COLUMBUS, Ohio -- President Barack Obama's re-election campaign is, at its heart, a numbers-driven operation. And among the many mathematically based presentations it gives is a slideshow showing five distinct pathways to winning re-election.
The slideshow contains geographic breakdowns of the electoral map that use different strategies to amass 270 Electoral College votes. The fourth, and perhaps most attainable, of the strategies is the "Midwest Path." It involves winning the states Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) won in his 2004 presidential race and adding Iowa and Ohio. The former is likely to end up in the Obama column this November. Ohio, however, is a much more complicated -- and for the Obama campaign, scary -- proposition.
When it comes to the Buckeye State, the president's political advisers have been in general election mode for months, undertaking what could be the most extensive presidential campaign ever launched across the state. And it's being driven, in part, by fear that even exhaustive retail politicking might not be enough.
"There are many ways you can lose this state," explained one Ohio Democrat operative working on Obama's re-election campaign.
The operative doesn't say it, but it's clear that Kerry's experience in the state is on his mind.
"I was active on campaigns in 2000 and 2004 and I remember election night knowing that if Ohio went blue we would have had a Democratic president," said Greg Schultz, Ohio State Director for Obama for America. "Demographics changed a long time ago in Ohio. Where people live changed a long time ago. But for some reason, national campaigns didn't adopt that new model .... 2004 was hopefully the last reminder that if you put the vast majority of the resources in the big cities, at the peril of not picking up those achievable votes in the exurbs, the suburbs and the rural communities, you will lose the state."
With Schultz spearheading the effort, Obama's re-election campaign is once again canvassing the entire state. Though the president won there in 2008, that victory could prove hard to replicate. There are 12 distinct media markets in Ohio, along with numerous demographic groups, university towns and blue-collar enclaves. Even the cities have different personalities. Cleveland is closer to Buffalo than Cincinnati. Cincinnati is more like Lexington than Cleveland.
The Obama re-election team is betting that its best shot to appeal to voters in 88 distinct districts is to go heavy on hyper-local politics. Since April 2011, it has contacted more than 650,000 voters, through meetings, phone calls or old-school canvassing. The campaign has had operatives in the state since March 2009 -- three months after the president took office -- in anticipation of the six months that lie ahead. It just opened its ninth Ohio office, with plans for a tenth in Youngstown already in the works.
"I have no concern or questions about the infrastructure," said former Gov. Ted Strickland (D). "Every vote is important and in some of these Republican-leaning areas and counties, there's just no doubt that the Republican candidate is likely to be favored. But if you can get 47 percent of the vote instead of 36 percent of the vote and you do that over multiple smaller counties and throughout the rural areas, it's going to make a huge difference."
The bet, in the end, is that even the most deep-pocketed candidate can't write enough checks to compete with true electoral grunt work. One top Obama operative estimated that it would take Mitt Romney and his allied super PAC $50 million worth of television ads to match the work that Obama's team is accomplishing on the ground. But whereas the president's re-election campaign will be doing its fair share of Ohio ad buys itself, Romney has a lot of catching up to do on infrastructure.
No area exemplifies this divide more than Columbus, the capital city located in the center of the state. Obama's new campaign office there is located on Main Street, in the heart of downtown. Barebones and poorly decorated, staffers sit with their heads down, laptops resting on white plastic folding tables. A big sign marked with the number 318,460 is in one room -- the total number of petitions signed in a voter protection drive. The operatives there generally ignore national news, choosing instead to consume information from regional press and Ohio political blogs. If they want to speak directly to voters, it's simple: they need only walk out the front door.
Romney's Columbus headquarters -- its lone office in the state -- is barely located within the city limits. The office, in a strip mall on the western outskirts, is tucked away in the Rivers Edge Corporate Center: "Home of the best tenants in Ohio." The strip mall is also occupied by Custom Fabricators, a storage and equipment provider, and Mira's Tailoring & Alterations. There is no foot traffic to speak of. On Super Tuesday, about a dozen staffers munched on donuts and sipped coffee as they furiously made get out the vote phone calls. The walls were decked out in Romney signs and Ohio maps. But not for long: The campaign is soon closing shop and assigning its staff elsewhere.
"We vacate the space after each primary and will re-open an office for general," said a Romney aide.
Top officials with Obama's Ohio operation say they're already witnessing the payoffs of a hyper-local approach. The sense of gloom that existed just one year ago, following a disastrous 2010 midterm election cycle, has dissipated, replaced by mutually shared anger with the state of Republican leadership in Ohio. With a major assist from allied union and progressive groups, the campaign has gathered names, telephone numbers and pledges of support from individuals opposed to Republian Gov. John Kasich's effort to curb collective bargaining rights and curtail early voting.
"I think there was a level of despair, especially for those of us on the ground already," said one campaign official. "I was saying, 'Oh my god, it is going to be a really long two years' ... Since then, you saw people who had voted for John McCain and people who had voted for Kasich who are saying to themselves: this is what these people stand for?"
But it's not difficult to find problems on the horizon. The governor's leadership may discomfort Ohioans, but that isn't necessarily a reason to back Obama. Standing outside a coffee shop in Columbus' red brick-laden German Village, Patrick Bourland, a blonde-bearded 27-year-old who voted for the president in 2008, said he was ambivalent this time around.
"It's more like detachment in general with the political process," he says of his current disposition toward electoral politics. "There is this constant antagonism, obstructionism, contentiousness in Congress, and a seeming opposition to getting things done."
"I'm not going to say I'm not going to vote for him in the general," added Bourland, who is currently looking for work. "I just have lacked interest."
Whether the passion gap Bourland described is a persistent predicament for Democrats, or simply a sign of the fact that the general election is still months away, could end up determining the outcome in Ohio. One top Democrat in the state, speaking candidly in exchange for anonymity, acknowledged that the "base isn't at 2008 levels of enthusiasm" and likely won't ever be.
The hope for Obama is that the Republican field, certainly in the Buckeye State, is even worse off.
"I will concede to you that there are some hard-right folks whose major motivation is not the quality of their candidate but their dislike and in some cases even hatred for the president," said Strickland. "But I think that's a minority within the Republican Party. I think that moderate Republicans are intimidated and are somewhat passive these days. I don't sense that they are enthusiastic about any of these candidates. So if there's an enthusiasm gap, I think it's more with the Republican moderates than with any other sector of the electorate."