Note: This is based on an article published April 30, 2012
With Battleground counties gaining such prominence, I decided to go back and see what The Wall Street Journal published in their Swing Nation coverage. Below is their look at Hamilton County, Ohio shortly after Romney locked up the GOP nomination:
As the 2012 race intensifies between President Barack Obama and presumptive Republican nominee Mitt Romney, the political backdrop in this pivotal swing state is being shaped by events that roiled Ohio a year ago. The fight over the bargaining rights of public-employee unions energized partisans on both sides, and amounted to a trial run for the general election that each party is now trying to use to its advantage. Neither party has a decisive edge, and Ohio figures to be a pivotal as well as closely fought state in the presidential race. Both parties have targeted Ohio as a battleground state, and the two candidates plan to spend a lot of time there. Mr. Obama will be in Ohio this week during his official campaign kickoff. Mr. Romney paid a visit Friday. And while the union fight and its aftermath will affect the November campaign, including Ohio’s congressional elections, it will hardly be the only issue. A recent survey by the Quinnipiac University Poll showed nine in 10 Ohioans rated the economy as “extremely important” or “very important.”
Public employee unions and collective bargaining rights
Last year’s fight over public-employee unions was waged when Ohio’s unemployment rate was around 9%. Since then, though, it has dropped to 7.5%. One political debate will be whether the Republican Gov. John Kasich—the man at the center of the union fight—or the Democratic president, Mr. Obama, gets credit if the state’s jobless rate continues to fall. Democrats think the fracas reopened the door for supporters who have slipped away in recent years: white, working-class, Republican-leaning voters who disliked the GOP move to shrink the power of public-sector unions, to which many remain loyal. During the fight last year, Mr. Obama lashed out against Ohio’s collective-bargaining law and a similar law in Wisconsin. Republicans, however, are optimistic the core debate over the size of government—including pay and pensions of public employees—will energize their base and pull financially pressed swing voters in their direction. Mr. Romney had backed the law, writing on his Facebook page last year that he fully supported Ohio Republicans’ efforts “to limit the power of union bosses and keep taxes low.” Ohio Republican Sen. Rob Portman, a potential GOP running mate, tried to stay on the sidelines during the fight, but he has supported collective-bargaining rights for police in the past.
Hamilton County is an important swing county in what may be the most important swing state. It is closely watched because its evenly divided electorate has so accurately reflected Ohio’s in the past. Vote tallies here almost precisely mirrored the state’s overall results when Ohio went for Mr. Obama in 2008, 52% to 47%, and then for Mr. Kasich in 2010, 49% to 47%. Ohio gives an ideal vantage point to see how the two parties are battling. Democratic campaign workers are poring over the 1.3 million voter signatures collected to repeal the collective-bargaining law, in hopes of pinpointing swing voters: Democrats say 10% of the signatures came from registered Republicans, 24% were Democrats and independents accounted for 65%. Hamilton generated more signatures per resident than any other county against three GOP-backed laws last year, including the collective-bargaining law. Its rich trove of votes has prompted the Obama campaign to open two of its 18 Ohio offices here. Volunteers began knocking on doors across the state two weeks ago.
Tucked into the southwest corner of the state along the Ohio River, Hamilton is home to Procter & Gamble, Kroger Co. and Macy’s Inc. Hundreds of manufacturing jobs are concentrated along a northbound stretch of Interstate 75. It has some of the wealthiest U.S. suburbs, as well as pockets of deep poverty in Cincinnati. The voter backlash against the collective bargaining law was especially fierce here. “Forget the bankers, forget Wall Street, all of a sudden it was our fault the state was broke,” said Kathy Harrell, president of the 1,900-member Cincinnati Fraternal Order of Police. She said the organization asked each member to give an additional $57 to pay for the repeal campaign, a request that drew no complaints. The organization, which traditionally endorses Republicans, is split this year at the national level. But in Hamilton County, the FOP harbors little division. They refused to endorse any candidates that supported the collective-bargaining law. Three Republicans lost their seats in the November election.
Obamacare even less popular
Republicans believe any lingering anger over the collective-bargaining law will dissipate in coming months as the fiscal troubles of Ohio’s cities and towns force voter attention on tough choices: tax hikes or service cuts. Cleveland and Cincinnati announced last month they were laying off hundreds of teachers to balance their shrinking budgets. The GOP is launching a counteroffensive using information gleaned from 427,000 signatures gathered to qualify a state constitutional amendment against Mr. Obama’s health-care law, also on last November’s ballot. The symbolic measure had no impact on federal law but passed by a wider margin than the repeal of the collective-bargaining law. Ohio GOP Chairman Bob Bennett said the “millions of pieces of micro-targeting data” collected during last year’s campaign would be employed against Democrats in 2012. “It’s going to be hand-to-hand combat,” he said.
White working class voters
Much of the debate is aimed at white, working-class voters whose support in Midwestern swing states is essential for GOP hopes to retake the White House. In 2000 and 2004, former President George W. Bush’s roughly three-to-two advantage among white, working-class voters helped carry him to victory. In the 2008 election, the group sided with the Republican nominee, Sen. John McCain, by 10 percentage points in Ohio. But they backed Mr. Obama in Wisconsin and Michigan, allowing the former Illinois senator to sweep the Rust Belt. In 2010, these voters swung back. With the tea party vocalizing their anger, they supported congressional Republicans by a margin of 30 points, according to national exit polls. Republicans captured the governor’s seat and both chambers of the legislature in Wisconsin, Michigan, Indiana and Ohio. There are signs the pendulum is moving once again. Anger at Republican efforts to target public-employee unions, the party’s defense of tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans in Washington and a punishing primary season have driven down GOP approval numbers. Mr. Obama, meanwhile, has gotten a boost from an improving U.S. economy. Mr. Obama looks stronger against Mr. Romney among white, working-class voters in Wisconsin, Michigan and Ohio than other Democrats who faced Republicans in 2010, according to polls. Still, the group is up for grabs. Neither Messrs. Romney nor Obama—both slightly aloof public figures with Harvard graduate degrees—resonate personally with these voters.