The students hanging from the trees, the adulating crowds, the campaigner’s hoarse voice calling for “a movement for change”—it all made President Obama’s appearance last night at Ohio State look something like October, 2008. For a moment, the ‘enthusiasm gap’ seemed to vanish, along with any anxieties about employment, polling and favourability numbers. It reminded me of an old chestnut: “Let Reagan be Reagan” was what the Gipper’s advisors used to say during his mid-term slumps. In other words, get him out among his people, the people who put him in the White House in the first place, then just let him work his magic. The problem for President Obama is that it isn’t clear just who his people are right now: as we know, the tea partiers are marching, the left is in whiny, quasi-revolt, and the middle is mad as hell and not about to take it any more.
What to do? A twelfth presidential trip to Ohio was a good start. The state is the platonic form of bellwether: as Ohio goes, so goes the nation, more than 90% of the time in presidential elections. Ohio “contains a bit of everything American—part north-eastern and part southern, part urban and part rural, part hardscrabble urban and part suburb” is how The Economist aptly describes it. In recent years, the buckeyes have leaned Democrat and the party has registered over 1,000,000 new Ohio voters since 2004. Still, Obama won only a quarter of Ohio’s counties in ’08 and a look at the speakers on the dais last night shows that things are not quite hunkey-dorey for Ohio Democrats. To Mr. Obama’s right (on the dais, that is) was Governor Strickland, who is currently trailing former Rep. John Kasich, the no-nonsense, budget-cutting maverick Republican. Also seated nearby was Lt. Governor Lee Fisher, the Democratic U.S. Senate candidate, who is trailing his G.O.P. opponent by some 15 to 19 points, depending on which poll you read. Sure it’s impressive for a President to muster 35,000 voters for a mid-term election rally, but let's not mistake last night’s gathering for a representative sample of Ohio voters.
The results of the races in Ohio, of course, will have serious repercussions for 2012. It is likely that fewer states overall will be in the swing column in 2012, meaning that the traditional swing states, like Ohio and Florida, will be even more important. Governors and U.S. Senators, with their bully pulpits, their money and their organizations, have a lot of potential to influence the swing of their states. If both offices in Ohio are held by the G.O.P. the climb will be a lot steeper for Democrats than it was in 2008, when Obama won Ohio by less than 300,000 votes. Remember also that Ohio’s unemployment rate is nearing 10%. It was only 8.5% when Ohio sent Jimmy Carter packing in 1980. In order to carry Ohio in 2012, Obama will need to be Obama circa September, 2008: He’ll have to get back to Ohio a thirteenth, fourteenth, fifteenth time and more, sure up his base in places like Columbus, and then win back the marginal counties. This strategy assumes, of course, that the Obama of ’08 still exists and that voters beyond the walls of Ohio State are still willing to trust him.