Reality Check: It's an Uphill Battle in Ohio for Obama

Hillary Clinton is not only beating Obama in the latest Ohio polls-she's crushing him. In late January, she led 42-19, and even after Super Tuesday and a few follow-up wins for Obama, the New York senator is still ahead by margins ranging from 14 to 21 percent.

Still, a storyline is emerging in the press that Obama will close that gap between now and March 4. For the most part, the case looks something like this: 1) Obama always trails early on and gains ground as he stumps (and organizes) in a particular state, 2) most of the polls that show Clinton leading (with the exception of Rasmussen, a sketchy one-day sample) were taken before Obama's Potomac Primary wins, and if he captures Wisconsin his Buckeye State stats will surely surge and 3) Ohio's demographics mirror either Wisconsin's (where Obama is ahead) or Missouri's (which he's already won). Here's Jeff Greenfield of Slate making the case for Wisconsin:

In Wisconsin, according to exit polls from the 2004 presidential primary, 57 percent of the voters called themselves moderates or conservatives. Seventy-five percent had incomes of $75,000 a year or less; 50 percent earned less than $50,000 a year. A third of the voters were Catholic. More than half had no college education and more than one in five were union members. This is the kind of electorate Clinton is counting on in Ohio and, in April, in Pennsylvania, because it's the electorate that favored her up until Obama's big victories in Maryland and Virginia.

And Joe Klein of Time arguing for Missouri:

Ohio's population is 84 percent white (the exact same as in Missouri), 11.8 percent black (11.3 percent in Missouri) and 2.3 percent Hispanic (2.8 percent in Missouri). The percentages of college graduates and the household-income distribution are nearly identical as well.

I don't quite buy it. Sure, there's something to the "room for growth" and "wait for new polls" lines of reasoning. But while I'm as much a fan of demography as destiny as the next political hack, in this case, it falls a little short.

Only 37 percent of the 2004 Democratic primary electorate in Ohio, for example, graduated from college or graduate school--which is 10 percent less than Wisconsin. That alone makes Ohio friendlier terrain for Clinton, whose margins over Obama typically grow as one descends the education ladder. What's more, Ohio bests Wisconsin in number of union households (by 10 percent) and voters who make under $75,000 a year (four percent)--both key Clinton demographics. I wrote last Friday that the similarities between Ohio and Wisconsin suggested that the latter was would be more welcoming to Clinton than her campaign was willing to admit, but I don't think a Wisconsin win will automatically augur an Obama surge in Ohio.

Missouri, on the other hand, matches Ohio closely in terms of demography. But while the exit polls clearly show a Democratic electorate that's about 50 percent working-class (sub-$50,000) in both states, the surveys can't reveal who exactly those voters are. Ohio is a hard-core rust-belt state; Missouri, not as much. Manufacturing was never as important in Missouri as it was Ohio--which means that the loss of manufacturing in Missouri has not produced nearly as devastating a decline as in Ohio.

Combine that with an electorate that's considerably less urban than Missouri's (34 percent to 44 percent, respectively) and you start to see why differences in character--as opposed to quantity--might help Clinton maintain her current edge.  We'll see soon enough whether Obama's unbeaten streak changes the calculus. But for now, at least, the Buckeye State looks to be the strongest of Clinton's March 4 firewalls.

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