Obama wins most important battleground state

President Obama won Ohio on Tuesday, capturing the electoral battleground that Mitt Romney needed more than any other in his quest to oust the Democratic incumbent, according to exit polls for the Associated Press and news networks.

By laying claim to Ohio’s 18 electoral votes, Obama all but ensured his reelection after a grueling campaign against his Republican rival, the former governor of Massachusetts.

The results in Ohio appeared to vindicate Obama’s tireless pursuit of the white working-class voters who dominate the state’s election landscape.

The backbone of the president’s Ohio campaign was the federal bailout of the auto industry. Day after day, Obama reminded Ohio voters of the thousands of auto jobs saved at plants around the state.

And Romney, to his detriment, failed in his long struggle to find an effective defense for his opposition to the government bailout. It was a stand that might have helped him cement conservative support in the Republican primaries, but proved deeply damaging in the battle for Ohio.

Obama’s victory was also the result of withering ads depicting Romney as an out-of-touch financier who built a vast personal fortune in corporate takeover deals that spawned factory layoffs, then used offshore tax shelters to preserve his wealth.

As always, Ohio’s election map was a complex puzzle for both sides. Obama was counting on his base of supporters in the same urban centers that buttressed his 2008 campaign in Ohio: Cleveland, Columbus, Cincinnati, Toledo, Dayton, Akron and Youngstown. Overwhelming support among African Americans was key.

Romney had hoped to offset those Obama strengths with a coalition of his own. Most crucial were the state’s more conservative white suburbs, especially around Cincinnati. Added to that would be the vast reach of rural and small-town Ohio — always important for Republican candidates. That formula drove President George W. Bush’s defeat of his Democratic challenger John F. Kerry in 2004, but Romney fell short.

But to exclusively blame the attacks from Obama and his super PAC allies for Romney’s defeat overlooks the Republican nominee’s own shortcomings. The smoothly-coiffed, buttoned-down financier struggled to come across as a man of the people, a problem exacerbated by his vow to perpetuate tax breaks for the wealthy, several foot-in-mouth gaffes on the campaign trail, and a secretly recorded video of him at a tony fundraiser dismissing “47 percent” of Americans whom he said pay no income taxes and consider themselves “victims.”

The first African-American president also capitalized on an increasingly diverse electorate and used sophisticated turnout tools to make sure supporters, even casual ones, cast votes. “It’s like the demographic changes are making the old rules about unemployment sinking an incumbent obsolete,” said Democratic strategist Joe Trippi. “The Obama campaign knew they weren’t supposed to get re-elected, so they figured out who they needed to register to vote and turn out to change that.”

Again, Romney didn’t help himself amid the changing demographics, alienating the fast-growing Hispanic community by shaking an iron fist at illegal immigrants during the GOP primaries. He would have persevered over his more conservative but politically implausible Republican rivals, anyway — though as a Mormon who had spearheaded a government-led overhaul of health care as governor of Massachusetts, Romney was ill-suited to tap into the energy of the social conservative and tea party movements. He accepted the nomination as the least popular nominee from a major party in decades. Wrong guy, wrong time.

Romney badly misread the electorate, assuming the dragging economy would automatically turn voters against the president. Yet many still blamed the recession on former President Bush and were growing accustomed to incremental economic growth. It was a pitiable recovery, but a recovery nonetheless. Offering few details about his economic agenda, Romney didn’t look like a tempting alternative.

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