No matter what the overly optimistic Fox News pundits and Romney insiders intone about early GOP voting, flawed polls, and strong Romney support among Independents, this election is coming down to Ohio. And not only that. It's going to be an exact replay of 2004.
As you remember, the incumbent back in 2004 was chicken-hawk George W. Bush, who was widely reviled for his deceitful detour into Iraq. More important, the U.S. was bogged down in Baghdad come election time, as the Dems gleefully made hay with Bush's "Mission Accomplished" aircraft carrier blunder. Though Bush campaign Svengali, Karl Rove, had done a Jiu-Jitsu number on Kerry's heroic service in Vietnam -- with help from some Swift Boat wackos -- it just seemed like the Dems had it in the bag.
Bush was widely seen as a doofus. There just was no way he could win a second term, especially with the pent-up Democratic anger over Bush V. Gore (and the widely held belief that the Supreme Court unfairly gifted the 2000 election to the GOP).
Sho nuff, in that 2004 election it all came down to Ohio. I remember Bruce Springsteen's concert on TV from Ohio the night before voting. Lots of emotion. Lots of get-out-the-vote enthusiasm. It seemed like Kerry was going to pull the thing out.
But, he didn't.
Kerry lost by by less than 130,000 votes out of 5.6 million cast in the Buckeye State. Moreover, he lost the election to one of the weakest Republican Presidents in modern memory.
How did it happen?
Yes, Mr. Rove dampened African-American turnout by playing to the overt homophobia of many black Democratic ministers. Yes, exit polls showed that Ohio voters -- for all of Bush's lies and missteps -- trusted the President to keep them safe from terrorism and to keep the economy strong.
However, that was only the superficial story. Exit polls make it seem that people vote exclusively on policy, when, in fact, responses to policy questions are often code words for something deeper and inchoate. While I have no empirical research to back this up, my intuition tells me that Mr. Kerry, for all his intellectual competence, his persuasive demeanor, his long experience in the Senate, his admirable military service, was secretly, even subconsciously, perceived as another patrician pol from Massachusetts. Not a "man of the people." And it didn't help that Kerry's second wife "Teh-RAY-Suh" was the face-lifted, Swiss-educated heir to the Heinz family fortune. In addition, she refused to take Mr. Kerry's last name. That just doesn't play real well in the socially conservative coal mining counties of southeast Ohio.
Hard as this is to believe, the supremely incurious G.W. Bush (he of another patrician New England clan, and, like Kerry, a "Skull "N Bones" member) was seen as a man of the people. As the cliche goes, George W. Bush "was the kind of guy you would want to have a beer with." And, God knows, Mr. Bush did a lot of beer-drinking in his day.
You see, Bush may have royally screwed up in Iraq, but he wasn't loathed by the Independents and Centrists who decide almost every election, especially in the swingy-est of swing states, Ohio. There was a well of forgiveness towards him. Moreover, his decent, demure wife Laura was admired and loved. Those things matter when you are visualizing someone on your TV screen for four years.
Well, we might be on the verge of experiencing a 2004 replay, but for the Democrats this time. While by no means as dunderheaded as his predecessor, Mr. Obama, like Mr. Bush, has either enabled or failed to prevent a torrent of bad news. Though in Mr. Obama's case, the bad news is even more striking: continuously dropping GDP, 23 million unemployed or underemployed (and not getting much better, as evidenced by Friday's 7.9% unemployment rate), steadily declining incomes, higher health care costs, failed investments in several alternative energy firms, a tragic failure to protect the U.S. consulate in Benghazi on the anniversary of 9/11, the failure to achieve a grand bargain on the debt and deficit, the ensuing credit downgrade, the relentless and job-destroying demonizing of successful small business owners (who create most new jobs in America), plus one sixth of Americans in poverty, and 45 million Americans on Food Stamps.
These sad facts are all associated with the tenure of Barack Obama, not the tenure of G.W. Bush, though there's no doubt that Mr. Obama was dealt a difficult hand by virtue of the loose lending policies of both parties, as well as the "big government conservativism" of his incompetent predecessor.
Nevertheless, despite this mediocre resume, Mr. Obama has a staying power that belies the facts on the ground. Yes, he happens to be on the right side of history when it comes to abolishing DADT, backing gay marriage, ending the war in Iraq, offing Bin Laden, and focusing on global warming (which Sandy's devastation has brought into sharp relief). However, more important than these policy triumphs, the key thing about Mr. Obama is that he is liked. And his wife and kids are liked. Moreover, as with Bush, there is an abiding reservoir of goodwill and forgiveness towards the President from all kinds of voters across a wide demographic spectrum.
And this is why Ohio is proving so hard for Mr. Romney and all his money to conquer. There seems to be some "sticking point," to quote Shakespeare, in the minds of Ohio voters that is effectively painting Mr. Romney -- for all his decent, kind, self-effacing, and extraordinarily generous personal acts, and for all his competence in matters economic -- as just another patrician pol from Massachusetts. And, as another Massachusetts patrician pol, John Kerry, learned in 2004, that kind of candidate just does not resonate deeply with the Ohio electorate.
Now, Mr. Romney is greatly helped in the Midwest by his authentically midwestern running mate, Paul Ryan. Moreover, Mr. Romney was born in Michigan. His beautiful wife Anne was also born in Michigan. Unlike Mr. Kerry and his wife Teresa Heinz, they do not reek of Swiss boarding school exclusivity.
Nevertheless, Mr. Romney, through no fault of his own, probably comes across to many Ohio voters as the GM of General Motors, not the guy who is on the side of GM's workers. And Anne Romney, for all her charm and heroic struggles with MS, is probably, and unfairly, perceived as a privileged denizen of the dressage set.
Yes, it is possible that Paul Ryan's levelheaded charm might carry Wisconsin, and possibly even Iowa, but, without Ohio, a whole lot of other things must go right for Mr. Romney. And, right now, the electoral numbers aren't adding up.
Yes, it will likely again come down to Ohio. And, again, not in the way the challenger hopes.