09/17/2012 02:32 pm ET Updated Nov 17, 2012

Dispatch From the Buckeye State

Many of you saw Matt Bai's recent profile of Ohio in the Sunday Times magazine section. To summarize it crudely, Bai explores this question: Ohio is coming out of the Great Recession a little better and a little faster than many other states. Who gets the credit?

To my right, my far, far right Governor John Kasich. Alum of the Gingrich Gang, who then barked for Fox News before settling down at Lehman Brothers. He eked out a victory to become governor in 2010 and he thinks his slash-and-burn policies deserve all the credit.

To my left, the Obama administration. The stimulus package helped stabilize the economy, the rescue of GM and Chrysler not only kept those Ohio jobs from disappearing but succeeding to such an extent that the auto industry added jobs. That, plus the administration's larger efforts to promoting the manufacturing economy, which has certainly grown in Ohio, explain Ohio's relative success.

Characteristically, Obama doesn't want to take credit for this in much the same way the administration has failed to take credit for almost any of its accomplishments.

In truth, the question probably has no definitive answer, especially when framed this simplistically. But the implications of one or the other answer, Bai writes, could make the difference in the presidential election.

Bai's piece, focused as it is on Ohio's economy, is filled with interesting data. But as we think about Ohio and the upcoming election here's another number to consider: 33,000.

That number represents the difference between the votes John Kerry got in 2004 when he lost the state and the votes Barack Obama got when he won it. And let me add, Kerry got 33,000 more votes.

There are at least two conclusions one might draw from that number. One is that the narrative of the Obama campaign -- that it generated tremendous grassroots enthusiasm and relied on a well-oiled, amazingly good ground game -- doesn't quite explain the results in Ohio. The ground game here was tremendous, without question, and certainly by comparison with Kerry's four years earlier -- I participated in both. And yet, Kerry turned out more voters.

The flip side of that explanation is that McCain/Palin failed to excite Republican voters the way Bush/Cheney did. And that certainly seems a reasonable conclusion given how bungling their whole campaign operation was.

So let me elaborate on that idea and suggest that the key to Ohio in November is turnout. More to the point, who doesn't turn out.

Obama's problem, clearly, is that this time around he simply is not generating -- and cannot generate -- the kind of excitement and energy that he did four years ago. The "disappointed Obama voter" has become a staple now of journalistic analysis.

Mitt Romney's problem is not only how to spin Ohio's economic news -- as Bai argues, it would be a lot easier for Romney were Ohio doing much worse -- but it also may prove to be the topic which dare not speak its name: Mitt's Mormonism. Let me explain:

Politically, Ohio was once the epitome of the "middle of the road." The press often still uses that trope when writing about the state. But over the last generation it has been a middle-of-the-road place drifting more and more to the right for two basic demographic reasons: the more industrialized northern half of the state has experienced the brunt of deindustrialization and its attendant job loss. Many of those jobs were union jobs, which means that the unions have less clout than they once did. Cleveland is now half as big as it was in 1950 and the Toledo metropolitan area actually lost population between 2000 and 2010.

At the same time, the southern half of the state has been the destination of choice for tens of thousands of Appalachian refugees leaving Kentucky, Tennessee and West Virginia. That migration started in the 1960s when many of those Appalachians came looking for jobs in the auto industry; now they come looking for low-wage service-sector jobs in Columbus and Cincinnati. Grove City, a working-class municipality located just south of Columbus is referred to locally as "Grovetucky."

Many have brought the South with them, especially its conservative religion. You can see this in the proliferation of Southern Baptist, Pentecostal and other flavors of fundamentalist churches across the area. Not too far from where I live is a church where people handle rattlesnakes on Sundays. In the antebellum era, the Ohio River, the state's southern border, was for escaping slaves that metaphorical River Jordan. Cross it and you're in the North and you're free. Now the new Mason-Dixon line runs along I-70, which cuts Ohio in half from east to west. Rod Parsley's right-wing mega-church sits right on I-70 in Columbus.

Many of these southern transplants are reliably conservative voters -- "values voters" of the sort that turned out in 2004 to approve an amendment to the state constitution banning gay marriage. At the same time, however, fundamentalist Christians have a deep and angry distrust of Mormons. They believe that Mormons are a Satan-worshiping cult and that they are not, in fact, Christians. (In this latter, they are theologically correct -- Mormonism is an Abrahamic religion but not a Christian one in any sense of the word used over the last 2,000 years).

Here's what, a fundamentalist website, has to say about Mitt Romney and Mormonism: "Mormonism tends to have a nice facade. Most Mormons are clean cut, speak and behave well. Behind the facade, however, is a group whose beliefs can only be described as those of a Satanic Cult." Despite agreeing with virtually every part of the Romney/Ryan platform, Godvoter grades Romney with an "F."

This is Romney's dilemma in Ohio (and a few other swing states with significant fundamentalist populations like North Carolina and Virginia): if he plays up his religiosity, he risks highlighting his Mormonism and inflaming this constituency (and if he releases his tax returns those voters will see just how much money he had donated to the Mormon church -- a sum likely in the six- or seven-figure range).

So in Ohio, the election may come down to this: will the eyes-rotating-in-different-directions anti-Obama hysteria spur those fundamentalists to hold their noses and vote for a Satan worshiper or will they stay home altogether? For these voters, the economy won't matter much one way or the other, but their decision may swing the state.

Steven Conn is Professor of History at Ohio State University where he edits the on-line magazine "Origins: Current Events in Historical Perspective." He is also the editor of the new book To Promote the General Welfare: The Case for Big Government just out with Oxford University Press.