"Are you listening in Michigan and Ohio?" asked Bill Clinton during his notable speech at the Democratic National Convention this week. He wanted to ensure that Ohioans heard him loud and clear when he announced the "job score" that came out of the auto industry restructuring enacted by President Obama at the start of his term: "Obama, 250,000. Romney, 0."
If Ohioans failed to hear this particular appeal, they surely could not have missed the 31 other times their state was mentioned during the three nights of the Democratic National Convention. Even if they were not tuned in to the party conventions of the last two weeks, they will still have been on the receiving end of the unprecedented 400 television ads per day, or 16 per hour, with which both campaigns are flooding the state. And if Ohioans want something more personal, then they can walk out their doors and catch one of the two presidential candidates who visit their state almost every week. During campaign season, Washington has an unabashed love affair with a place usually derisively referred to as 'flyover country.' As in most affairs, the suitor has one goal in mind.
With its 18 Electoral College votes, Ohio is a "swing" or "battleground" state in the sense that it can pull one or the other of the candidates over the top of the 270 votes needed for victory. California has triple the number of Electoral College votes, but they are practically given to the Democrats who must accumulate more on top of that base. The same goes for Texas, with almost twice Ohio's votes, lending itself as a base for the Republicans. But Ohio -- along with Florida, North Carolina (the convention locations were no coincidence) and a handful of other states -- is rather fickle in its political preferences. It seems that fickleness is a product of moderation and careful choosing: Ohio has voted for the winner in every presidential election but two since 1904. That doesn't mean Ohio's vote is necessary for the winner. If Ohio goes with the loser and enough other swing states choose the victor, then there is no love lost. Yet in the eyes of the candidates, Ohio is just too desirable and determinant to be left to its own whims.
As it happens, Mitt Romney's relationship with the state is complicated. Central to his campaign message is that Obama has failed to fix the economy. It is therefore rather inconvenient that Ohio's employment rate, at 7.2 percent, is almost more than a full percentage point below the national average of 8.1 percent. The same goes for the 100,300 jobs gained in the state between June and July, causing a nearly 2 percent increase in employment that month, compared to the U.S.'s 1.4 percent increase. These disparities produced some tensions at the Republican National Convention. Governor John Kasich of Ohio was invited to speak, and for 10 minutes he hailed Ohio's improvement and progress. Like other new Republican governors, for these enviable statistics Kasich gives himself a great deal of credit that is easily disputed given the upward trends in the state's economy that began a full year before he took office in 2011. More problematic, however, was that it represented an awkward departure from the message of failure the Republicans were imbuing throughout their convention; indeed, Ohio was only mentioned four other times, and three of those were by Ohio politicians John Boehner and Rob Portman. Compare this to the 21 times Democrats mentioned Ohio, not including its mentions during the speech meant to counter Kasich by his predecessor Democratic Governor of Ohio Ted Strickland.
Democrats have an easier time laying claim to Ohio. Matt Bai treated this issue in great depth in his recent New York Times article entitled "Did Barack Obama Save Ohio?" His conclusion was a tentative: Ya, kind of. That's because with federal stimulus funds for the state and local governments, the bailout of the auto industry that employs one out of every eight Ohioans, and other measures mixed in with some good luck (think shale discoveries), Ohio undoubtedly was saved from the brink. Kasich is building upon a foundation put in place by the Obama administration. Ohioans get this. In early August, a Quinnipiac University/CBS News/New York Times poll put support for Obama at 50 percent and Romney at 44 percent. At the same time, a high 47 percenr approve of the job Kasich is doing. So, all is well? Not quite.
Ohio's recovery has been uneven at best and misleading at worst. Most importantly, the unemployment rate fails to tell a different story: that of Ohio's declining labor force. A recent report by Policy Matters Ohio finds that only 64 percent of Ohioans are in the workforce. That means labor force participation in Ohio is at its lowest rate since 1985. Male participation is at its lowest point in history, while just one out of every two blacks are participating. Among the participating and employed, they are making lower wages than they used to, with the state's median wage falling at a rate faster than most of the nation. As for those participating but unemployed, they are experiencing longer periods of unemployment than ever before.
The report's comprehensive portrayal of Ohio makes me think of Eric F. from Painesville. Eric used to work in the industrial gas business before his facility closed up and moved overseas in 2006. Since then, Eric has gone from job to job; at times, he and his children have had to rely entirely on his wife's salary. Now working as a machinist, he has finally secured a stable income. But it is an income that brings him $15,000 less per year than did his old job. So yes, Eric would be counted among those bringing down the state's unemployment rate. But no, this is not a full recovery. As his wife Colleen put it to me: "You grow, you thrive, and then the economy kind of pulls it out from under you, and you say, 'Well, I was on this path!' Our goal is basically not [to] go backwards any further."
Ohio's numbers are improving and it is likely that whichever party can lay the most claim to those statistics will claim the state in November. But if the love affair is to continue beyond the elections, Washington should know that the nature of the state is not what it used to be, and will likely never be again. This latest recession stung, but beginning in 2000, Ohio experienced the worst job losses since the Great Depression, not to mention the 50,000 jobs lost in the steel industry in the 1970s and '80s. Ohio is right to choose wisely among courtiers, even if that means swinging back and forth every four years.
This article originally appeared on Aslan Media.
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