Campaign strategists in the vital battleground of Ohio are pioneering a radical new approach to the ground war in the final days of the presidential election, delivering targeted messaging to different parts of the state in an attempt drive up voter turnout on 6 November.
Both Barack Obama’s re-election operation, Obama For America, and Mitt Romney’s campaign are using micro-targeting techniques, backed by traditional TV and radio advertising, to hone messages to the specific political concerns of different corners of the state. The heavily vaunted “battle for Ohio” is not a single battle at all – in fact it is several distinct political conflicts being waged simultaneously in a bid for the state’s rich crop of 18 electoral votes out of the 270 needed to win.
The strategic shift in focus down to the level of regions, counties or in some cases even neighbourhoods is revolutionising the final stages of the race, with both parties vying aggressively for votes right across the state. The localised model of campaigning being developed in Ohio this year is likely to become the template of future US presidential elections as the technology takes hold.
As Chris Redburn, who chairs the Ohio Democratic party, puts it: “Four years from now it will be even more targeted as the technology improves and advances are made in how we collect information.”
As recently as the 2004 presidential election, Ohio was divided for campaigning purposes in half – the Democratic stronghold in the industrialised north, and the more rural and staunchly Republican south.
But the advent of targeted messaging has heralded a sea-change in the way the campaigns are being run. In the final two weeks of the presidential contest, Obama will be campaigning as fiercely among the traditionally conservative Appalachian communities in the south-east of Ohio as he is in solidly blue Cleveland.
“In the old days – eight years ago – we’d focus on driving up votes in the north of Ohio, then hope we’d outnumbered the conservative turnout in the south-west,” Redburn said. “This year we’re competing in all Ohio’s 88 counties, and we are confident we will find some success in all 88 counties.”
Scott Jennings, Romney campaign director in Ohio, puts the same point another way: “When our database tells us that there is a household of coal miners in a certain neighbourhood, then volunteers will be calling on them talking about Mitt Romney’s plan on energy.”
The impact of this micro-targeting revolution can be clearly seen in four parcels of Ohio, in each of which a distinct political battle is being fought: the west and south-west of Ohio, with its concentration of military bases and suppliers, where the debate revolves around defence cuts; in the north, where it is wall-to-wall auto industry; in the east and south-east, where an argument rages over coal and the future of energy; and in the central zone around the financial and university hub, Columbus, where there is much talk about Wall Street regulation and education.
Defence in the west
The Dayton area and the west of Ohio is a military powerhouse. It contains the massive Wright-Patterson air force base, which procures all logistics for the US air force as well as developing new systems and technologies.
It is not surprising that the military dominates the conversation in this region – it provides almost 30,000 jobs directly on the base and supports another 35,000 jobs outside, generating almost $5bn a year in business. On the back of those economic imperatives, both presidential campaigns have built their ground operations in the west of Ohio with a firm eye on the military vote.
On Obama’s side, that was self-evident when he and his running mate Joe Biden came to address a crowd of 10,000 supporters outside Dayton on Tuesday. The president spoke at length about his foreign policy achievements – pulling out of Iraq, drawing down in Afghanistan and killing Osama bin Laden – and he promised that if her were re-elected he would “fight every single day for the men and women who have served our country so bravely”.
On Romney’s side, the campaign has been putting out TV ads and fliers warning of Obama defence cuts. “Our message is clear,” said Jennings, “we are not going to cut defence as it weakens America and is a real jobs issue in Ohio.”
The two campaigns came to blows recently over the future of the Abrams tank, which is built in a plant in Lima in western Ohio. The Republicans seized on a comment from Biden about the need to reconfigure the military.
“Look, the military says we need a smaller, leaner army. We need more special forces, we don’t need more M1 tanks,” the vice-president said, reflecting the Pentagon’s own thinking.
The Romney campaign smelled blood, as there are 800 engineering jobs attached to the MI Abrams tank plant. It began running automated phone messages saying that a second-term Obama administration would see the Lima tank plant close with the loss of all those jobs.
