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.

143537369JL012_
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.

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.

Advertisement

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.

TODAY IN SLATE

Doublex

Crying Rape

False rape accusations exist, and they are a serious problem.

Scotland Is Just the Beginning. Expect More Political Earthquakes in Europe.

I Bought the Huge iPhone. I’m Already Thinking of Returning It.

The Music Industry Is Ignoring Some of the Best Black Women Singing R&B

How Will You Carry Around Your Huge New iPhone? Apple Pants!

Medical Examiner

The Most Terrifying Thing About Ebola 

The disease threatens humanity by preying on humanity.

Television

The Other Huxtable Effect

Thirty years ago, The Cosby Show gave us one of TV’s great feminists.

Lifetime Didn’t Find the Steubenville Rape Case Dramatic Enough. So They Added a Little Self-Immolation.

No, New York Times, Shonda Rhimes Is Not an “Angry Black Woman” 

Brow Beat
Sept. 19 2014 1:39 PM Shonda Rhimes Is Not an “Angry Black Woman,” New York Times. Neither Are Her Characters.
Behold
Sept. 19 2014 1:11 PM An Up-Close Look at the U.S.–Mexico Border
  News & Politics
Weigel
Sept. 19 2014 9:15 PM Chris Christie, Better Than Ever
  Business
Moneybox
Sept. 19 2014 6:35 PM Pabst Blue Ribbon is Being Sold to the Russians, Was So Over Anyway
  Life
Inside Higher Ed
Sept. 19 2014 1:34 PM Empty Seats, Fewer Donors? College football isn’t attracting the audience it used to.
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 19 2014 4:58 PM Steubenville Gets the Lifetime Treatment (And a Cheerleader Erupts Into Flames)
  Slate Plus
Slate Picks
Sept. 19 2014 12:00 PM What Happened at Slate This Week? The Slatest editor tells us to read well-informed skepticism, media criticism, and more.
  Arts
Brow Beat
Sept. 19 2014 4:48 PM You Should Be Listening to Sbtrkt
  Technology
Future Tense
Sept. 19 2014 6:31 PM The One Big Problem With the Enormous New iPhone
  Health & Science
Medical Examiner
Sept. 19 2014 5:09 PM Did America Get Fat by Drinking Diet Soda?   A high-profile study points the finger at artificial sweeteners.
  Sports
Sports Nut
Sept. 18 2014 11:42 AM Grandmaster Clash One of the most amazing feats in chess history just happened, and no one noticed.