Ohio is the final frontier of the 2012 race. The Obama and Romney campaigns each believe a win would likely guarantee an electoral college victory for its side. Breaking things down even further, a handful of key counties could provide clues on where things are heading in early voting and on election night.
The clearest swing county is Hamilton, which includes Cincinnati and its suburbs, in the Southwest corner of the state. Most of the state is divided between dense urban counties (solid Democrat) and smaller, more rural counties (solid Republican), very few of which actually switch between parties. Long considered a Republican stronghold, Hamilton has become the one county that’s both heavily populated and highly competitive in 2012. In 2008, Barack Obama won by a 52-47 margin over John McCain, banking about 21,000 net votes in the process. Just four years earlier, President Bush won the county over John Kerry by almost the same margin, 53-47 and about 23,000 net votes.
“The biggest prize thats up for grabs is Hamilton County,” Grant Neeley, a professor of political science at the University of Dayton, told TPM.
Democrats are trying to run up their margins with African American and young voters in Cincinnati while Republicans look to fire up their base in the more conservative suburbs. If one side enjoys a big lead on election night, it could be a good sign of where things are heading.
Another swing county to watch is Montgomery, which includes Dayton. Obama visited the area on Tuesday for a rare joint event with Joe Biden to help juice the early vote. Obama won the vote there in 2008 by a 52-47 margin and picked up a net 13,000 votes. But Bush carried it in 2004 just barely, taking about 4,500 votes more than Kerry. The economy relies heavily on manufacturing and the auto industry, making it a good test case for whether Obama’s huge emphasis on the Detroit rescue is moving votes.
Other places where Democrats are looking for blue collar voters to pad their lead are the manufacturing towns along Lake Erie, which include such counties as Lucas, which includes Toledo, and smaller counties like Lorain and Sandusky. High turnout there could be a good sign for Obama. If you’re looking for a historical bellwether, smaller Wood County, which includes the Toledo suburbs, has voted with the winning presidential candidate since 1980. Those legends die hard, though: nearby Defiance County was considered one of the most accurate national weathervanes in America until it swung hard to McCain in 2008.
Beyond that, the margins in big urban centers like Cuyahoga (Cleveland) — where Obama banked a net of nearly 250,000 votes in 2008 — may be good indicators of whether core Democratic voters are getting out. So far Democrats are voting early in impressive numbers in the county, but Republicans have made gains since 2008 as well.
As for Republicans, it may be harder to monitor their core counties. A lot of them are in sparsely populated counties, whose margins are more difficult to track in real time. But tracking the above areas, especially Hamilton and Montgomery, should offer plenty of signs as to where the race is heading.
(Photo Credit: Brett Marty Photography)
Benjy Sarlin is a reporter for Talking Points Memo and co-writes the campaign blog, TPM2012. He previously reported for The Daily Beast/Newsweek as their Washington Correspondent and covered local politics for the New York Sun.