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.
"I am 62 years old and Obamacare scares the crap out of me," said Richard Ringo of Cincinnati, an Ohio Republican Party volunteer. He said he fears the idea of bureaucrats standing between him and the care he will receive when he's on Medicare.
Pat Fry, a Cincinnati Democrat, has a different perspective on the president's signature legislation. She said she's a retired worker for the National Labor Relations Board, which oversaw cases from southern Ohio, West Virginia, and Kentucky. There she encountered a coal miner who filed a suit against his employer who had stopped paying health insurance premiums for its employees, an alleged violation of their contract.
The case was winding its way towards a trial, when Fry received a call from the coal miner.
"This guy says, 'I just got diagnosed with a brain tumor, I have six months to live, I'm not going to have surgery if it takes all the money and my family is going to lose everything I've worked all my life for,'' she said. Fry said it was heartbreaking to hear someone decline potentially life-saving treatment because of the cost and she hoped Obamacare would prevent such instances in the future.
Fred Zolg, a long-time Republican Party volunteer from Sycamore Township, a Cincinnati suburb, said it seems the electorate overall is more polarized.
"I'm not doing any persuading," he said of his phone-bank calls. "In past elections, I can remember trying to do some. But in this one, I don't seem to have to do it."
That change is the result of updated voter identification technology, which means he's just calling people who the Republicans or Romney campaign have determined are likely supporters, and a reflection of how fewer and fewer people remain truly 'undecided' in the current political atmosphere.
Zolg said what attracts him most to Romney is his plan to rein in entitlement spending.
"We need to get control of these entitlement programs and (vice presidential candidate) Paul Ryan's plan does it in a way that doesn't crush them, doesn't throw people out on the street, but would put them on a path to sustainability," he said.
The key to winning Ohio will be voter turnout – which campaign gets more of its supporters to cast their ballots - rather than tipping the balance with undecided voters, who are few and far between. It was only about 100,000 votes that separated President George W. Bush and John Kerry in 2004, out of more than 5.5 million cast.
Early voting has already begun in the state, with reports of Obama leading Romney among those who have already turned in their ballots, yet polls show Romney leading among voters who have yet to do so.
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Rebekah Metzler is a political writer for U.S. News & World Report. You can follow her on Twitter or reach her at email@example.com.