CINCINNATI - The path to the White House cuts straight through Ohio, with its diverse electorate and complex politics. The Midwestern state that borders coal country in the south and east and the auto industry in the north with rolling fields of corn and hay everywhere in between is critical not just because no Republican has been elected president without collecting its 18 electoral votes. It's important to win Ohio because, of all the swing states, it is most like the rest of the country.
Unlike Florida with its aging population and ever-increasing segment of Latino voters, or Virginia, which is almost split in two from the wealthy D.C. suburbs in the north to it's southern conservatism in the south, Ohio is a more balanced mix of the working-class and wealthy, union members and business-owners, farmers and lawyers.
"It's just the way we are. It's a combination – we have industry and we have intelligentsia. It's a good mix," said Paul Flocken of Columbus, a disabled veteran who served in the Special Forces and is a supporter of President Barack Obama.
Obama beat Republican John McCain 52 percent to 48 percent to win the state in 2008. Since then, Republican John Kasich has replaced Democrat Ted Strickland as governor, and Republican Rob Portman joined Democrat Sherrod Brown in the Senate. The diverse representation reflects the fluid but centrist nature of the state's electorate.
Flocken, who voted for Obama in 2008 but also supported Republicans Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, says while he likes Republican nominee Mitt Romney's plan to increase military spending there's something about him he doesn't like.
"I just don't know about him," he said at an Obama rally at The Ohio State University campus in Columbus. Hearing Romney tell a table of rich donors that 47 percent of the country was dependent on the government and were not his concern also reinforced Flocken's skepticism and sense that Romney was willing to say anything to get elected.
He also called the economic argument Republican nominee Mitt Romney is making "garbage."
"The economy was so far in the pits it's going to take several years to get out," he said. "It took 12 years between Reagan and Bush (for the economy to recover)."
For Patrick McLarnan of Mount Vernon, a town north of Columbus in central Ohio, supporting Romney is a no-brainer.
"Jobs, jobs, jobs; he has a record of creating jobs," he said of Romney, while attending a town hall event at a local manufacturing plant. "I think that Gov. Romney's straightforward approach, he seems to follow through with things he says he will do, I don't get the sense that he's making empty promises like President Obama."
Ohio was one of the states hardest hit by the recent economic recession because of its heavy reliance on manufacturing jobs, with an unemployment rate that skyrocketed from below 6 percent to higher than 10 percent in 2008. But since the beginning of 2011, Ohio's unemployment rate has tracked below that of the national average – it stands at 7 percent now, compared to 7.8 percent nationally.
Much of that trajectory has to do with the revitalization of the auto industry, a fact that Obama's campaign reminds voters of by blanketing the air and radio waves with advertisements. It's a large part of why Obama was able to build about a 5 percentage point lead over Romney in the Buckeye State over the summer, but that lead evaporated following the first presidential debate when Romney was the clear victor. Now, thanks in part to an improved Obama performance in the second debate, the president holds a two point lead in an average of the most recent polls, according to RealClearPolitics.com.
The Romney campaign, too, is taking advantage of local wedge issues, pounding Obama on energy production, specifically as it relates to the coal industry.
But in Ohio, like in other states, there's one issue besides the economy that has truly polarized voters – Obama's healthcare law. In 2011, in fact, voters by a 2 to 1 margin supported a state ban on the government mandating health insurance coverage, a tenant of Obamacare.