Trailing President Barack Obama in Ohio throughout the summer, presumptive GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney is looking to turn the tables by using "Obamacare" as a political weapon to make inroads with traditionally Democratic voters.
Ohio Democrats belittle this strategy. But the Romney campaign sees hidden gold in historically Democratic and swing counties that overwhelmingly voted to approve the Health Care Freedom Amendment, a November 2011 ballot initiative written specifically to rebuke Obama's Affordable Care Act. Even after the Supreme Court decision ruling the law constitutional, the Romney campaign hopes unhappiness with the health care overhaul could turn enough Ohio Democrats against the president to sink his prospects in this key battleground.
"Ohio independents and moderate Democratic voters now view electing Mitt Romney as the only means by which this national health care tax will be repealed," said Chris Maloney, a Romney campaign operative based in the Buckeye State.
Democrats concede that Obama is vulnerable in Ohio, despite current polling that gave him a 3-point edge over Romney in the RealClearPolitics.com average, 47 percent to 44 percent, as of Thursday afternoon. But party strategists based in the Midwest swing state argue that Romney is wasting his time if he thinks he can win Democratic and independent votes through promises to repeal the Affordable Care Act - called "Obamacare" by the president as well as the Republicans.
An Ohio Democratic operative referred to the Health Care Freedom Amendment, known as Issue 3, as the "sideshow" in last November's special election, which was called to determine the fate of Issue 2, a labor reform package pushed by Gov. John Kasich (R). Voters rejected Kasich's proposal, yet they approved Issue 3 with a strong 65 percent of the vote, giving it 66,066 more "yes" votes than the "no" votes garnered by Issue 2.
These statistics, and how the Issue 2 and Issue 3 votes line up from county to county, undergird the Romney campaign's confidence that Obamacare could motivate Democratic and independent support for the former Massachusetts governor. But Democratic strategists said support for Issue 3 is not indicative of what is animating voters heading into the fall elections. Republicans, one Ohio Democratic operative said, "are smoking crack" if they think this tactic will work.
That doesn't mean Democrats aren't concerned about Obama's relationship with moderate Democrats and independent voters, particularly among the white, working-class demographic. But, as elsewhere, the president's underlying weakness in Ohio is a result of anxiety over the economy - and in the eastern part of the state, because of voters' belief that Obama is hostile to coal.
The Democratic operative said the political atmosphere in Ohio is reminiscent of 2004, and he called the state "very, very hostile territory" for Obama. "One of the biggest problems that the Democrats have is structural," this individual added. "The Republicans are running the election."
The Democratic strategist said Republicans are pulling strings at the county level to make voting easier for Republicans and harder for Democrats. The Obama campaign declined to comment.
The Romney campaign this week unveiled a television ad that alleges Obama raided Medicare to pay for the Affordable Care Act. The ad, which the Obama campaign has said mischaracterizes the savings the law wrings from Medicare, was part of a Romney offensive on the senior citizen health care plan that was launched on the heels of the former governor selecting House Budget Chairman Paul Ryan (Wis.) as his vice presidential running mate. Ryan is identified with his proposal to overhaul Medicare.
The brain trust in Romney's Boston campaign headquarters believes that Obamacare still works for them as a campaign issue. In Ohio, their microtargeting effort has identified Democrats and independents that voted for the Health Care Freedom Amendment, with the campaign working vigorously to turn them out for the Romney-Ryan ticket. The measure passed in all 88 Ohio counties, including six targeted swing counties and four additional counties that were hotly contested in 2008.
The counties that moved from President George W. Bush in 2004 to Obama in 2008, and the margin by which the Health Care Freedom Amendment passed, include Hamilton (65 percent), Ottawa (66 percent), Sandusky (70 percent), Tuscarawas (67 percent), Wood (61 percent) and Lake, which is considered a Buckeye State bellwether. In Lake County, adjacent to Cleveland, Issue 3 passed with 70 percent of the vote.
Additionally, the Romney campaign is hopeful that Obamacare could help it turn the central eastern Ohio counties of Belmont and Jefferson red. These counties have voted at least moderately Democratic for president since 1976. Last November, they supported Issue 3 with 68 percent and 67 percent of the vote, respectively. The campaign is also targeting pockets of blue-collar Democrats in moderately Republican Noble and Washington counties.
An Ohio Republican campaign operative endorsed this element of the Romney campaign's strategy, saying Obama remains slightly ahead in Buckeye State polls because of his support in urban areas. But the operative said the presumptive Republican presidential nominee is "overperforming" in eastern and southeastern Ohio counties. Obama hasn't lost suburban voters, but he is in trouble in rural, working-class counties.
"In polling I have seen from some traditional blue-collar Democrat counties, Obama's numbers are upside down," the Ohio GOP operative said. "Romney has to make it all about Obama because he is so unpopular."