angus - aiming for a tastier steak. Cooperrider has had a trucking company and owns a restaurant and bar, among other things.

He was one of several Perry County voters who said they had no problem with Romney's recently revealed comment about the 47 percent moochers - though it sounded harsh, it was the truth, Cooperrider said.

Dependency is an "epidemic," he said. "I don't know anybody in Perry County who wants a job that doesn't have a job," he said, though he added that there are people who are underemployed.

"When you go to the zoo you see a sign that says, 'Don't feed the animals,' because then they'll expect it. We've taken care of so many people, we've trained them not to work. I certainly don't blame the people."

And it's not specific to the current administration; he said; the problem has been building for decades.

"I'm not mad at Obama," said Cooperrider, who was on the county board from 2001 through 2009. "I'm mad at where this country's going - and we have to take it back, from the bottom up."

Things are looking better at another small business, the Ogden insurance and realty agency in New Lexington. Robert Ogden, who runs the business with his father, said sales are increasing, particularly of properties priced under $100,000.

He plans to vote for Obama, as he did in 2008.

"He's done a pretty good job with what he was given," said Ogden, 35, who handles the real estate side of the business. "I think things have gotten better. I don't know if I can say it's all because of him. When it comes down to it, a president is limited in the economic arena. . . . We're the ones who have to do the work and spending to pull out of it."

Ogden does have one regret: that Obama's promise to change the tone in Washington didn't come true.

"One of our big problems is politicians trying to make the other side look bad," he said. "Congress acts like a 5-year-old having a temper tantrum."

Polls are tight in Ohio, with Obama holding an average lead of 4 percentage points in the half dozen independent surveys of likely Ohio voters taken in the last two weeks.

"Romney can't seem to break through," said David B. Cohen, a political scientist at Akron University. In part, Cohen said, that's because Ohio's economy seems to be improving at a faster clip than the nation's - the unemployment rate is 7.2 percent, compared with the national rate of 8.1 percent.

The Obama administration's bailout of General Motors and Chrysler has proven popular, credited with saving thousands of jobs at two major assembly plants in the state and countless suppliers; approximately 16 percent of Ohio workers have a job tied to the auto industry.

Republican Gov. John Kasich, midway through his term, talks up the state's recovery as often as he can, arguing that his policies deserve some of the credit - but "then Romney comes in trying to tell people things are not as good as they seem," Cohen, the political scientist, said. "There's a mixed message on the Republican side."

In addition, Obama's populist approach - calling for those making over $250,000 to pay a higher tax rate, and his campaign's slamming of Romney's private-equity career as destructive to manufacturing jobs - has resonated. "People here see it as a fairness question and a values question, not class warfare," said Democratic consultant Seth Bringman, of Columbus. " 'Who understands me? Who will fight for me?' "

In Somerset, business is creeping up at Underwood's Hardware, just off the town traffic circle dominated by an equestrian statue of Union Gen. Phil Sheridan, who grew up here and went on to lead soldiers in the Civil War.

At the hardware store, owner Chuck Underwood sees the economy coming back. It's in his figures for August. Revenues were up by 11 percent overall compared with the same month last year. Sales of sporting goods - guns, ammo, shotgun shells, and the like - rose by 20 percent, for instance. Paint sales climbed 17 percent.

"I think people held on to their money for so long, but finally there was stuff that needed to be done," he said. "You need to fix something in the house, you need to build a garage, or you need a new chain saw."

He voted for President George W. Bush in 2004, and Obama in 2008, but now he is not sure what he will do. Well, almost.

"I don't like Mitt Romney at all," Underwood, who describes himself as a conservative Democrat, said. "I honestly can say I just don't like anything about the way he thinks." To him, Romney seems ignorant and bellicose in foreign affairs and out of touch with the concerns of regular people like him. "I don't think he knows what it's all about. He looks out for Number One, and that's Mitt Romney."

But Underwood is not "over-thrilled" with Obama, either, thinking that the president has exploded government spending. "I'm probably not going to decide until the election," but his alternatives are either Obama, or no vote at the top of the ballot - because, as Underwood said, he always votes.

Cheryl McGlothlin, who co-owns the TC Consignment Shop on Main Street in New Lexington, is likewise unsure which way to turn.

She likes Obamacare because it will make it easier for her, her daughter, and granddaughter to get health insurance, but she is conflicted because part of Obama's health-care plan is the $716 billion in cuts in payments to doctors and hospitals under Medicare that she fears may squeeze her parents' benefits. Romney has made this argument.

"I will benefit, but I don't want to take away from my parents," McGlothlin, 47, said. "I'd choose to help my parents first and they would choose to help me first."

Romney's taped remarks about dependency did not trouble McGlothlin. She said she agrees with the Republican nominee - "We're handing too much to people."

Contact Thomas Fitzgerald

at 215-854-2718 or, or follow @tomfitzgerald on Twitter. Read his blog, "The Big Tent,"


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