President Obama and Republican rival Mitt Romney both barnstormed Ohio this week, holding rallies just miles apart in the state's northwest. Obama's event was smack in the middle of Wood County, with Romney's just north.
The county may have a population of only 125,000, but it has an outsized importance in presidential elections.
"Since 1960, [Wood County] has predicted every election except for one," says Wood County GOP Chairman Matt Reger. "I think that it is a microcosm of Ohio, which in some parts is a microcosm of the United States."
Wood County has an even distribution of Democrats and Republicans who are registered, Reger says, though Republicans have a light advantage. It also has a large degree of independents — almost 60,000 — which is more than the number of registered Democrats and Republicans there combined.
This makes the county as important in the state as Ohio is nationally, meaning as Wood County goes, so does Ohio. This is especially critical for Mitt Romney, because no Republican has ever won the White House without also winning Ohio.
Recent polls show Obama pulling ahead of Romney in Ohio, but NPR's Ari Shapiro, who has traveled with both campaigns, tells weekends on All Things Considered host Guy Raz that the Romney campaign is still fighting hard and is not counting out the state just yet.
"They'd be foolish not to be concerned," Shapiro says. "[But] clearly they are still campaigning really hard there. There are paths to victory without Ohio, but far fewer of them."
So How Will They Vote?
As Reger says, it's sometimes hard to predict how the presidential vote will go in Wood County, which for the past 50 years has only gotten it wrong once, in 1976.
Like Ohio, Wood County's largest industry is agriculture. At a farmer's market in the town of Perrysburg, Dennis Dickey had some harsh words for the president. "Obama's done nothing about anything," he said. "The economy still sucks, unemployment's still bad, [and] he shoved health care down everybody's throat that didn't want it."
Retired business owner Chuck Cassis was also critical of Obama."Yes, I did make my own business," Cassis said. "And if he was talking about the roads, then it's my taxes paid for those, too."
In nearby Luckey, just a dozen miles away, there was support in the other direction.
"When I was laid off, [Obama] kept the unemployment coming so that I didn't lose everything," said Sharon Williams, a retired legal secretary.
Roxanne Rideout said she liked the way Obama handled himself under pressure: "He's not a hot head, especially with things that happen abroad."
That's part of what makes Wood County so unpredictable — all kinds of political views in all kinds of places.
Alec MacGillis, a senior editor with The New Republic, has been reporting extensively on Ohio over the past few months. He says part of Obama's polling advantage there might be explained by attack ads.
"A lot of these ads that ran in Ohio were not seen all that much elsewhere," MacGillis tells NPR's Raz. "They were very well targeted."
MacGillis says the other advantage Obama has had in Ohio is due to Romney's perception among white, working class voters.
"As much as Obama was not well suited to Ohio," he says, "Romney was really not suited to Ohio because of this profile as ... 'the guy who fires you.' "
One thing MacGillis thinks people are getting wrong about Romney is the notion that he should be doing better because the economy is so rough. In the case of Ohio, it is simply not the case.
"Unemployment in Ohio is down to 7 percent from well above 10 percent," he says. "The auto bailout played a huge part in this, [and] there's also the shale gas boom in Ohio which has really helped the state."
Wood County's economy is doing better as well, but Reger, the GOP chairman, attributes that to policies put in place by local Republicans.
"The policies are the policies Mitt Romney is advocating," he says. "So, on a national level, that's the kind of policies we want."
In Wood County, 13 of the 15 local elected officials are Republicans.
GUY RAZ, HOST:
It's WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Guy Raz.
(SOUNDBITE OF CHEERING)
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Hello, Falcons.
RAZ: Those would be the Falcons of Bowling Green State University, where President Obama was visiting this week, campaigning in Northwestern Ohio.
UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Chanting) Four more years. Four more years. Four more years.
RAZ: Now, the very next day, 20 minutes away, Mitt Romney held a rally of his own.
MITT ROMNEY: I know that they're out there chanting at his events, four more years. But let me ask you this: Do you want four more years with 23 million people struggling to find a job?
(SOUNDBITE OF CHEERING)
RAZ: And at both these rallies, lots of people from Wood County, Ohio. The president was smack in the middle of Wood County; Mitt Romney just north of it. And why is this county, population 125,000, such an important place?
MATT REGER: Since 1960, it's predicted every election except for one.
RAZ: Every presidential election except for 1976. That's Matt Reger. He's the chair of the Wood County Republican Party.
REGER: I think that it is a microcosm of Ohio, which in some parts is a microcosm of the United States. We have an even distribution of Democrats and Republicans who are registered, a little bit more on the Republican side, and then we have a large degree of independents.
RAZ: Almost 60,000 independents. That's more than the combined number of registered Democrats and Republicans in Wood County. That means as Wood County goes, so goes Ohio. And no Republican has ever won the White House without it. Ohio and why it matters quite possibly more than any other state this year - that's our cover story today.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MY CITY WAS GONE")
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (Singing) I went back to Ohio.
