Re-elect Bush, and you might get Jerry Springer, too.
The creation of Ohio was one of the great acts of the American Enlightenment. Its founders did not consider the state distinctive or romanticize its landscapes and its peoples. Such things did not matter to them because they were not trying to create something unique.
— Ohio: The History of A People, by Andrew R.L. Cayton
This is my Jerry Springer moment
I don't want this moment to die
So dip me in chocolate and throw me to the lesbians
I don't want this moment to die
— Jerry Springer: the Opera, by Richard Thomas and Thomas and Stewart Lee
For Ohio Democrats, the 2004 presidential election is principally about evicting George W. Bush from the White House. But it may also determine whether they have to stomach Jerry Springer as their nominee for governor in 2006. Two hundred and one years after it was assembled from land held in reserve for Virginia and Connecticut, Ohio has finally achieved uniqueness.
"Ohio's our best chance for a big-state pickup," former President Bill Clinton told an interviewer in the Aug. 5 Rolling Stone. Among swing states, only Florida and Pennsylvania have more electoral college votes than Ohio, and the Kerry and Bush campaigns have spent more money in Ohio (on a per-elector basis) than in either of those states. (When independent expenditures are factored in, the combined ad buy so far may exceed $20 million.) One reason for Ohio's preeminence is that its voting patterns, though fairly predictable in previous years, are now in flux. Superstition is also a factor. Traveling around the state last week, I heard just about every political operative or analyst I encountered cite two statistics: 1) No Republican has ever won the White House without winning Ohio; and 2) Ohioans have gone with the winner in every presidential election since 1964. To make these two facts an argument for campaigning heavily in Ohio is to confuse cause and effect—Ohio's vote tracks closely with the national vote not because its voters have any greater ability to affect voters elsewhere but because its demographics track national ones more closely than most.
Many people long considered Ohio, at least from a distance, to be a boring place. Its very representativeness made it uninteresting. But Ohio was always quite interesting when viewed as a collection of regions whose distinctive identities cancel each other out. In a recently launched newspaper series destined to be widely quoted in this Ohio-obsessed campaign season, the Cleveland Plain Dealer counts five Ohios:
1.) The Northeast. The state's manufacturing region. Cleveland, Akron, and Youngstown are all here. Although the Northeast has declined more than sufficiently to justify the term "rust belt"—Ohio lost 97,000 manufacturing jobs between 2000 and 2003 alone—manufacturing still represents 20 percent of Ohio's employment, or 6 percent above the national average. (I'm indebted here and throughout this article to The Ohio Almanac, edited by John Baskin and Michael O'Bryant.)
2.) The Southeast. This is Ohio's slice of Appalachia. This low-income, coal-mining region has more in common with West Virginia, which it borders, than with the rest of Ohio. Thirty percent of all adult males in the Southeast are veterans, and while the region is overwhelmingly patriotic, nearly one-quarter of its citizens have soured on the Iraq war, according to the Plain Dealer.
3.) Central Ohio. The swing-voter heartland. Columbus, this region's focal point, has grown from a charming slice of Americana (James Thurber, grouch extraordinaire, wrote nostalgically about his Columbus boyhood) to Ohio's most populous city, with a population of 711,000. Indeed, Columbus is the only one of Ohio's six major cities that didn't lose population during the 1990s. Columbus has achieved this seeming miracle by repeatedly expanding its city borders to absorb surrounding suburban areas. State government (Columbus is Ohio's capital), higher education (Ohio State), and various white-collar enterprises are major employers in Central Ohio.
Timothy Noah is a former Slate staffer. His book about income inequality is The Great Divergence.
Illustration by Mark Alan Stamaty. Photograph of Jerry Springer by Rose Prouser/Reuters.