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How Obama Won Ohio

COLUMBUS, OHIO -- I spent much of Election Day speaking to voters at the polls here, at two locations in Franklin County outside the Columbus city line, and noticed after speaking to a fair number of Romney supporters and Obama supporters that I had not spoken to any who had switched allegiance from voting for Barack Obama in 2008 to Mitt Romney this year.  To win a state that Obama carried by 4 percentage points last time, Romney of course needed a fair number of voters to switch sides, or to hope that Obama's 2008 supporters would not turn out in anywhere close to the same numbers. My admittedly anecdotal impressions over the course of the day were suggesting that neither was happening for Romney.

But halfway through the day, I did meet one 2008 to 2012 switcher. Matt Bimberg, 50, was standing by himself at a remote bus stop on the south side of Columbus. He stood out—a middle-aged white man with a Detroit Tigers cap in a mostly black neighborhood. He was returning home from a nearby warehouse where he had just gotten a job as a forklift operator—a job he got after taking a three-week training course paid for by the U.S. Department of Labor, following spells of unemployment over the past decade after losing jobs as a telecom technician for Global Crossing (he was holding a Global Crossing tote bag in his hand) and at a factory making escape hatches for buses. And as a result of that federal boost, he had decided to vote for Barack Obama after having voted for John McCain in 2008. The training had helped him, and he was pretty sure such federal support would be less available in a Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan administration.

“My line of thinking was that under Romney and Ryan, it would be more a trickle-down administration,” he said. “Their thinking is to give that money to corporations and the rich in tax breaks, and some will trickle down. But it didn’t work then and it won’t work now. Romney reminds me so much of Reagan’s theory of supply-side economics. It scares me.”

The bus rolled up and he climbed on. I was left half-wondering if Bimberg had been some sort of devious plant by the Obama campaign or the Ohio Democratic Party, because it was hard to imagine a voter giving a more explicit version of the Democratic Party’s case for itself in the 2012 election, especially in Ohio: that Obama and the Democrats were fighting for regular people—the 99 percent, the 47 percent, the auto workers—while Mitt Romney and the Republicans were on the side of the 1 percent. Yet perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised, because the fact is—and the story of the 2012 election may largely be—that the Obama campaign and the Democrats did such a good job of framing the choice on these terms that it was taking root even with voters who did not have as obvious cause to embrace it as Bimberg did.

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I heard versions of it again and again during the day. “Romney’s kind of…pffft,” said Thomas Lapelusa, a middle-aged man on disability in South Columbus. “He’s for the rich people.” At a polling station in a Catholic Church on the city-suburb line, I spoke with Michael Murphy, a 38-year-old FedEx employee, who voted for the first time in this election because he simply couldn’t abide Romney: “He’s in it for himself. All he cares about is taking over companies and bankrupting them and leaving people with no jobs. And that’s what he’d do as president—send jobs to China.”

In the suburb of Hilliard, the kind of place Romney needed to flip some voters, I met Jeff Claykowski, just the sort of voter Romney needed to reclaim—a small business owner (he runs a pet-sitting operation) who voted for George W. Bush before voting for Obama. Didn’t Romney’s attack against Obama’s “you didn’t build that” attack resonate with him? No--he was more bothered by Romney’s 47 percent remarks. “That kind of turned me off,” he said. In general, he was just left uneasy about Romney: “I know a little less about him.” And things are starting to turn around in Ohio, thanks in part to the auto bailout: “If [the auto industry] would’ve gone under, the trickle-down to the suppliers would’ve been bad.” In general: “I don’t want to stop the momentum [of the economic recovery]. I don’t think Romney has a plan.” Also in Hilliard, I spoke with Corey Thomas, 37, for whom things haven’t been going so well. He’s been getting fewer commissions in his job doing inside sales for a book company and almost lost his home to foreclosure. But that didn’t mean he was ready to switch to Romney. “I’m not a huge, giant Obama supporter, but for someone like me, driving a Saturn, he’s better suited to me,” Thomas said. “I see [Romney] being very robotic and slick, and don’t see him helping someone like me.”

Other voters mentioned issues beyond the who’s-on-your-side framing that Obama was also pushing: at the church polling site, Anne Mellinger, a 33-year-old hospital employee, said she was worried about abortion rights and Planned Parenthood funding under Romney, and about the fate of Obamacare, which would help someone like her with a serious preexisting condition—cystic fibrosis—if she was ever without coverage. A 64-year-old woman at the same polling site was most worried about Romney’s plan to turn Medicare into a voucher for those now under 55, even if wouldn’t affect her personally; she works in a Medicare office and worries about the ability of seniors to negotiate an array of private insurers. “A lot of these people don’t have the education and resources necessary,” she said. “They’re best with something that’s the same for everyone and there for them.”