RAZ: And let's begin our coverage with NPR's Ari Shapiro, our White House correspondent, who has been with both the Romney campaign and the Obama campaigns this past week. Ari, great to have you back.
ARI SHAPIRO, BYLINE: Thanks.
RAZ: Let's start with Romney's trip to Ohio. What was his reception like there? It was a big trip, and they put a lot of resources into that trip.
SHAPIRO: Big trip, big rallies, a bus tour after he left New York at the beginning of the week. He flew out there and joined his running mate, Paul Ryan. Whenever Ryan is with him, he has a little bit more energy and the audience is more enthusiastic than when he's on his own. Ohio is becoming the crucial state as it has been in many elections before that he's got to win. And frankly, for him, the numbers in the polls are going in the wrong direction right now.
RAZ: Do his - did you get a sense, being with the Romney team, that, you know, they are concerned about the president pulling away from Romney in Ohio?
SHAPIRO: They'd be foolish not to be concerned about that. As you say, the polls show the president with a lead of eight, nine, even 10 points in The New York Times poll this week. But when senior officials in the Romney campaign were asked this week, do you have a path to success without Ohio, and if so, what is it, they said we're not going to count off any states. And clearly, they are still campaigning really hard there. There are paths to victory without Ohio, but far fewer of them.
RAZ: And what about the Obama campaign? What was it like in Ohio with him this week?
SHAPIRO: Well, you know, they said they are not spiking the ball at the 30-yard-line, as the Romney campaign accused them of doing, but they would rather be where they are, certainly, than where Romney is. Interestingly, Mitt Romney was out there saying why voters should vote for him. President Obama was saying, listen, early voting starts Tuesday, October 2nd. You can register to vote until October 9th. You need to go here, do this, save that.
SHAPIRO: Every time the audience booed something Mitt Romney would say, President Obama would reply, don't boo. Vote. So it was a very, very specific message about getting out and voting.
RAZ: So he's trying to strike while the iron is hot. He's doing where the polls are looking better for him in Ohio than they are for Romney. So he's saying early voting's opened up, go do it.
SHAPIRO: Yeah. It's a week of intense, intense mobilization for both campaigns between October 2nd, the day people can start voting in Ohio, and October 9th, the last day people can register to vote.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MY CITY WAS GONE")
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (Singing) A, O, way, to go Ohio.
RAZ: That's NPR's White House correspondent Ari Shapiro. So how will they vote? Well, as we heard from Wood County's Republican chairman Matt Reger, it's sometimes hard to predict. Wood County, remember, has only missed picking a president once since 1960. The county seat is Bowling Green.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Which is the quintessential college town right at the center of it.
RAZ: So you've got more Democrats in the center of the county.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Surrounded by a lot of farms.
RAZ: And you've got more Republicans in the farmland.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: All right. We've got one more puller on the east end.
RAZ: Or at least that's what we thought we'd find at this tractor pull in the town of Luckey, Ohio.
BEENISH AHMED, BYLINE: Which presidential candidate do you think is going to win Ohio come November?
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #4: I have a feeling it's going to be Mr. Obama.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: Obama.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #5: Obama.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #6: Barack Obama.
RAZ: We sent producer Beenish Ahmed to two places in Wood County where we thought we'd hear a good balance of likely voters. The tractor pull, and then 20 minutes north, to a farmers' market in historic Perrysburg where she met Dennis Dickey.
AHMED: And how long have you been the salsa (unintelligible)?
DENNIS DICKEY: Well, I've been making it for probably 35 to 40 years. A friend of mine from Mazatlan, Mexico, gave me the recipe.
RAZ: Now, if you had to guess which presidential candidate an artisanal salsa maker would be supporting, well...
DICKEY: Obama's done nothing about anything. The economy still sucks. Unemployment's still bad. He shoved health care down everybody's throat that didn't want it. And that's probably going to turn out to be really, really, really expensive.
RAZ: This is what makes Wood County so unpredictable - all kinds of political views in all kinds of places. Here's a bigger sampling from the tractor pull and farmers' market.
AHMED: What candidate do you think best reflects sort of your interests?
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: At this point, I think probably Obama.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #3: I'm going to vote for Obama.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #4: Obama.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #5: He's got a better idea of where the common folk is.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #6: We pay more in health care than we do for our house payment.
AHMED: And do you think that has the Obama health care plan helped you at all?
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #6: I guess it's given me a little sense of peace just because I know that my son can't be denied health care in the future because he had a liver transplant. And that was always a little bit nerve-racking.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #7: You know, Ohio being an industrial state, the fact that he did help bail out the auto industry.
ROXANNE RIDEOUT: He's not a hothead, especially with things that happen abroad.
SHARON WILLIAMS: And when I was laid off, he kept the unemployment coming so that I didn't lose everything.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #8: I think Obama's a nice guy, be a great neighbor, but he's not running the country.
