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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Democrats added the parental-loan remark to the string of Romneyi$ms that highlight his wealth and his distance from the daily struggles of most Americans. The Obama campaign went on offense this week with a blunderbuss ad called “Swiss Bank Account,” that ends with the line: “It’s just what you’d expect from a guy who had a Swiss bank account.” Subtle! Obama hopes to make Romney’s financial background as exotic to these voters as Obama’s upbringing in Indonesia.

Josh Mandel thinks that Romney should show up at a plant or coal mine or find some other way to connect with these voters, or else risk losing them. And Romney clearly knows he must find some way to show that he understands what people face in economically uncertain times. A considerable danger to Romney would be that a factory tour would look like he was pandering. A hard-hat moment would look as inauthentic as John Kerry's afternoon of hunting or Michael Dukakis' ride in the tank.

Despite Romney's deficit with white, working-class voters and his self-inflicted wounds, he does have two big advantages: history and the economy. A majority of blue-collar voters haven't voted for a Democrat since Lyndon Johnson. These folks have been the hardest hit by the economic downturn. Romney just needs voters to blame the president for the bad economy, which they seem ready to do. In a recent Quinnipiac poll, Romney tops Obama on all questions related to the economy and jobs. "The Romney campaign message is pretty simple," said one veteran GOP strategist, summing up the Ohio strategy, "Under Obama, your life sucks."

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President Obama has a direct rebuttal that he’ll be making in his first official campaign event, which is scheduled for Saturday at Ohio State University. Obama will tout the 2009 bailout of Chrysler and General Motors which he says not only saved jobs at car manufacturing plants but also in those industries that service the car industry. Last week the Obama campaign launched a “made in Ohio” tour in which former Gov.  Ted Strickland toured the state reminding voters about the rescue and about Mitt Romney’s  2008 Op-Ed that the New York Times editors gave the headline, “Let Detroit Go Bankrupt.”

Ohio Democrats may also have a tactical advantage that will help the president overcome the usual Democratic disadvantage with blue-collar voters. Last year, Gov. John Kasich and Republican leaders tried to limit public-sector union bargaining rights for roughly 400,000 state and local workers, including police, firefighters, and teachers. In November, voters overturned the law (Senate Bill 5, which Romney supported) 62 percent to 38 percent. Republicans admit this damaged the party’s reputation with firefighter and police unions that had typically been sympathetic to the GOP. Democrats say the door-knocking and voter-outreach effort that led to that victory started a conversation with angry blue-collar voters that will make them receptive to Obama’s re-election campaign.

Republicans say any conversation with voters that starts with the auto bailout will lead to a larger conversation about the economy, enabling Romney to argue that his 25 years in business gives him special insight. But even there the issue is getting murky. During Romney’s recent visit to Ohio, he joined Gov. John Kasich who touted the thousands of jobs now available in the state. The Ohio unemployment rate was 9 percent last year and is now 7.5 percent, just below the national average. Republicans argue Kasich should get the credit and not the president. To make that case, Mitt Romney will first have to find a way to talk to those working-class voters.

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