Sen. Barack Obama is riding economic discontent to an advantage in Ohio, bolstered in part by financially stressed voters in the state's hard-hit industrial belt -- and following it up with a more extensive ground campaign in this key contest.
In political sentiment Ohio looks much like the nation; the economy far outstrips other issues and Obama leads in trust to handle it. That -- plus the shadow of President George W. Bush over Sen. John McCain's campaign -- fuels Obama past lingering concerns about his experience.
An aggressive ground war also helps: Thirty-seven percent of Ohio's registered voters say they've been personally contacted by the Obama campaign. That beats the 27 percent who've heard from McCain, and also surpasses the level of contacts by both campaigns in 2004, when Ohio was decisive.
Making and keeping such contacts may matter. Likely voters in this ABC News/Washington Post poll put Obama, Democrat of Illinois, ahead of McCain, Republican of Arizona, by 51 to 45 percent if the election were today. But it's not today, and there's room for change: Eighteen percent have not made up their minds for sure, much like the national figure. And movability peaks among independents, young and first-time voters -- the former a swing group; the others, two of Obama's best.
Among Obama's advantages, though, is sheer energy: Fifty-eight percent of his Ohio supporters are "very enthusiastic" about his candidacy, compared with just 30 percent of McCain's. And while that's about the same for Obama as nationally, high-level enthusiasm for McCain is 8 points lower in Ohio than in the nation overall.
The contours of the race are telling. Obama leads by a wide margin in Cuyahoga County, the heavily Democratic Cleveland metropolis. But perhaps more critical is his 17-point advantage in the state's northeast, including the ailing industrial cities of Akron, Canton and Youngstown -- a keystone for Democrats in statewide races. Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., managed only a closer, 52-47 split with Pres. George W. Bush in this region in the 2004 election, not enough to win the state, and thus the presidency.
The northeast isn't the only region of interest. In the center and rural southeast of the state, generally Republican but including more-Democratic Columbus, it's a 6-point race, 51-45 percent Obama-McCain in a region Bush won by 8 points four years ago.
There are sharp divisions among groups, again with comparisons to 2004 instructive. While Obama is losing white voters by 7 points, Kerry lost them by 12. While Kerry won 84 percent of Ohio's black voters, Obama's winning them essentially unanimously -- 98 percent. Bush won married women by 20 points in 2004; they're dividing about evenly now (and are substantially more worried than their husbands about the family's finances).
And while young voters favored Kerry by a 14-point margin, they're even more of a mainstay for Obama; he holds a 2-1 lead among likely voters under 30, compared with a dead heat among those 30 and older.
Relying on young voters is a risk for Obama (as it was for Kerry) given their uncertain turnout. What's essential, then, is his ability to battle McCain to a standstill among over-30s, a group Kerry lost by 7 points. And that has much to do with the economy.