By DARREL ROWLAND
The Columbus Dispatch
Yes, it’s still the economy in battleground Ohio.
President Barack Obama leads Mitt Romney by 5 percentage points — 51 percent to 46 percent — among likely voters in the first Ohio Newspaper Organization poll of the 2012 election.
That 5-point margin matches Obama’s advantage when survey participants were asked which candidate would do the best job of improving economic conditions in Ohio.
“Clearly, how Ohioans view the two candidates in terms of their ability to improve Ohio’s economy over the next four years will go a long way in determining who wins Ohio’s 18 electoral votes,” said Eric Rademacher, co-director of the Institute for Policy Research at the University of Cincinnati. It conducted the poll for ONO, whose members are Ohio’s eight largest newspapers, including The Vindicator.
“Ninety-five percent of voters who say Romney would do best on the economy choose Romney for president, 96 percent of voters who say Obama would do best pick Obama.”
Northeast Ohio, the most Democratic portion of the state, provides Obama with his strongest support in the poll. Obama leads Romney by 16 percentage points — 57 percent to 41 percent in this region. Obama also leads Romney in northeast Ohio by 16 percentage points — 55 percent to 39 percent — when asked which candidate would do the best job to improve the state’s economic conditions, according to the poll.
But with the election more than six weeks away — and four debates counting the vice presidential one, numerous candidate visits and tens of millions of dollars worth of ads targeting Ohioans still on their way — Rademacher predicted that “voters may be in for a wild ride this fall.”
The new poll shows that Ohioans are sharply divided over what should happen to the federal health care law now that the U.S. Supreme Court has generally upheld its legality, Obama’s stance favoring gay marriage moves voters slightly toward Romney, and a strong majority likes the federal loans given to General Motors and Chrysler.
But the latter issue illustrates the complexity of how economic issues are impacting this year’s election.
Although the auto rescue package won approval from 58 percent of Ohio voters — and opposition from 37 percent — Obama reaps no apparent political reward from the issue he pushed and campaigned strenuously on Ohio visits.
Though 23 percent say the loans make them more likely to vote for Obama, 22 percent say less likely — and 54 percent say it makes no difference statewide.
Obama’s numbers are a little higher in Northeast Ohio on the auto bailout with 62 percent approving it and 32 percent opposing it. The president gets a 5-percentage point difference in the region with 25 percent saying the loans make it more likely they’ll vote for the Democrat and 20 percent saying less likely. Like the overall state number, 54 percent of Northeast Ohioans in the poll say it makes no difference.
Linda Rae Brown, 65, a telemarketer from Cleveland who took part in the poll, supported Obama’s auto-loan package, saying, “I think it was absolutely necessary. I would never want them to go bankrupt, heavens no, and I think they would have gone bankrupt if we didn’t do something.”
But then she added, “I think Obama was right on that, but I don’t think Obama has the financial understanding to run the country. I really think Romney is better equipped.”
Melissa Love, a 36-year-old Republican from Cortland, who works as a customer-service representative and a Romney supporter, said: “I don’t know how much worse we would have been if we didn’t give the bailout. I was worried at the time if we didn’t bail them out what would happen. Now, I’m a little harder on it and don’t think they should have done it. I don’t know why. Ford didn’t take the bailout, and they turned out fine. I wonder if we should have done it.”
The General Motors complex in Lordstown makes the Chevrolet Cruze.
But 66-year-old Barbara L. Hixenbaugh of Butler County near Cincinnati is sticking with Obama because “he did the right thing in the auto bailout.”
“We would have been in dire straits if that would not have happened because of the trickle- down effect” on related industries and businesses, the retiree added. She said Obama would be better for the Ohio economy “without a doubt.”
“The automobile industry issue and the campaigning around it provide an example of why Ohio is such a difficult state to win,” Rademacher said. “While this issue may help the president in one part of Ohio, it may factor less in vote decisions in other regions.
“Ohio is a complex state where an issue like ‘the economy’ means many things – for some regions, it may mean the auto industry, for others it may mean gas prices, others wages and benefits and for still others it relates directly to unemployment.”
Attorney Gary L. Jones, 74, is a registered Democrat from Blacklick, Franklin County, but he is voting for Romney. Jones, who has a law practice in Columbus specializing in liquor licensing, said he was put off earlier this year when Obama said, “If you’ve got a business, you didn’t build that.”
“I went to law school at night, built my own practice, worked” very hard, Jones said.
He said he believes Romney will better curb the nation’s skyrocketing debt and preserve Medicare and Social Security programs.
“I think he understands you can’t continue to borrow money you don’t have and spend it like a drunken sailor which is what we are doing now. That’s really scary for me.”
However, another lawyer, Elizabeth Feniger, 35, of Ottawa Hills near Toledo, calls herself an economic conservative who could support Romney but disagrees with his position on social issues, especially abortion
“I guess if he wins the election and was able to appoint a conservative justice and overturn Roe vs. Wade, I’d be scared,” said Feniger, who is currently staying at home with a son. “I like (Romney). I could vote for him if not for these other issues that are more important to me.”
The difficulty of assessing the impact of the economy on the presidential race also shows up when respondents were asked the question Ronald Reagan popularized in 1980: Are you better off now than you were four years ago?
Currently, 23 percent say better off, 36 percent worse off and 41 percent about the same.
While that breakdown is hardly a fount of optimism for Obama, the numbers are a little better than they were in an OHNO poll from September 2008 that asked the same question.
In that survey, 29 percent said they were better off than four years earlier, 47 percent worse off, and 34 percent about the same.
Although the new poll shows that Ohioans are split four ways on Obama’s health care law, the president can see a glimmer of hope because 48 percent overall want to keep or expand the law, compared with 44 percent who want it repealed.
The poll indicates that Democrats are slightly more likely to vote than Republicans this year, and Obama supporters are more enthusiastic about the election than are Romney backers. However, Romney is winning independents by a large margin.
The telephone poll, which used both land lines and cellphones, of 861 likely voters across Ohio from Sept. 13 through Tuesday has a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 3.3 percentage points. Other sources of error are possible, such as non-response bias. A total of 17 percent responded when pollsters called.
The party breakdown of the randomly-selected respondents: 48 percent Democrats, 42 percent Republicans, 10 percent independents. The data were weighted to correct for potential sampling bias on gender and region of residence for respondents.
The poll was financed solely by the Ohio Newspaper Organization.
CONTRIBUTOR: David Skolnick OF THE VINDICATOR