The Most Important Voters of 2012 Are White, Working-Class Ohioans. Romney Needs a Strategy To Reach Them.

Who's winning, who's losing, and why.
May 2 2012 6:10 PM

The Most Important Voters of 2012

They’re white, they’re working-class, and they live in Ohio. And Romney has to win them over.

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Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney speaks at Otterbein University on April 27, 2012 in Westerville, Ohio

Photograph by Jay LaPrete/Getty Images.

Ohio Republican Senate candidate Josh Mandel is 34, but he looks 19. He's not clean-cut—he's freshly shorn. So when the young State Treasurer explains that he's going to beat incumbent Democratic Sen. Sherrod Brown by winning over working-class voters who spend their day with equipment that is hot, heavy, and dirty, it seems like a long shot. But Mandel has possible inroads with these voters: He served two tours in the Marines in Iraq. His grandfather was a laborer at a brass factory and his mother was also a union worker—the kind of voters he's trying to court. In one of his ads he highlights his military experience. (A snapshot from Anbar Province puts grit on a man.) In another he highlights his working-class heritage.

John Dickerson John Dickerson

John Dickerson is Slate's chief political correspondent and author of On Her Trail. Read his series on the presidency and on risk. Follow him on Twitter.

Mandel’s strategy may not work, but at least he can start the conversation with white, working-class voters, a critical voting bloc. The question after two days of reporting in Ohio is what Mitt Romney can do to appeal to these same voters? Is he going to visit the shift-change at the Lordstown GM plant and let them take his measure, or is he just going to hope that history and a bad economy will bring them out to vote against President Barack Obama?

Ohio is competing with Florida for the title of most important state in this election. According to almost every serious analysis, it is a must-win for Mitt Romney. (Pause to cite the election-year adage: No Republican has won the presidency without winning Ohio.) Fifty-four percent of the electorate is made up of white, working-class voters, according to the Brookings Institution. Romney has a hard time with them. In the Ohio primary, according to exit polls, he lost those making $50,000-$100,000 by 11 points to Rick Santorum, and lost those without a college degree, too. The good news is that Obama has also had trouble with these voters. He lost them in the 2008 primary to Hillary Clinton and he lost working-class white voters to John McCain by 18 points. Romney will probably win these voters in Ohio but his challenge is to win them by a big enough margin to overcome Obama's strengths with young voters, minorities, and college graduates.

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How should Romney make his case to working-class voters? How can he show that he understands them? We know what Romney's father George Romney would do. In 1968 when he was running for president, George Romney took a 17-city tour of the "ghettos." On this tour, the candidate interacted in unscripted moments with actual people. Unplanned events took place. He argued with those who opposed him. He suggested that he was interested in the lives of people who were not likely to be in his voting coalition. This kind of sustained engagement with serendipity would seem as foreign to the Mitt Romney campaign as campaigning in the nude.

When Charlie Rose asked Romney this week on CBS This Morning whether he might replicate even a sliver of his father’s outreach, the governor said he has held regular meetings with voters away from the cameras. This was politically and logistically confusing. Those who have covered Romney by the minute were surprised to learn about these events. Also: Why, if you're having trouble connecting with middle class voters—as the polls regularly show he does—would you hide these regular engagements with them? I asked the campaign for a few details and about why these meetings were secret and was told there would be no more information on this topic. 

Romney starts with an empathy deficit and continues to dig his hole deeper. At a recent speech at Ohio’s Otterbein University, Romney suggested to the students that one of several paths to success was that they could borrow money from their parents to start a business. (Mitt Romney has helped his son through a family trust.) With nearly 70 percent of college students on some kind of financial aid, it's safe to assume that parents who can't pay for school also don't have ready cash to fund the first venture.