Auto industry in the north
The role that Obama played in helping the American auto industry recover after the 2008 crash is his strongest card in Ohio, and he plays it whenever and wherever he’s in the state. As Redburn points out, there are auto-related outlets in 82 of Ohio’s 88 counties – providing about one in eight of all jobs in the state.
But the car industry is especially concentrated in the north, all along the Lake Erie coastline. It is here that the Obama campaign has been serving a non-stop diet of TV and radio ads, reminding voters that his auto bailout helped save more than 150,000 jobs in Ohio and since June 2009 created an additional 17,000 jobs.
That plays well from Toledo in the north-west, home to Chrysler and Jeep, across to Youngstown in the north-east, which produces the new Chevy Cruze. To ram the point home, Obama For America has been airing a new TV advert in north Ohio media markets called Made in Ohio. It lingers over the headline of a New York Times article written by Romney headlined: “Let Detroit Go Bankrupt”.
In the final presidential debate on Monday, Romney tried to defend himself against the charge that he would have let the auto industry self-implode by saying he wanted a managed bankruptcy to allow the big car companies to clear their debts and refinance. But he is clearly on the defensive in the densely populated north of the state.
The Romney campaign sidesteps the issue of the auto bailout and talks instead about “manufacturing” and the trade threat posed by China. “Manufacturing is crucial to communities like Toledo and Cleveland,” Jennings said. “We talk about getting tough on China – when China cheats that hurts jobs in Cleveland.”
As an indication of the disparity between the two campaigns across the auto belt, Obama For America has 19 field offices in the north-west region around Toledo. Romney by contrast has three.
Coal in the east
One of the fiercest local battles in this election is being fought in the east and south-east of the state. Yard signs posted on the lawns in front of many houses in the lush Appalachian hills make clear how intense the race is here. “Stop the war on coal, fire Obama,” they say.
Coal mining is big business in the east of Ohio, with open-top mines, related steel mills and coal-fuelled power plants scattered all over the area. The Romney campaign has been making much of that here, accusing the Obama administration of being hostile towards coal.
Paul Ryan and Romney’s son Matt were both in coal country this week, holding rallies in which they charged the president with regulating the coal industry to death. The aim is clear: to galvanise the coalmining communities and rural Appalachian folk and cajole them to the polls in an attempt to counter Obama’s grip on the auto-industry north.
“We think we have a winning issue here,” Romney’s Ohio director, Scott Jennings, said. “There are many people in this region who traditionally vote Democrat, but they know Barack Obama has been terrible for them.”
Obama For America is fighting back as best he can. The campaign has been playing clips of Romney standing in front of a coal factory when he was Massachusetts governor and saying: “That plant kills people”.
The Obama campaign has also been emphasising in its media messages in this area that Romney has a Swiss bank account and holdings in the Cayman Islands. “We calculate that such behaviour doesn’t resonate well with the values of the people in this part of the state,” a senior Obama For America official said.
Education and Wall Street in the centre
Columbus, the state capital, is home to Ohio State University, with about 57,000 students. That’s very attractive territory for Obama who in 2008 did well among students.
This year, the campaign has been emphasising how the Obama administration has doubled funds for federal Pell Grants to help students pay for college. Latest figures for 2010 show that 363,000 Ohio students benefited from the grants.
The Republicans have been focusing more on Columbus’s role as the financial capital, highlighting Romney’s business career in the hope of impressing this conservative-leaning city.
Overall, one of the interesting features of 2012 compared with previous presidential election cycles is how competitive the race is across all these four regions. Unlike in the past, nothing is being left to chance.
Dr Melissa Miller, associate professor of political science at Bowling Green State University, said that the battle that is raging across Ohio is partly a reflection of the power of digital micro-targeting that is still in its infancy, and partly the result of such a close race where the harvesting of any additional votes, however few and far between, could prove to be decisive.
“When the race is razor thin as it looks likely to be, then it becomes all about finding your supporters and getting them out to vote,” Miller said.