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Why Romney’s Convention Won’t Help Him Win Ohio

TAMPA—As the campaign hordes evacuate from here, attention shifts north to Charlotte, where the Democrats will offer their retort starting Tuesday. But the real story today is in Ohio, where a federal judge has restored voting hours on the final weekend prior to the election. The Obama campaign had filed suit arguing that it was unconstitutional for the Ohio legislature to do away with early voting on that weekend while leaving it in place for members of the military; the option should be available to all Ohioans, the Obama campaign argued. This prompted the Romney campaign to call Obama anti-military and Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus to declare, a moment of candor, that allowing all Ohioans the option of early voting would “water down” the (Republican-leaning) military vote. It’s worth noting that this ruling does not touch on a separate fight in Ohio, over the Republican Secretary of State’s ban on weekend and evening hours for early voting done prior to the final weekend. This ban has prompted a major showdown—two Democratic election board officials in Dayton have been fired by the Secretary of State for defying his order.

The ruling offers a timely reminder that, after all the speeches and Eastwoodian surreality we saw here in Tampa this week, none of it will matter much unless it moves a bunch of voters in Ohio, which remains the most important state on the electoral map (no Republican has ever become president without it) and also the most surprising one. Obama won Ohio by four points and he remains a few points up there in most polls. That is, he has lost far less ground in Ohio, compared with his 2008 result, than he has in other states, including other Midwestern states such as Wisconsin, Iowa and Michigan. This, despite the fact that Ohio is one of the few states in the country where the share of white working-class voters—Obama’s weakest demographic—has actually increased since 2008.

There are different possible explanations for this. The economic rebound has been stronger in Ohio than many other states, a fact that Republican Gov. John Kasich has been touting at every turn, perhaps to the benefit of Barack Obama. As I described in a recent cover story, the state’s progressive movement got a major boost when it won a referendum last fall against Kasich’s sweeping anti-union law, the opposite of the dynamic in Wisconsin, where the failed effort to recall Gov. Scott Walker has boosted Republicans. The likeliest explanation, though, may be that Ohio voters remain particularly resistant to Mitt Romney, with a deluge of anti-Bain Capital ads to remind them that private-equity titans have not exactly been kind to their sort these past few decades. The question for Romney, then, was not just whether he could win over undecided voters this week but, more particularly, whether he could win over undecided or persuadable Ohioans.

To help answer this question, I headed over very last night to the after-party for the Ohio delegation, at their hotel and conference center out past the Tampa Bay airport. It was a rather odd scene—dozens of delegates picked over late-night snacks and wandered about in a weary daze as two massive screens, one inside and one out on a terrace, replayed, at high volume, that night’s prime-time hour, starting with Clint Eastwood’s discussion with an empty chair.

I chatted with Jim Butler, a state representative from the Dayton area, who thought Romney’s speech was fine but was more effusive about Eastwood’s: “He was great. [The empty chair] was just a really smart way to present the case of why we need a change.” (The Romney campaign will be relieved to hear this.) But why was Romney still lagging in Ohio? Butler subscribed to the strong-rebound theory: “We are doing better than the rest of the country,” he said. “When people feel like things are on the right track, which is different than the rest of the country, they’re less likely” to want to change leaders. Kenneth Henning, a young city councilor from Clayton, also in the Dayton area, said he thought Romney’s speech had “hit all the nails on the head.” But why was Obama still holding his ground in Ohio? “It’s relative to Mitt Romney being relatable,” he said. I then turned to Cliff Rosenberger, a state representative from Clarksville who, it happens, also served as political events director for Romney’s 2008 campaign. What did he make of the speech? He didn’t really want to say. He just had one observation, as we stood watching the replay of the speech on the big screen: Romney had worn a red tie. This struck him as remarkable: Romney, he said, very rarely wears red ties.

But maybe it was wrong to focus too much on Romney’s speech as the means of his outreach to Ohio. Because it’s worth noting that the speech, like the Paul Ryan one the night before, did not include what has been the main feature of the campaign’s pitch to voters in Ohio and other battleground states in recent weeks: the false charge that Obama is “gutting” welfare work requirements. I saw Romney make this charge to hundreds of coal  miners in southeastern Ohio just a couple weeks ago, and it has been the subject of five different Romney campaign ads. The fact that it was left out of the two big speeches may suggest that the campaign has been shamed into dropping such a debunked charge. But I doubt it.  More likely, the campaign was abashed to use the charge on the prime-time stage, but will keep pumping it into Ohio TVs in the weeks ahead, as it has signaled every intention of doing. In which case it doesn’t really matter what color tie Mitt Romney is wearing.

Follow me on Twitter @AlecMacGillis