CANTON, Ohio — After years of planning, billions in TV ads, millions of air miles, countless motorcades and three game-changing debates, it still comes down to Ohio.
And Ohio still remains a tossup.
Whichever way it goes will likely determine the winner.
A good place to watch for clues is Stark County, a county with an uncanny record of predicting the outcome in this most crucial of battleground states. And Stark comes down voters like Chris Toxie and Paul Sommers.
Sommers, 62, a retired county worker, voted for Democrat Barack Obama four years ago. But Republican Mitt Romney got his vote this time.
His son has been out of college for three years but starts his first full-time job Monday, as a $15-an-hour manager at a sporting goods chain. He had to move to North Carolina for the promotion from part-time sales.
In 2008, Obama “spoke to a lot of the issues that concern me and I thought I’d give him a chance,” Sommers said after casting an early ballot last week. “I’ve seen little in the way of progress.”
Toxie can relate, though Obama got his early ballot. His 18-year-old son barely escaped the fast food industry when a company that installs countertops took him on a few weeks ago.
“Things are better. But it’s not great. It’s hard for people to get jobs, not where you can learn a trade,” said Toxie, 49, who repairs printers and copiers for a living. “I just don’t want to go back to the way it was before. I kind of think the Republicans got us into this mess and we ought to give Obama a longer chance to get us back out.”
Ohio has picked every winner since 1964, by far the nation’s longest winning streak. It’s more than a good predictor: With 18 electoral votes, it’s also a critical battleground.
No Republican has won the White House without it. Most recent polls have shown Obama inching ahead, but Romney has remained within reach.
Conventional wisdom holds that Obama will do well in northwest Ohio, where the auto industry he rescued is most prevalent, and in the industrial northeast.
Romney will rake in plenty of votes in suburban Cleveland and the Bible Belt in southwestern Ohio. Central Ohio, with the capital and many suburbanites, is a tossup. So is the southeast corner – coal country, with social conservative rural residents and Democrat-oriented blue collar workers.
Stark County sits at the transition between northeast and southeast. From factories to fracking, blighted neighborhoods in Canton to million-dollar mansions, suburban strip malls to rolling farmland, it has a bit of everything that makes up the state.
It’s not exactly the Rust Belt. It’s a melange and a microcosm, of the state and the nation.
“It’s kind of the gateway,” said David Cohen, a political scientist at the University of Akron’s Bliss Institute of Applied Politics. “It’s demographics. It’s economics. It’s just a really interesting mix.”
With 375,000 residents out of 11.5 million statewide, no one thinks Stark County alone will tip the outcome. But it’s a great place to gauge how it looks.
Bottom line: hard to say.
“It’s going to be slim here in the county,” said Janet Creighton, a county commissioner who was President George W. Bush’s liaison to local government after serving as Canton’s mayor. “I have not seen this level of enthusiasm and energy since 2000. People are tired of what they have. . . . People are struggling.”
Romney strategists assert that independent voters in Ohio have abandoned Obama, putting the state within reach. “Right now, their firewall is burning,” said Rich Beeson, Romney’s political director.
Obama strategist David Axelrod took strong issue with that. “There’s a growing recognition on the other side that Ohio is fading away,” he said.
Stark County has sided with the winner in 10 of the last dozen presidential contests, and in nine of those it came within 2 percentage points of the statewide tally. Its biggest flub was in 2004, when Sen. John Kerry lost Ohio 51 percent-49 percent but carried the county by 3,100 votes out of nearly 200,000.