SPRINGFIELD, Ohio — Perhaps it’s just my imagination, but one of the most hard-fought electoral prizes in the nation — the Buckeye state — seems oddly quiet.
Less than two weeks ago, voters in pivotal southwest Ohio’s Clark County trotted to the polls and delivered a mixed verdict — roughly 31,000 voted for Mitt Romney, while 30,000 chose Barack Obama. That’s less than a two percent difference between the winner and the loser. Statewide, the numbers flipped, with 51 percent choosing the Democrat, and 48 percent backing the Republican. It was a raucous, hard-fought and narrowly-decided race.
But when I strolled down the streets of Springfield this week, on the way to a visit at Wittenberg College, things had abruptly returned to normal. The incessant campaign advertising had stopped as if a spigot had been switched off. The candidates who had made the Buckeye State their second homes had disappeared.
It was hard to recall that just two weeks ago, when President Obama came to the local high school the Friday before the election for one of his final big campaign rallies, Springfield was the center of the political universe.
I went back and looked at the transcript of that Springfield speech when I arrived here this week. In hindsight, it is full of clues to why Romney lost, and why he is apparently still bitter about how things turned out.
“After four years as President, you know me,” Obama told the cheering pre-election crowd. “You may not agree with every decision I’ve made. Sometimes you may have been frustrated at the pace of change. But you know what I believe. You know where I stand. You know I tell the truth.
“You know I’ll fight for you and your families every single day, as hard as I know how,” he said. “That’s why I’m running for a second term, because I want to fight for you. That’s why I need your votes, Springfield. That’s why I need your vote, Ohio.”
In a conference call with donors this week, Romney, who has apparently been licking his wounds and reading post-election memos, complained that the President won by offering “gifts” to targeted groups — citizenship to undocumented immigrants; birth control to young women; free health care to African Americans and cheaper tuition for students.
“The President’s campaign focused on giving targeted groups a big gift,” the former Republican nominee said. “So he made a big effort on small things. Those small things, by the way, add up to trillions of dollars.”
Romney may have been reading an internal post-election Republican party memo. It noted that the nominee won independent Ohio voters by 10 points, but was swamped by an increase in African American voters — 178,000 more than four years ago — of which the president won 96 percent. There were 123,000 fewer independents voting. The RNC documented serious adverse outcomes among young voters in Colorado and Hispanic voters in Florida.
But Romney’s remarks reeked so distinctly of sour grapes that leading Republicans — including staunch campaign surrogates like New Hampshire Senator Kelly Ayotte and Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal — moved swiftly to denounce them.
They would much rather Romney stay quiet, or at the least, talk about what comes next instead of the defeat just past. Romney is clearly not there yet. “Frankly,” he told his supporters, “we’re still so troubled by the past, it’s hard to put together our plans for the future.”
But look again at the President’s Springfield speech. Romney’s remarks may have come across as graceless, but they were not so far off the mark.
The President has pledged to offer a path to citizenship for the undocumented. He has promised to preserve access to birth control by supporting Planned Parenthood. He does plan to move forward on his Affordable Care Act, and he did spend considerable time during the campaign promising to preserve tuition tax breaks for college students. Romney’s mistake was in characterizing these policy positions as “gifts” to special interests.
The President says Election Day settled those arguments. House Republicans, who still say they will not raise taxes on the wealthy to avoid a much-discussed fall off the fiscal cliff, and some Senate Republicans, who have already begun threatening to block nominations and convene Watergate-style hearings, do not seem to agree.
Many of us who live in Washington doubt that these line-in-the-sand arguments resonate much beyond the capital. It feels like we have returned from the campaign only to climb back onto a familiar, dizzying carousel.
So imagine my surprise when I asked my Wittenberg University audience if they even cared about the arguments about the fiscal cliff. The vast majority of hands in the audience shot up.
And as I drove back through Springfield’s quiet streets — as deserted at night as they had been at midday — I realized why. The campaign ads may have stopped. The direct mail may have dried up. Bill Clinton and Barbara Bush may have stopped their incessant robo-calling to the good people of Clark County.
But voters are still paying attention.