Testing ground for a US president

The next US primary vote is in a state more representative of the broader American economy than any faced so far. If Mitt Romney fails to convince voters in Ohio, it's unlikely he'll become president.

Michigan may have been a must win for Mitt Romney but Ohio is his real test. The state’s demographics are tougher vis--vis Rick Santorum, while its economic concerns more directly mirror what the GOP nominee will face in the November campaign.

Compared to Wolverines, Buckeyes are less affluent, less educated, more rural, and have more evangelical Christians in their ranks – all these favour Santorum’s 'Holy Spirit is on my shoulder' campaign. However, in Michigan Romney’s economic message trumped – exit polls indicated that was the number one concern, and enough Christian conservatives abandoned Santorum to vote their pocketbook. This permitted the more moderate candidate on social issues and more substantive candidate on economic matters to win.

It was not just Romney’s native state advantage, but the combination of Romney’s superior organisation and lethal attack ads, and his economic platform that helped him squeeze out a win in Michigan.

Ohio is much more like the national economy that will likely define the fall campaign than was Michigan, and one that is more friendly to Obama than the GOP assumed six months ago.

Economists and pundits now see the national economy as having more bounce this spring and summer than was forecasted the beginning of the year. While first quarter GDP numbers will be nothing to brag about – those will likely be lower than the 3 per cent registered in the fourth quarter – second- and third-quarter growth looks more promising. If so, unemployment nationally this summer will look at lot more like Ohio’s current 7.9 per cent than Michigan’s 9.3 per cent.

Ohio is ahead of Michigan in its economic recovery, because it is much less dependent on auto production. The latter state witnessed a massive bailout for General Motors and Chrysler but lots of downsizing and layoffs came with that aid. New hiring has not helped it recover in quite the same ways as much of the rest of America – and Ohio.

The Buckeye State looks remarkably like the American mean. Unlike liberal northeastern states more certain to go in the Obama column, it has a solid, business friendly tax and regulatory climate and a more diversified economy – and its circumstances and concerns are more squarely located where the rhetoric of the fall campaign will focus.

Both President Obama and his principal GOP challengers agree, nothing is more central to resurrecting US growth and prosperity than reviving manufacturing, fixing the banks – correctly, this time – and reducing dependence on imported oil. The hard left – Obama’s cabinet – and moderate and hard right – pick a GOP contender – only disagree on the methods, not the goals.

Remarkably, manufacturing and finance each comprise 18.3 per cent of Ohio’s economy, and it is a leader in bioscience and the green economy. Ohio is squarely in the crosshairs of the new American economy – making and thinking things that change the way we live and compete.

With an electorate friendly to Santorum’s social message in Ohio, Romney must convince voters that the economy, though healing, is still the issue and that he has better answers – that would be his challenge against Obama in the fall. If he fails to convince voters to abandon Santorum’s pious social messaging for the economy, he will likely be just as ineffective in persuading voters in November to abandon Obama’s pontifications about fairness.

So far things have not looked good for Romney – Santorum has been leading in the Ohio polls. However, the most recent tallies show Romney closing – Quinnipiac’s latest poll has Santorum’s lead down to four points and shrinking.

If Romney can’t pull this one out, it is doubtful he can beat Obama in a campaign defined by a poor but improving economy.

Peter Morici is a professor at the Smith School of Business, University of Maryland School, and former Chief Economist at the US International Trade Commission.


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