Ohio: One State, a Lot at Stake

BY Dante Chinni  March 6, 2012 at 11:07 AM EST

Rick Santorum; photo by Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images

Rick Santorum campaigns in Lake County, Ohio, last week. Photo by Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images.

This Tuesday is “super” in the Republican nominating battle because of sheer volume. There are 11 states holding votes and more than 400 delegates at stake. But even with all those numbers in play, most eyes will be on Ohio.

Ohio is not the biggest prize on Tuesday; Georgia has more delegates, but one can certainly make the case that it is the most significant. Many analysts believe the future of the Republican nomination fight hinges on how the two lead candidates — former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum — do there.

When you look at Patchwork Nation’s demographic/geographic county breakdown you see why. The complex electoral landscape in Ohio will indicate a lot about the futures of Romney and Santorum, but the lessons will be less about the candidates and more about the electorate. It centers on one question, are rank-and-file Republican voters prepared to settle on Romney as their front-runner.

ONE STATE, LOTS OF BALANCE

When you look at Ohio through the Patchwork Nation framework of 12 county types, what stands out most is not the number of different types of place (Georgia, Tennessee and Oklahoma, which all also vote tomorrow, have more county types). Ohio is interesting because of its balance.

Eight of Patchwork Nation’s 12 county types are represented in the Buckeye State, and six of them have more than 1 million people living in them. None of the other states Tuesday and none thus far in the 2012 primary calendar offer that kind of breakdown. The Boom Towns (in rust on the map below), Campus and Careers (green), Emptying Nests (light green), Industrial Metropolises (black), Monied Burbs (in beige on the map below) and Service Worker Centers (red) all hold more than 1 million people.

Those county types hold more than 10 million of the 11.5 million people in the state. The two most populous county types — the Industrial Metros and Service Worker Centers — have been good for Romney and Santorum respectively.

WHAT WE’LL LEARN

Much has been made of how Santorum needs to win Ohio to show he’s viable as a candidate because the state holds a lot of blue-collar voters, which are supposedly in Santorum’s wheelhouse. When you look closely, however, Romney may have an edge.

Of those six types with large populations in Ohio, four of them tend to be wealthier and better ground for Romney — the Metros, Monied Burbs, Campus and Careers and Boom Towns. There are more than 7 million people in them. If Romney wins those places by enough, he should be able to overcome Santorum’s advantage in the other communities.

But remember those places have more population, not necessarily more Republican voters. The question may ultimately be one of turnout. Santorum’s general areas of strength — the Service Worker Centers and Emptying Nests, as well as the state’s few Evangelical Epicenters — are more reliably Republican.

Somewhere in that mix of people and views is the real test in Ohio and why it is so important.

The question is not really whether Romney can win wealthier communities; that’s something he has done fairly consistently. The question is what happens with those voters in the less-wealthy, more-conservative, more Santorum-friendly communities, of which there are a lot in Ohio. Watch them Tuesday night; what happens there will be critical.

In the last week, Romney has been piling up endorsements as the party establishment has begun to throw its weight behind him. At some point, he may hit critical mass, when the bulk of rank-and-file GOP voters decide to throw him their support as well. That could happen either through voters in those less-wealthy communities staying home or in them actually voting for the former governor. Ohio will be the latest test.

If Romney wins Ohio, he’ll likely be able to point to some support in those communities and talk about bringing the party together.

If Santorum pulls out a win in Ohio on the strength of the Service Workers, Emptying Nests and Evangelical Epicenters, the real significance will not be the “W” next to his name, but rather the fact that those voters are not supporting Romney, at least not yet. His team will also argue that Romney simply won Michigan because it is his native state.

If that happens, the 2012 nominating saga will take yet another turn, and all eyes will turn to next Tuesday, when another 100 delegates on are on the line.

Join PBS NewsHour’s live coverage of Super Tuesday from 6 p.m. ET to 12:30 a.m. ET here