He's running away with Ohio's famous cookie poll, but the actual polls aren't so bleak for McCain.

A guide to the swing states.
Oct. 28 2008 5:58 PM

Sweet on Obama

He's running away with Ohio's famous cookie poll, but the actual polls aren't so bleak for McCain.

Read the rest of the Swingers series.

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Busken Bakery's famous presidential candidate cookies

John McCain is in big trouble in Ohio. It's not just that the poll-tracking sites show Barack Obama ahead, with leads of five to six points, after averaging the various polls. In a less scientific but historically accurate indicator—which has correctly predicted the winner of Ohio's electoral votes the past six elections—McCain is also getting thumped in the Busken presidential cookie poll. Busken is a family-run bakery in Cincinnati, and every election since 1984, it has sold iced cookies bearing images of the presidential candidates' faces. As of today, Obama is outselling McCain at Busken's 19 stores by a cookie margin of more than 2-to-1.

Rachael Larimore Rachael Larimore

Rachael Larimore is Slate's managing editor.

But the margin isn't what strikes Brian Busken, the state's foremost analyst of politics and baked goods (and the company's vice president of marketing). Busken says he's never seen turnout—er, sales—like this. "We started selling them earlier this election because the election has been such a hot topic, and this is by far the most cookies we've sold in any election year." So far the bakery has sold almost 12,000 presidential cookies.

Good news for Busken's bottom line is bad news for the McCain campaign. No Republican has ever won the presidency without taking Ohio. Further, the Buckeye State isn't just a swing state. It's a bellwether. And for good reason: Ohio is a microcosm of the nation. According to the Census Bureau, Ohioans graduate from high school, go to college, have children, shop, and buy homes in numbers almost mirroring national averages. Our median income is $43,371; the national median is $44,334. Our population breakdown is slightly whiter than the United States as a whole, but we have just as many women-owned and black-owned business as elsewhere. Even our commute is almost identical to the national average. (And we're probably all listening to the same bad music or talk radio for those 23 minutes in the car.) The state is utterly Midwestern, but it borders—and is influenced by—the Northeast (New York and Pennsylvania) and the South (West Virginia and Kentucky).

And the Obama campaign is competing in almost every corner of it, says David Wilhelm, Bill Clinton's campaign manager in 1992 and former chairman of the Democratic National Committee. An Ohio native, he's now informally advising the Obama campaign. "It's a fair criticism" that the Kerry campaign devoted too many resources to "the three Cs," says Wilhelm, referring to Hamilton County, Franklin County, and Cuyahoga County, home to Cincinnati, Columbus, and Cleveland, respectively. He notes that the three counties account for less than 30 percent of the general election vote while the next nine largest counties, home to medium-sized cities like Toledo, Youngstown, Canton, and Dayton, make up another 30 percent of the population. The rest is small towns and rural residents.

All that said, Kerry lost to Bush by only about 120,000 votes. That sounds like a lot, but as the Obama campaign likes to point out, that's only 10 votes per precinct.

Obama, with local volunteers on the ground in every county, has good reason to be confident. Campaigning across the state and relying on local volunteers worked for Bush in 2004, and trekking into places where Democrats hadn't bothered before was a key to victory for Democrats in the 2006 election. Democratic Gov. Ted Strickland might have won anyhow—he was running against Ken Blackwell, the secretary of state in the unpopular Bob Taft administration. But fellow Democrat Sherrod Brown unseating Mike DeWine in the Senate was more surprising.

The benefits to the Democrats of Strickland's and Brown's victories are twofold. First, they laid the groundwork for Obama's strategy. Second, they've re-energized Ohio's Democratic Party and helped provide an infrastructure for the Obama campaign to work with. Strickland was a Hillary Clinton supporter during the primaries but quickly threw his weight behind Obama once he was declared the nominee. And both politicians have stumped tirelessly for Obama.

"The one big difference between now and four years ago," says Wilhelm, is "the election of Ted Strickland, Sherrod Brown, the emergence of a strong party, a governor who cares about that party, a senator who cares about that party. One thing that has been absent this year is the turf wars, the infighting that was part of the deal in Ohio in the past."

But it's not just infrastructure and strategy. Obama is popular because Ohioans, like most Americans, trust him more on the economy. Ohio has withstood a net loss of more than 200,000 jobs since 2000, with more than 236,000 manufacturing jobs disappearing. During the primaries, Obama slammed NAFTA in his Ohio appearances, blaming the trade agreement for killing 50,000 jobs.

And then, aside from matters of policy or strategy, there's the enthusiasm factor. Democrats are genuinely excited about Barack Obama. The Obama voters I talked to cited the need for "change" and how they were taken with his ideas. "I feel strongly about this election," says Eric Sidle, a second-year law student at Case Western Reserve in Cleveland. "Barack Obama is a liberal who doesn't run away from his liberal ideals."

So, to review: Voters are excited about Obama. They trust him more to fix the economy. And he has a better organization and deeper pockets than John Kerry did against George Bush in 2004. What, if anything, does John McCain have going for him?

