WASHINGTON -- Richard Nixon knew a thing or two about presidential politics. He was on a national ballot five times. And he had one bottom line. "It's always about Ohio," he would say in that ominous baritone.
No Republican has ever won the White House without carrying Ohio, which is why Mitt Romney's campaign is busy disparaging a new Washington Post poll that shows President Barack Obama pulling out to an 8 percentage point lead there.
Simply put, if Romney can't win Ohio, he probably can't win the presidency. And there are real, urgent questions about why he has fallen behind.
The Post came out with another, just-as-significant poll a few hours later, showing that incumbent Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) has opened up a 12 point lead over Republican challenger Josh Mandel. Brown is popular and can add an extra engine to the Obama effort.
Why is Ohio so pivotal?
Perhaps more than any other big state, Ohio sits at the center of the pinwheel of American geography and culture. It borders East, Midwest and South. It contains one of our grittiest industrial cities (Cleveland), plus a still-thriving small town rural life of the kind that produced the late Neil Armstrong. It remains the marketing test kitchen of America, a variegated slice of life that is home -- and not by accident -- to Procter & Gamble and many other consumer-oriented companies.
Republican history and tradition lies deep in the bedrock of the state: Seven GOP presidents hailed from Ohio, and though the most recent was Warren Harding nearly a century ago, the GOP there remains strong.
Ask Democratic Sen. John Kerry how important Ohio is. Had he managed to garner an extra football stadium's worth of voters in the state, he would have won the 2004 presidential election.
In that year and in 2000, George W. Bush won the state -- in part, at least in 2000, because of his own family ties there that traced back to his great-grandfather Samuel, a prominent Columbus businessman.
What explains the situation on the ground now?
The Democratic Party in the state has been a model of aggressive activity in organizing and messaging, using social and traditional media.
Sen. Brown is as hardworking and typically Ohio as you can get, and he is (so far) demolishing the young Mandel, who has money and ties but who looks like he is still the student government president at Ohio State that he was not too many years ago. (He turns 35 this week.)
The bailout of General Motors and Chrysler helped save the Ohio economy, which is heavily dependent on the automobile business, and the president got credit for it. Ironically, Ohio Gov. John Kasich, a comparatively (by modern standards) pragmatic Republican, sold budget cuts and new programs that have also helped the state's economy recover.
As for Romney, he has no close ties in the state, was relatively little known there, and has been easily and effectively portrayed as the cold-hearted rich guy from Bain Capital.
According to GOP pollster Frank Luntz, one independent Democratic ad in particular "killed" Romney in the Buckeye State a couple of weeks ago. It told of how workers at a plant were asked to build a wooden stage for a major announcement by Bain, which proved to be the news of the plant's closure. "It was like building my own coffin," one worker said in the ad.
"Devastating," said Luntz.
One reason why Romney picked Rep. Paul Ryan as his running mate was to make a cultural appeal to rural and Catholic voters in places like Ohio. In fact, Ryan has proclaimed himself a "Catholic deer hunter."
But in towns such as Steubenville, 40 miles west of Pittsburgh along the Ohio River, cultural concerns -- while deep and heartfelt -- are ultimately secondary to figuring out how to revive a local economy that was devastated by industrial collapse and has yet to find a way back to anything approaching lively prosperity.
I spent a couple of days during the GOP primary season in Steubenville. Many of the voters I interviewed were staunch supporters of former Sen. Rick Santorum of neighboring Pennsylvania. They admired him for his deeply conservative and traditional Catholic views, to be sure. But the deeper reason why they liked him was that he spoke convincingly of his dedication to bringing jobs back to the Ohio Valley.
That is the sale that Romney has yet to make. For if it is, as Nixon said, all about Ohio, then Ohio is all about jobs and who can bring them back.
For Howard Fineman's full 2012 Countdown, click here.