The somewhat shocking decline in Ohio turnout affected both Obama’s and Romney’s bases this election, but with Romney needing to erase the 262,000-vote margin that Obama had in 2008, there were simply not enough voters available for Romney to win.
Ohio was the state that commanded the most media attention from political observers during the presidential election. Unprecedented sums of money were spent.
Within the last two months of the election alone, $100 million was spent on presidential TV ads. Yet, the most basic fact about Ohio this election was that the percent change in turnout was a 6 percent drop from 2008. The 342,000 fewer votes are part of what Sean Trende called the missing 7 million voters nationwide.
Only three of Ohio’s 88 counties had an increase in votes from 2008. Two of them, Delaware and Warren, are growing suburban counties outside of Columbus and Cincinnati respectively. The third was Holmes County, home to the largest Amish community in America.
One of the leading theories for the turnout decline is that evangelical Protestants decided to stay home. There isn’t much evidence for this. In 2004, in which evangelical influence was mentioned regularly, they comprised 25 percent of Ohio’s electorate. In 2012, white evangelicals were 31 percent of Ohio’s electorate. The strongest evangelical region of Ohio is the west-central portion of the state. These strongly Republican counties did experience declines in turnout, but they were generally less significant than the state average.
Many Democratic strongholds had large turnout declines. The county with the single biggest turnout decline was Athens County, home of Ohio University. In major Democratic cities, turnout was down 8.4 percent in Cuyahoga County (Cleveland) and 8.9 percent in Lucas County (Toledo).
If turnout was uniquely depressed anywhere, it was in working-class areas. Mahoning (Youngstown) and Trumbull (Warren) Counties are Democratic industrial areas on the eastern border of the state. They both had turnout declines between 8 and 9 percent. Jefferson County (Steubenville) is a smaller, more competitive county that did switch from Obama to Romney but had a 10.4 percent turnout decline from 2008.
Many of the counties that had the strongest swings to Romney had larger than average turnout declines. Tuscarawas County, a county in coal country, had a 6.2 percent swing to Romney. However, turnout declined 7.4 percent in the county, depressing the expected gains in votes that Romney could have expected. Harrison County, also in the southern part of the state, swung 6.7 points to Romney, but turnout declined by 10.5 percent. As a consequence, Obama had 22 percent less votes in Harrison County than in 2008, but Romney only increased the Republican vote totals by 1.5 percent. It is in these counties where observers have to wonder if Obama’s strategy to cast Romney as an out-of-touch rich guy may have had an impact.
Romney underperformed in two key urban counties. Hamilton County (Cincinnati) has long been one of the most Republican urban counties in the north. Bill Clinton never won it, and every Republican presidential candidate from 1968-2004 carried the county. George W. Bush won Hamilton by 12 points in 2000 and 5 points in 2004. Obama made a breakthrough in 2008 and won by 7 points. This time, Romney was only able to run ahead of McCain by 1 point, losing Hamilton by 5 points.
The decline is even worse in Franklin County (Columbus). Franklin County was more Republican than the state average for decades. In 2000, Bush lost Franklin County by 1 point. A continual decline occurred over last decade, as Bush lost Franklin by 9 points in 2004 and McCain lost it by 21 points. Romney actually lost ground again in Franklin County, losing it by 22 points this time. By comparison, George H.W. Bush, a candidate with a similar background to Romney, won Franklin County by 22 points in 1988. In these two counties, the strong African-American turnout (15 percent of Ohio’s electorate, up from 11 percent even in 2008) ensured margins similar to 2008 for Obama.
Romney did somewhat better in the Cleveland area than in other parts of the state. In Cuyahoga County, while Romney ran only 0.2 points better than McCain, the drop in turnout meant that Obama’s margin was reduced by 22,000 votes. Romney did win Lake County, the suburban Cleveland county that is considered to be the best bellwether for the state—albeit narrowly. Romney also flipped Stark County, home of Kent State, which further points to a lack of enthusiasm for Obama on Ohio’s college campuses. But even most of these gains were not at the level necessary to swing the state.
Chris Palko works as an assistant media analyst at Smart Media Group, a Republican political media buying agency in Alexandria, Va. He is a graduate of American University and George Washington University’s Graduate School of Political Management.
A version of this post was also published on Smart Media Group’s blog, Smart Blog.