CANTON, Ohio — The road to the White House winds through every corner of Ohio — past the coal mines in the south, the insurance companies in the cities and the dairy farms that dot the countryside.
Most of all this election year, it passes hard by the factories and plants where men and women make cars and trucks, and the parts for them. And it’s in those factories, adding shifts and putting people to work, where Ohio is writing a new chapter in its history at the heart of the industrial Midwest, and perhaps the 2012 presidential election.
Perhaps nothing underscores the different approaches by Barack Obama and Mitt Romney to the role of government than the taxpayer-financed bailout of the U.S. auto industry. Obama supported it; Romney opposed it.
Now, the auto industry is rebounding. Ohio’s economy overall is performing better than that of the rest of the country. And fewer than 40 days before Election Day, Obama seems to be gaining the crucial edge in this battleground state in part because his support for the bailout has helped reduce joblessness during the nation’s worst economic downturn since the Great Depression.
“People remember,” Rick Nixon, 49, who mixes compounds for tires at a Goodyear plant in Akron, said of the auto bailout. “Barack Obama wasn’t just talking. If the auto industry collapsed, a lot of workers would be out of jobs.”
When Obama was sworn into office, Ohio’s unemployed hovered at around 8.6 percent. That peaked a few months later — at 10.6 percent. It’s now 7.2 percent, lower than the national average of 8.1 percent.
Cars play a key part. While Michigan is considered the car manufacturing capital of the United States, Ohio is a close cousin. The auto industry employs one in every eight workers in the state, second only to neighboring Michigan.
Other industries have contributed to the state’s recovery as well. Natural gas drilling using new “fracking” technology, for example, is turning parts of once-desolate Eastern Ohio into boom towns.
House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, said recently that the credit for Ohio’s overall resurgence should go to the state’s Republican governor, John Kasich, not to Obama.
“One of the things that probably works against Romney in Ohio is the fact that Gov. Kasich has done such a good job of fixing government regulations in the state, attracting new business to the state,” Boehner said. “As a result, people are still concerned about the economy and jobs in Ohio, but it certainly isn’t like you see in some other states.”
Ohio’s economy is multifaceted. The Rust Belt manufacturing state has heavy pockets of white-collar banking and insurance along with agriculture, universities and biotechnology.
“Ohio is not a simple economy,” said Bill LaFayette, the owner of Regionomics, a Columbus-based company that studies economic and workforce issues. “It’s a collective of different economies. The Cleveland economy, for example, is recovering much more slowly than the Central Ohio economy.”
None of that has helped Romney. He now trails by an average of 5.5 percentage points in Ohio, according to data compiled by the nonpartisan website RealClearPolitics.com.
Ohio’s economic diversity — in many ways a replica of the nation’s — has long made it a bellwether for the country.
In the last 10 presidential elections, the candidate who’s won Ohio has won the presidency.
Obama carried the state by 5 percentage points in 2008. But Republicans have made significant inroads in Ohio since then, taking back the governor’s mansion and winning more seats in Congress.
The nation’s seventh most populous state — with 11.5 million residents and 18 electoral votes — couldn’t be more important for Romney. No Republican has won the presidency without winning Ohio, and political experts say there’s no visible electoral-map strategy that the former Massachusetts governor can craft to win the White House without the state.
Complicating things even further for Romney is the perception by white working-class voters that he’s out of touch with their plight.
Nationally, Romney leads among white voters without college degrees. Not in Ohio. The release of a secretly recorded video in which Romney described those on government support as “victims” hasn’t helped the cause in the state.
“I can’t vote for Romney. I don’t think he’s actually lived the life of most of the population,” said Janet Canter, 42, who was laid off in 2010 from Petsmarketing Insurance, a Canton-company that specializes in medical insurance plans for dogs and cats. “His worst days are probably our wealthiest days.”
Though working class whites elsewhere had gravitated toward Republicans in recent decades as Democrats embraced affirmative action, gun control and gay rights, Romney hasn’t managed to win them over in Ohio.
“They may still have qualms about Barack Obama, but they also have qualms about Mitt Romney,” said Paul Beck, a political science professor at Ohio State University.
On a visit last week, Romney tried to convince voters that while he might not be one of them, he understands them.
On a two-day bus tour through the state, he attempted to show a more personal, softer side. Rallies last Wednesday in Westerville, Bedford Heights and Toledo began with the video that aired at the Republican convention featuring his wife, five sons, friends and associates, who testified who he is as a person.
In Westerville, he shared the stage with golfing great and Ohio native Jack Nicklaus and told a self-effacing story about how un-athletic he is compared with his strapping sons. At a town hall-type rally in suburban Cleveland’s Bedford Heights, Romney was joined by Mike Rowe, host of the Discovery Channel’s “Dirty Jobs,” though Rowe hasn’t endorsed either presidential candidate. But Romney clearly basked in Rowe’s baseball cap-wearing, regular-guy, blue-collar persona.
Romney and Obama are going all out in Ohio. Since May 1, the candidates and their supporters have spent nearly $100 million on ads, with Obama and his allies spending slightly more than Romney and his allies, according to a report Sept. 6 in the National Journal. Romney has opened 40 offices, and the president has opened more here than in any other state: 100 offices in 88 counties.
Romney has held more than 35 events, made 17 trips and spent more than 19 days in Ohio this year. Obama has traveled to Ohio 29 times since the start of his presidency, including a dozen trips this year. First lady Michelle Obama will return to mark the start of early voting Tuesday.
Obama speaks about the auto bailout every time he comes to the state, and he repeatedly highlighted its success at the Democratic National Convention last month in Charlotte, N.C.
Romney has been arguing that Ohio has gotten worse — not better — under Obama’s leadership, with lost jobs, an increase in the number of residents who receive food stamps and more people living in poverty.
Jim Britt stood and nodded approvingly as Romney stated his case in Westerville. Britt, 55, runs a Columbus-area delivery service that’s been suffering since the Sept. 11, 2011, terrorist attacks. He says Obama can’t be blamed for all the nation’s economic woes, but he’s seen enough of the Democratic president to want a new leadership style in the White House.
“I want to see change in Washington completely,” he said. “I want to see it run like a business, and Mitt Romney has business experience.”
Some Ohioans aren’t convinced that either presidential candidate or other Washington politicians know what it’s like to walk in their shoes. John Jancer, a 64-year-old Vietnam veteran who was dining at L.A. City Diner in Canton, said he was so disgusted with politics in America that he wasn’t voting for anyone in November.
“They have money; they don’t see what it’s like at the bottom of the street,” he said. “It’s a problem with all of them.”