COLUMBUS, Ohio--Mitt Romney's narrow win in the Ohio primary gives him Super Tuesday's most valued prize, even if it was a squeaker that gave runner-up Rick Santorum a moral victory of sorts. Yet Romney continues his plodding march to the Republican presidential nomination, gaining the majority of Ohio's 66 delegates plus a bit of momentum that the former Massachusetts governor desperately needs.
But the bigger winner in Ohio may be the Republicans' ultimate opponent, President Barack Obama. Ohio is a key swing state that may tip the election in November, as it has many times before. That is sure to make Ohio a smoking political battleground in the fall, with both sides fighting viciously for its 18 electoral votes. Here are four reasons why Obama, who won Ohio by a 52-47 margin in 2008, may already have an edge in the Buckeye State's general election.
Republican infighting. Romney and Santorum spent the days leading up to the Ohio primary trashing each other, as they've done in other states, instead of training their collective fire on Obama. Santorum attacked Romney as a big-spending Obama clone who lacks conviction. Romney attacked Santorum as a muddled, flip-flopping Washington insider. Yet polls now show that sustained infighting among Republicans is turning off voters, including independents, who the Republicans will need in November if they hope to win.
In addition to that, the Ohio primary further highlighted overall dissatisfaction with the whole field of Republican candidates, including Newt Gingrich and Ron Paul, who came in a distant third and fourth in the primary. Governor John Kasich chose not to endorse any candidate, which was like telling Romney and Santorum to take the gloves off.
A number of other state GOP leaders sat on the sidelines as well. "I'm scratching my head along with many other Republicans," says State Senator Peggy Lehner, who attended a Santorum rally in her district, near Dayton, the day before the primary, even though she didn't endorse any candidate. "I'm still trying to determine who has the best shot of knocking off Barack Obama."
Ohio Republicans may coalesce in support of a nominee once there is one, but their lack of coherence in the primary sends an unconvincing message to voters when they're most paying attention. It also gives Obama and his supporters a considerable head start.
Low Republican turnout. Final numbers aren't yet available, but it seems clear that turnout for the Republican primary was lighter than expected, especially compared to the record number of Ohio residents who braved ice storms, floods and power outages to vote in the 2008 primaries.
"It's probably because of negative campaigning," says Dave Westbrock, vice chairman of the Montgomery County Republican Party, near Dayton. "People are kind of tired of hearing the diatribes. It turns people off and they sort of say, a pox on all of their houses."
Democrats might also get lower turnout in November than they did in 2008. "There's been a falloff in enthusiasm among previous Obama supporters," says Paul Beck, a professor of political science at Ohio State University. "I'm not sure he can build the kind of support he did in 2008."
If Ohio comes down to a turnout battle, however, Obama may still have an edge over his Republican opponent. Real Clear Politics recently reported that Obama's Ohio operation is already outpacing Mitt Romney's, which is the most organized among Republicans. Team Obama appears to be getting an important lead on recruiting volunteers, setting up regional offices and raising funds, which could be a decisive factor when it comes to rousing voters in November.
An improving Ohio economy. Though Ohio is lumped with the fading industrial Rust Belt, its economy is recovering quicker than the nation as a whole. The state's unemployment rate peaked at 10.6 percent in 2009, which was higher than peak unemployment nationwide. But it has since fallen to 7.7 percent, compared with 8.3 percent for America overall. There's a shale oil boom in eastern Ohio that some analysts think could inject fresh prosperity into the state. The auto bailouts helped preserve some auto-sector jobs, especially in northeast Ohio, near Cleveland. Farming, still an important part of Ohio's economy, is relatively healthy.
Except for the auto bailouts, Obama's policies haven't necessarily benefited Ohio more than any other state. But he'll probably get credit for an improving economy no matter what, since there will be fewer dissatisfied voters eager to throw the bums out. Obama's approval rating in Ohio has been steadily rising and is now at 47 percent, according to the University of Cincinnati's Ohio Poll. That's the highest it's been since late 2009, and it will probably continue its upward trend if there are no shocks to the economy. An approval rating above 50 is generally consistent with re-election in Ohio.
A bad Republican misfire last year. Kasich and his conservative allies suffered an embarrassing smackdown in last year's elections, when voters approved the repeal of an anti-union law the governor had championed. The campaign to repeal the ban on public-sector collective bargaining energized unions and progressives, while turning some conservative union members squarely against the GOP. "There were a number of police and firemen who voted Republican in 2010 and then said, I'll never do that again," says Beck.
That should give Obama another modest advantage at the polls in November. And if Romney is his opponent, two hard-fought victories in Ohio may be one more than he can pull off.
Rick Newman is the author of Rebounders: How Winners Pivot From Setback To Success, to be published in May. Follow him on Twitter: @rickjnewman