There's a fun argument going on about the importance of winning Ohio in the next presidential election. The Buckeye State has gone the longest without voting for a loser (as I noted here, it's been right every time since 1960), and William Galston is doubling down on the assertion that it will be a bellwether again in 2012:
My argument rests on the fact that Ohio is close to being a microcosm of the country—closer than any other pivotal state. As such, winning Ohio is a statistical “tipping-point” for any presidential election: If a candidate can carry Ohio, he will have appealed to a large enough slice of the national electorate to have won the states that tilt even further in his preferred direction, and he is odds-on to win the race. Likewise, a candidate who loses Ohio will almost certainly lose nationally.
Now, Ohio is certainly a close & big state, and therefore important in presidential elections -- although, as Galston's numbers show, it leans slightly to the GOP. The odds are that Ohio will go to the winner; that, of course, is true for all the close states (that is, in a blowout election, the "close" states won't actually be close; they'll be blowouts, and the states that wind up close will be the ones that tilt solidly towards the party that's losing: see Indiana, 2008). But since Ohio does tilt however slightly to the Republicans, it is possible for Democrats to win without it. More to the point, however, the best things that Obama could do to help himself in Ohio right now are generally the same things that would help him in Colorado, Florida, Virginia, Nevada, and everywhere else.
I love political trivia as much as anyone else, there's a foolish temptation to fetishize bellwethers, "key" demographic groups like soccer moms, and the like. First, there's no such thing as an exact microcosm of the country because demographic groups do not behave exactly the same in every state. For example, if you found a state with an urban/rural split that matched the national average, it wouldn't have any predictive value if the urban voters were like the ones in conservative Utah or the rural voters were like the ones in liberal Vermont.
This may not hold true in 2012. In 2008, the South showed signs of splitting into at least two regions. The eastern states (the "New South") are fast-growing, increasingly urbanized, and has a large African-American population. Obama carried three states (Florida, North Carolina, and Virginia), and demographic trends may yet benefit the Democrats in Georgia and South Carolina. But the "Old South" states of Arkansas, Kentucky, Missouri, Tennessee, and West Virginia — overwhelmingly white and steadfastly rural — stayed Republican. (See image of where Obama improved on John Kerry's showing at right, or see a detailed comparison of the 2004 and 2008 results at the New York Times).
By voting so differently from the rest of the nation, Kentucky, Missouri, and Tennessee lost bellwether status (like Ohio, they had been "right" since 1960). Ohio narrowly escaped this fate, no thanks to its southern counties (Obama swept the state's major northern cities), but there's no guarantee it will vote for the winner in 2012. The southern counties in Ohio very definitely belong to the "Old South." In contrast to 1976 and 2004, how Ohio votes will have little to do with how North Carolina votes.
Given demographic trends, as well as Ohio's loss of two electoral votes since the last election, I think Obama has a better chance of holding on to North Carolina and Virginia, with their scads of new voters, than to graying, fraying Ohio.
Image of CD by the band Defiance, Ohio from Punknews.org.