CHUCK CASSIS: If you listen to Mitt Romney, he mentions God constantly, and I don't hear that out of Democratic Party. As a matter of fact, they want to take out and - out of their platform.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #9: Well, I support him because he don't let the illegals over here and put them in college free when my grandson can't hardly pay for his college.
CASSIS: Yes, I did make my own business. And if he was talking about the roads, then it was my taxes that paid for those roads too.
RAZ: Likely voters in Wood County, Ohio: Lois St. Clair(ph), Emily Keller(ph), Chris Dukat(ph), Roxanne Rideout, Sharon Williams, Jerry Robinson(ph), Chuck Cassis and Norris Edwards(ph).
Now, the president did seem to have a slight edge in our collection of Wood County residents, and why is that? Well, Alec MacGillis, a senior editor with The New Republic, has been reporting extensively on Ohio over the past few months. And he says part of the Obama edge, there might be explained by attack ads.
ALEC MACGILLIS: A lot of these ads that ran in Ohio were not seen all that much elsewhere. They were very well-targeted. The one that I think was most effective and got a huge viewing online as well, incredibly powerful one about a guy who just sits there and talks about the time that he and his colleagues at his paper plant in Indiana were asked to build a stage one day.
(SOUNDBITE OF POLITICAL AD)
MIKE EARNEST: ...not knowing what it was for. Just days later...
MACGILLIS: Folks come in from Bain, from Boston...
(SOUNDBITE OF POLITICAL AD)
EARNEST: A group of people walked out on that stage and told us that the plant is now closed and all of you are fired.
MACGILLIS: And at the end of this ad, the guy says...
(SOUNDBITE OF POLITICAL AD)
EARNEST: Turns out that when we built that stage, it was like building my own coffin.
MACGILLIS: It got two million YouTube views, this ad - one-sixth were in Ohio, which is vastly disportionate, of course, to its share of the population.
RAZ: So you - we're often hearing this sort of conventional wisdom about the white working-class voters, particularly men. And I wonder whether that's been overemphasized as a problem. Maybe - is it possible that it really is not that big of a problem for Obama?
MACGILLIS: It is possible. It's really interesting. If you look at the numbers, Obama's so-called white working-class problem is really a Southern problem. His standing with white working class - and white working class means white voters without college degrees. That's just the way it's defined. In the South, it's just terrible. But in other parts of the country, Obama actually plays about even. With the white working class in the Midwest, Obama's actually ahead.
So this notion that he has this great white working-class problem has always been somewhat overstated. That partly explains why he's in better shape in Ohio that we might have expected.
RAZ: So without Ohio, Romney would have to win Florida. He'd probably have to win Wisconsin, maybe Nevada, Colorado, Virginia.
MACGILLIS: You have to come close to running the table in the rest of the battleground states.
RAZ: Right now, in virtually every battleground state, where Romney is either far behind or behind, but within the margin. So it's going to be an uphill battle for him.
MACGILLIS: Oh, certainly. One thing, I think, people are getting a bit wrong about his predicament is there's this notion that he should be doing better because the economy is so rough. One reason that Obama's doing better than you might expect in Ohio is that unemployment in Ohio is down to 7 percent from well above 10 percent. The auto bailout, of course, played a huge part in this. There's also the whole shale gas boom in Ohio, which has really helped the state.
The one other factor in Ohio that I think has been completely overlooked has been the advantage that the Democrats got there from the backlash against John Kasich's anti-union law. This really went under the radar nationally.
RAZ: This is an attempt to end collective bargaining.
MACGILLIS: Exactly. It was very much like the law that Scott Walker passed in Wisconsin. And in Ohio, unlike in Wisconsin, the backlash won by a lot.
RAZ: In part, because in Ohio, it would've included cops and firefighters.
MACGILLIS: Right. Cops and firefighters were exempted in Wisconsin. So it's made a huge difference to have everyone, you know, on a firing line in Ohio. And they trounced this law in the referendum, 62 to 38 percent, huge turnout.
RAZ: That overturned this law, yeah.
MACGILLIS: Overturned the law, gave a huge morale boost. And just last week, the National Fraternal Order of Police announced that they would not be endorsing anybody this year. They've endorsed a Republican candidate for the last three elections and they're setting this one out because they just couldn't bring themselves to endorse Mitt Romney.
RAZ: Alec MacGillis, he's a senior editor with The New Republic. By the way, we asked Matt Reger, chairman of the GOP in Wood County what explains Mitt Romney's troubles in the state and the county. Well, part of it, he says, is the economy. It's doing pretty well in Wood County, and Matt Reger attributes that to the policies put in place by local Republicans.
REGER: The policies are the policies that Mitt Romney is advocating. And so on a national level, that's the kind of policies that we want.
RAZ: And in Wood County, 13 of the 15 local elected officials are Republicans.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MY CITY WAS GONE")
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (Singing) I went back to Ohio, but my city was gone. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.