The automotive view from Ohio, electoral ground zero

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With less than two weeks to go before the election, this is how bad things have gotten on the public airwaves in northern Ohio: Viewers pine for crazy car dealer ads as sweet relief from an onslaught of political advertising.

But while the dealers and the product ads have been crowded off Ohio's TVs, the auto industry is getting a star turn like never before.

According to election watchers like Nate Silver, there are nine battleground states this year – states considered to be in play, and to be crucial in determining the outcome of the presidential election. As a result, Iowa, Virginia, Wisconsin, Florida, Ohio, Colorado, Nevada, Pennsylvania and New Hampshire have been deluged with record campaign advertising this year.

But of the nine, there is only one where the TV advertising skirmishes are like watching The Longest Day on a round-the-clock loop: Ohio is the bellwether of bellwether states, the place where the candidates in the last 12 presidential contests win – or lose – their bid for the Oval Office.

By far the biggest factor influencing voters in Ohio this year: the 2009 federally managed bankruptcies of Chrysler and General Motors, and those companies' subsequent return to profitability.

It's hard for others elsewhere in the country to understand Ohio, because Ohio barely understands itself. The state is a dichotomy: the northern tier of Ohio is heavily Democratic primarily because of its heavily unionized concentrations of auto sector manufacturing jobs, while the southern half more closely resembles Tennessee in being rurual, nonunion and Republican. Ohio's large rural population is Republican to its core, while its six largest cities all swing Democratic.

With one of every eight jobs in Ohio tied directly to the automotive sector, Republican Mitt Romney has had an uphill climb putting his 2008 essay in The New York Times, under the headline "Let Detroit Go Bankrupt," behind him.

People can argue now about whether Romney's prescription for the industry in that column was actually used -- it wasn't, by the way, because Romney called for private debtor-in-possession financing that couldn't have been found in 2009.

But in Ohio, polling shows that a plurality of voters believes that the "Detroit" in the 2008 column really meant Toledo, Lordstown, Defiance and scores of other Ohio cities where auto parts are made and cars are assembled.

Make no mistake: The auto sector dominates the political landscape in Ohio right now like nothing else.

And as Ohio goes in presidential elections, so goes the nation.

You can reach Larry P. Vellequette at lvellequette@crain.com.

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