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Ohio: The state that could decide it all

By now you’re sick of hearing it: As Ohio goes, so—almost certainly—goes the election.
U.S. President Barack Obama addresses a campaign rally at Lima Senior High School November 2, 2012 in Lima, Ohio. (Photo by: Getty Images/Chip Somodevilla)
U.S. President Barack Obama addresses a campaign rally at Lima Senior High School November 2, 2012 in Lima, Ohio.

By now you’re sick of hearing it: As Ohio goes, so—almost certainly—goes the election.

The candidates’ schedules, among other things, tell the story: Mitt Romney changed his plans so he could be in the Buckeye State for one last get-out-the-vote event Tuesday, and President Obama—who has held a narrow but consistent lead in polls of the state—rallied his own supporters in Columbus Monday afternoon, joined by Bruce Springsteen and Jay-Z.

So if we’re going to be glued to Ohio throughout the day—and perhaps the night—what should we be watching for?

The ResultsOhio’s polls close at 7:30 p.m. EST (among swing states, only Virginia's polls close earlier, at 7 p.m.), and soon afterward, vote totals from its 88 counties will start to trickle in. As they do, keep an eye on Hamilton County, which contains Democratic-heavy Cincinnati and its Republican-leaning suburbs. In 2008, President Obama won Hamilton by 52-47% over John McCain—close to the same margin by which Obama won the state as a whole. And in 2004, President Bush beat John Kerry by a similar spread, 53-47%. So if Obama appears to be repeating or bettering his 2008 margin in Hamilton, he’s likely in good shape.

In terms of turnout, the counties to watch are Cuyahoga, which contains Cleveland, and Franklin, which contains Columbus. Between them, the two counties accounted for 27% of Obama’s vote total in 2008. If Obama equals the 458,000 votes he got from Cuyahoga last time, and the 334,000 he got from Franklin, that’s bad news for Romney.

One final note: Even more than most other states, Ohio Democrats are clustered in a few very populous counties, while Republicans tend to dominate the more sparsely populated rural counties. That means the GOP-leaning counties are likely to report their results first, since counting the results takes less time. So if you see Romney leading by a large margin in Ohio, don’t assume it's over. Until Cuyahoga, Franklin, and a few other populous Democratic-leaning counties (Summit and Trumbull, for instance) come in later in the night, you can’t draw too many conclusions.

And if you want to get really nerdy, keep this county-by-county breakdown of  Ohio’s 2008 results close at hand, and track how each county matches up this year.

The VotingDespite GOP Secretary of State Jon Husted’s assurances that everything’s going smoothly, voting in Ohio has already gotten messy. After Husted and state Republicans reduced the number of early voting days, Ohioans in Democratic strongholds had to contend with long lines at polls over the weekend, a sight that one voting-rights advocate called “very disturbing.” Democrats say they expect equally long lines Tuesday.

The legal skirmishing is already underway, too. On Friday, Husted issued a last-minute directive on provisional ballots—over 200,000 of which are expected to be cast—that Democrats fear could cause many to be thrown out. They’re suing to reverse the order. Obama’s campaign also has lined up 2,500 lawyers to man the polls Tuesday, on the lookout for GOP efforts to challenge valid voters, to shut down polling places where voters are still in line, or otherwise to suppress votes.

"We have every reason to be concerned that they’re going to make it difficult for people when they’re voting," Stuart Garson, the chair of the Cuyahoga County Democrats, told Monday.

And here’s the other thing: Husted has said provisional ballots won’t start being counted until November 17. So if the race is tight—and most observers expect it to be closer than the 263,000 votes by which Obama won in 2008—we could be waiting weeks to find out the winner.

The IssuesIf President Obama does pull it out, he’ll very likely have one move to thank above all else: His decision to rescue the auto industry—to which one in eight Ohio jobs are linked—in the midst of the 2008-09 economic crisis. A recent poll found Ohio voters backed the move by a 50-37% margin. Of course, he’s been help by Romney’s incoherent stand on the issue. At different times, the GOP nominee has written an article called “Let Detroit Go Bankrupt,” claimed that he somehow deserves credit for the industry's post-bailout success, and falsely suggested that it led to automakers shipping U.S. jobs overseas.

So eager has Romney been to tarnish Obama’s achievement that he’s lately been running ads in Ohio wrongly saying Chrysler is mulling moving U.S. jobs to China—a move that drew push-back from the firm’s CEO, and widespread condemnation from the press. In a sign of which way the wind is blowing on the issue, even Ohio’s GOP governor felt the need to acknowledge Monday that Chrysler has in fact increased its total of U.S. jobs.

But it’s not only about the auto industry. Ohio has seen its economy as a whole rebound far more strongly than that of the rest of the country. Less than three years ago, the state’s jobless rate was 10.6%, above the already-high national rate. Today, it’s at 7%, below the 7.9% national rate. So when Ohioans go to the polls Tuesday, they’ll likely be feeling a little better about the economy than most Americans—and much better than they were feeling a few years ago.

The Ground GameThe turnout battle is shaping up as a contest between the Obama campaign’s army of field organized, backed by a robust labor union operation, and the GOP’s more diffuse effort.

Team Obama has opened 96 offices in Ohio, compared to Romney's 36, and is said to be using technology of unprecedented sophistication to target its supporters and get them to the polls. Romney is getting a boost from outside groups, including Ralph Reed’s Faith and Freedom Coalition, which focuses on evangelicals and says it’s putting more than one million voter guides in 5,300 Ohio churches.

So far, Obama appears to hold the upper hand on turnout. As of Monday, voters in counties won by Obama in 2008 had seen more than 903,000 votes cast, while those in counties won by McCain had seen just 482,000. An NBC poll Friday found Obama holding the early voting edge by 62-36%.