Salena Zito

President Barack Obama stood in the gymnasium of upscale Shaker Heights High School in suburban Cleveland on Jan. 4, in front of high school students and supporters.

“Hello, Ohio!” he declared. “Ah, it is good to be back in Ohio … good to be back in Shaker Heights, home of the Red Raiders.”

“Mr. President, I love you!” an audience member shouted.

“I love you back,” he said, to the delight of the crowd. “And I'm glad to be back. I'm glad to be here.”

Obama has traveled to Ohio 17 times since becoming president. His vice-president, Joe Biden, has traveled there twice in the past two months, including a visit to another upscale high school in suburban Columbus last week for a fundraiser and a talk with students about college affordability.

The purpose of Obama's Buckeye State trip two weeks ago was to give a speech on the economy and to sneak in a bypass of the U.S. Senate with a recess appointment of former Ohio attorney general Richard Cordray as head of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.

Whether that appointment followed the rules on recess appointments is unclear.

What is clear is that Obama traveled to the political-battleground state to test out his “I am running against Congress” message.

Ohio is a true election bellwether: It has missed picking the winner only twice in the past 29 presidential elections, according to University of Virginian political analyst Kyle Kondik.

Obama won Ohio in 2008 by performing better in the southeastern part of the state than John Kerry did four years earlier and by running up the margins in Democrat-strong counties, particularly Cuyahoga (Cleveland) and Franklin (Columbus).

“But this time Obama does not need to win it,” Kondik said.

Even so, Ohio is as good a place as any to test out his campaign rhetoric before a Rust Belt audience, in one of the Democrats’ strongholds such as Shaker Heights.

A backdrop of young people in a manufacturing region, listening to the president talk about taking Congress to the woodshed while he saves the economy, is a great campaign visual.

Unlike Ohio, Kondik said, Obama does need to win neighboring Pennsylvania, which Biden visited Friday to raise money and to rally the troops.

“Even then, he could cobble together a victory by replicating John Kerry’s electoral map plus adding western states like Nevada, New Mexico and Colorado and a state like Virginia,” Kondik said.

On election night in November, if you see Obama win Ohio, it probably means he will have won the election.

In the 2010 midterms, Ohio went Republican big-time. Its U.S. House and Senate seats went majority GOP; so did the governor’s office. Since then, Governor John Kasich has seen his approval rating tank over a bruising, losing referendum fight in November.

Obama isn't doing well either, however.

Quinnipiac University’s latest rating of Kasich came out in early December and showed him with 38 percent approval and 50 percent disapproval; Obama was at 41 percent approval, 55 percent disapproval, in the same poll.

If the president starts to pick up steam this summer, look for him to spend the bulk of his time in Southeast Ohio where the state’s elections are won or lost, Kondik said.

“Southeast Ohio, much like Western Pennsylvania, is working-class white. Those voters have never been particularly warm to Obama and are not now,” he added.

Kondik looks at Ohio as five regions: Northeast (Cleveland, Akron, Canton, Youngstown, Lorain, Elyria); Central (Columbus and surrounding counties); Northwest (Democrat-heavy Toledo and surrounding GOP counties); Southeast (rural Ohio River counties); and the conservative Southwest.

Obama seems to be polling slightly better in Ohio than in another battleground, Florida, Kondik said. “But Ohio is very much in the toss-up category, likely to move with the country one way or the other depending on the national mood next year.”

If jobs and the economy remain the central issue, Ohio will move out of the toss-up category and towards Republicans.

Last Thursday, jobless claims rose and holiday retail results were reported as remarkably flat, yet another sign of a wobbly economy – and a hard re-election sales pitch for the president, especially in hard-hit areas like Southeast Ohio.


Salena Zito

Salena Zito is a political analyst, reporter and columnist.