Ohio put the “super” in Super Tuesday. During the past few days of covering the Republican primary in and around the city of Columbus, the state capital, we talked to voters, experts, and other generally opinionated people who provided good perspective on this bellwether state, and explained a lot about why leading Republican candidate Mitt Romney is having a hard time cinching the nomination.
First, a few quick notes about Ohio and its significance. Political analysts consistently peg it as one of the most important swing states in presidential elections, and all eyes were watching to gauge how Ohio conservatives would lean at this point in the primary race. Energy and jobs, key national issues, are also critical concerns in this shale-rich region where a highly controversial method of gas extraction called fracking is creating jobs for the demographic of voters who lost employment as manufacturing seeped out of the United States in past decades. Finally, last November, labor unions beat back a Republican measure that limited their collective bargaining rights, embarrassing the local Republican leadership and galvanizing unions to organize for political purposes.
In the run-up to Tuesday’s primary election, former Senator Rick Santorum edged past Romney in the Ohio polls. Santorum, a staunch Catholic who strongly appeals to social conservatives, has been dogging Romney for weeks, pushing Romney to spend millions on campaign advertising and to woo the bloc of social conservatives who are likely to vote Republican in the general election anyway. As such, Romney’s been under intense pressure recently to prove he can win Ohio as a mark of his electability.
Here’s what we heard: lots of folks are voting for Mitt Romney – which explains his multiple wins on Tuesday night ─ but not because he’s eminently likeable. Their votes are driven more by the “Anybody but Obama” attitude. Unlike President Obama, who inspired pop art aplenty in the 2008 primary season, Romney’s grinning mug hasn’t yet entered the mainstream on campaign swag. His partisans are passionate, but not about him. They’re passionate about booting a Democrat out of the White House, and they think Romney’s deep buckets of cash and his quote/unquote “general electability” are the best bets for blocking a second Obama term.
We ate (and regretted eating) deep-fried food at a primary watch party with the Young Republicans of Ohio. We listened over urns of coffee to the concerns of the Conservative Cavalry. We camped out at the Noor Islamic Center in nearby Dublin, Ohio to talk to voters as they left the polls about who they voted for and why.
And again and again, we received the same answers on the “why” if not the “who” – the economy. Jobs. Americans care primarily about regaining their sense of financial security. Tuesday exit polls showed that 2 to 1, Republican voters prioritized business over government experience when rating what makes an effective president.
Where does this leave Romney? Well, in Ohio it leaves him with an anemic 1 percent win over Santorum, closing on Tuesday night at 38 percent to 37 percent. And in the rest of the country? Spending big from deep reserves as he goes at least a few more rounds with the other GOP contenders until he can eventually secure the nomination as everyone seems to think he will. Hardly a total knock-out … but politics rarely is.
(Angela Simaan is a producer in Al Arabiya's Washington, D.C. bureau. Follow her Twitter @AngelaSimaan)