In a word: cookies. In past presidential cookie polls, Busken made cookies of only the presidential candidates. This year, by popular demand, it is also selling vice-presidential cookies. Busken didn't have specific poll (I mean sales) numbers for me. But based on what I've seen in my encounters with voters, as well as my visits to the bakery, I'll make a prediction: At least a few reluctant Republicans who aren't excited about John McCain will vote for him because they are enthralled with Sarah Palin.

McCain's decision to introduce Palin as his running mate at Wright State University's Nutter Center in Dayton was coincidental (the rally was announced on Aug. 18, by all reports before he decided on Palin) but fortuitous. Ohio gave Hillary Clinton one of her last big primary victories. If one of McCain's goals was to pry away some of those disgruntled Hillary voters, and to do so with someone running as a "heartlander," he couldn't have picked a better location.

"The day she and John McCain appeared at the Nutter Center, there was an instant surge in the number of volunteers," says former Sen. Mike DeWine, chairman of McCain's Ohio campaign. In Summit County alone, he says, home to Akron, 112 people called to volunteer that same afternoon. (In the previous week, it had received a total of four calls.)

It's hard to say whether a significant number of Hillary voters have defected to McCain. But the ones who have done so are heartfelt and outspoken. I attended a Palin rally in early October in Wilmington, and one of the warm-up speakers was "Cynthia from Columbus," who said McCain appealed to her because of his bipartisanship, his experience, and his judgment. And standing in front of me were Lynn and Andrea King, a mother and daughter who supported Clinton during the primaries but now plan to vote for McCain.

"We were very angry that Obama didn't pick her as vice president," Andrea said. "We were angry to begin with that she didn't win the primary." Lynn said her support for the Republican Party may outlast this campaign. "I have a real bad taste in my mouth for Democrats right now, for the way they treated Hillary Clinton," she said. "And then after she was a dead horse, they said, 'Oh, she'd have made a great president.' She was treated poorly by her own people."

For their part, the Democrats I talked to are not too worried about disgruntled Clinton supporters tipping the state for McCain. And there are surely many voters like Niti Patel of Cincinnati, who said that, while Hillary never appealed to her, the selection of Palin drove her into the Obama camp. "I was wavering between Obama and McCain until he picked her. She's just. …" She trailed off, unable to find the right words.

Sarah Palin speaks to a crowd at a rally in Ohio. Click image to expand.
McCain and Palin at an Ohio rally 

There's no denying, though, that Palin has fired up a part of the Republican base that was wavering in its support of McCain. And it's fired up the women in the party. There were significantly more women than men in the crowd at that rally in Wilmington. And a good many were decked out or accessorized in pink. Pink T-shirts with the GOP elephant and "It's a girl." Black T-shirts with "Read my lipstick" in pink lettering. There was even a woman whose resemblance to Palin inspired her to dress up like the governor, complete with the black power suit, half-upswept hairdo, and oversized flag pin.

More significant, perhaps, was the enthusiasm of the women who spoke before Palin. They got the crowd cheering louder.

Before the rally, I met Lois Lomley and Shirley Schulz in the long line snaking into the conference center. Both were wearing "Read my lipstick" T-shirts. Before McCain chose Palin, "my vote was more based on the issues," Lomley says. "But she's a quick study and a breath of fresh air. She's accomplished so much."

For all the controversy about Palin's invocation of the "heartland" theme and her small-town and "real America" rhetoric, it's not turning off anyone who is inclined to support her. Even when she steps off the campaign bus to make a quick stop at Wal-Mart to buy diapers for Trig, as she did in Gallipolis a few weeks ago, she creates a sensation.

DeWine was with her that day. "When you put 12,000 people in an open field in Belmont County, which is historically a Democrat county going back 100 years, that's a lot of people," he says. "She's energizing a large number of volunteers. The reason is that she's real. … She's authentic. That's really the attraction."

Of course, hers is not the only name on the ticket. The one thread of a silver lining in the latest Quinnipiac poll of Ohio, which shows Obama with a 14-point lead, is that voters trust McCain more on foreign policy. That's why Marshall Lilly, a moderate independent who's a nonproliferation officer in the office of Iranian affairs at the State Department, is supporting McCain. (He'll vote absentee in Ohio, as he recently moved to Washington and is very careful to clarify that his opinions are his own and that he's not speaking on behalf of the State Department.) "I think we saw the consequences of having a very inexperienced president and a very experienced, strong, and forceful vice president with Bush and Cheney," he says. "That's not something I would like to see repeated."

It may not be the most ringing endorsement of Republican stewardship. Then again, the McCain campaign will take its support where it can get it—and it's at pains to show that it's not giving up. The Ohio Newspaper Poll shows Obama leading the state by three points but has McCain leading by significant margins in southern and central Ohio, and he and Palin are fighting particularly hard in those areas. McCain and/or Palin has made more than two dozen stops in the state since August.

All of which is encouraging to state campaign chairman Mike DeWine. Either that or he's just keeping up a brave face. "We're going to carry Ohio," he says, in one of the most unsurprising statements of the campaign.