But above all, one heard the basic, strikingly class-based point: even if things have not been going so well since 2008, Romney and his party are not for us. The contours of the Obama campaign’s attacks on this front are by now well known—the devastating Bain Capital ads (aired over the attention-getting protests of Democrats such as Bill Clinton and Newark Mayor Cory Booker), the questions about Romney’s tax returns, the assault on his opposition to the auto bailout. Too often overlooked, though, has been the Ohio context that set the stage for the Obama message, the massive backlash last year against Gov. John Kasich’s new law stripping away collective bargaining rights for public employees, which was roundly defeated in a high-turnout referendum last fall. The successful backlash gave Ohio Democrats a shot in the arm after their 2010 wipe-out, persuaded some swing voters that it was time to rethink their support of the GOP—at the state and national level—and gave them an organizational edge heading into this year. “The extremity of last year’s collective bargaining attack opened a lot of eyes to the extremity of the current Republican Party,” said Tim Burga, head of the Ohio AFL-CIO when I ran into him later in the evening. “It created opportunities for us, not only with our own members, but with others as well.”

The organizational strength was on display during a get-out-the-vote canvass of the black neighborhood in South Columbus where I met Bimberg. I was tagging along with Chris Maxie, a 21-year-old Ohio native with Working America, an organization started several years ago by the AFL-CIO to build support among nonunion voters. The organization has been investing especially heavily in Ohio, and got a big lift from the anti-Kasich backlash last year. By the time of the early afternoon canvass, it was plain that its work, and that of the Obama campaign and Ohio Democrats, had already been done: virtually every single resident Maxie encountered had already voted. James Mans, 38, had stopped at the polls on his way home from a graveyard shift at the Coca-Cola bottling plant before going down for his daytime sleep. Eddie Caldwell, a retired postal worker, had voted on Sunday because in 2008, long lines on Election Day had kept him from casting a ballot for Obama. And once the exit polls started rolling in, the results were plain to see: in Ohio, as elsewhere, African-Americans appeared to have maintained if not expanded their proportional support for Obama over 2008—and along the way greatly aided Democratic Senate candidates like Tim Kaine, Elizabeth Warren, Tammy Baldwin and Sherrod Brown.

I managed to catch Brown’s victory speech at the Ohio Democratic results-watching party at the Columbus Hilton, and it was a fitting end to the evening. Brown, the most forthrightly populist Democrat in the Senate, took it up a notch or two as he celebrated his victory in a race that encapsulated the 2012 contrast better than any other Senate race, against a 35-year-old state treasurer who was backed by what may on final accounting reach $40 million in spending by outside conservative groups, nearly all of it from undisclosed donors--more than $12 million of it spent on ads since mid-October alone. “Today, in Ohio, in the middle of America, the middle class won again,” Brown said, invoking the referendum fight last year that got it all going. He talked about the age-old threat of big money, quoting Mark Hanna, the Gilded Age’s Karl Rove, and the muckraker Lincoln Steffens.

But his fiery rhetoric was barely audible--his always-raspy voice had been worn down to nothing. Finally, he was rescued by his wife, the longtime Cleveland Plain Dealer columnist Connie Schultz, who left her job a year ago to spare her husband another round of questions about her role at the paper, a decision that left her free, now, to speak in his stead. Schultz, the daughter of a utility plant maintenance man in northeast Ohio, read the speech as rousingly as possible, but Brown wanted to make sure she got it right. And when she got to the part about the Jeep operation in Toledo expanding – the plant that Mitt Romney falsely said was moving to China—and about the Chevy Cruze now being built at the rejuvenated GM plant near Youngstown, Brown started croaking at her to make sure she got it all right. “The engine block is made in ... Defiance…The aluminum wheels are made in ... Cleveland. The transmission’s from ... Toledo…It’s all assembled in ... Lordstown.”

It clearly burned Brown that he hadn’t been able to deliver the riff himself. But it didn’t really matter, of course – the voters had already gotten the message, and had, in just enough numbers, sent the message back to Washington, in Ohio and beyond.

follow me on Twitter @AlecMacGillis