COLUMBUS, Ohio — All year, as the two presidential candidates vied for the battleground state of Ohio and its crucial 18 electoral votes, Democratic boots on the ground battled Republican ads on the air. On Tuesday, the boots won.
President Obama’s hard-fought victory in the Buckeye State on Tuesday night — unofficial returns showed he won by about 107,000 votes, with some ballots still left to count — was a vindication of a campaign strategy that relied heavily on an extensive, battle-tested field operation to get voters to the polls, Ohio political analysts said.
“The most effective activity is personal contact made with voters,” said Paul A. Beck, a political science professor at Ohio State University. “The Obama campaign was better at that on the ground.”
“The Romney campaign and their allies focused more on advertising,” he said.
To be sure, Republicans had plenty of staff and volunteers in Ohio knocking on doors and calling voters, and the Obama campaign and its allies ran plenty of ads, including a series of attacks on Romney’s business career at Bain Capital that are credited with tarnishing the former Massachusetts governor’s image this summer.
But the numbers — Obama opened 131 offices, compared to Romney’s 40, and employed a small army of field staff members — speak for themselves. The Obama campaign was much more tight-lipped about its get-out-the-vote operation than the Romney camp until the final week of the race, when it began to share more information about its efforts. On Election Day, for instance, the president’s campaign said it had 32,854 volunteers scheduled for three-hour shifts in Ohio.
The campaign also turned out far more early voters than Romney’s, meaning the president had already banked a lead by the time Election Day arrived. And Obama’s team was augmented by a large-scale effort from organized labor, galvanized by GOP attacks on collective bargaining rights over the last two years.
In one telling indication of how effective Obama’s get-out-the-vote push was, African-American voters went from 11 percent of the electorate in 2008 to 15 percent in 2012, according to exit polls.
Beck said Obama’s effort resembled the the 2004 effort of George W. Bush — another incumbent president who ground out a victory in the Buckeye State on the shoulders of a get-out-the-vote drive whose strength was not fully apparent until the dust settled.
Heading into the election, Obama’s team held myriad organizational advantages. Many senior campaign officials were veterans of the 2008 race; Jeremy Bird, who was the Ohio state director for Obama in 2008, was Obama’s national field director this time.
The campaign also seems to have benefited from the aftermath of an acrimonious statewide ballot referendum last year, when Ohio overwhelmingly voted to overturn a law enacted by Republican legislators that restricted collective-bargaining rights for public employees. The law soured many white, working-class voters on the GOP, polls suggested — and in the process gave Democrats a chance to conduct a trial-run of their presidential get-out-the-vote operation.
The GOP attack on collective bargaining “alienated a lot of policemen, firefighters, and teachers,” said US Representative Tim Ryan, a Democrat who represents the Youngstown area. “You’re getting into your independent, even Republican-leaning male voters. The fact that Romney came to Ohio and campaigned against them, they didn’t forget.”
In unofficial results, Obama won Ohio on Tuesday by 2 percentage points, a closer margin than his 4.6 percent lead in 2008, but in line with public polls before the election, and far outside the margin that would have triggered a recount.
Over 300,000 provisional and absentee ballots were still outstanding, but those are not expected to alter the outcome.
As expected, Obama ran strongly in the traditional Democratic strongholds of northeast Ohio, running up a huge margin in the Cleveland area, a more unionized part of the state where many blue-collar workers have jobs tied to the auto industry. Obama also took Franklin County, home of Ohio State, by a slightly larger margin than in the last election.
The only part of the state where Romney made substantial gains was in Ohio’s southeastern corner, a coal-mining region where opposition to environmental regulations may have pushed GOP turnout. Romney had trumpeted his support for coal in an effort to win voters in Ohio and Virginia.
John C. Green, director of the Bliss Institute of Applied Politics at the University of Akron, said that while Romney faced obstacles that ultimately proved insurmountable — his opposition to the auto industry bailout, the low standing of Republicans after last year’s referendum fight, and a better-organized opponent — Republicans had mounted a much-improved effort over John McCain’s in 2008.
Alan Wirzbicki can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.