One presidential debate over, and still undecided in Ohio

The Monitor watched Wednesday's presidential debate with undecided voter Maggie O'Toole in Ohio – an important battleground state. Why she is still not ready to commit to either President Obama or Mitt Romney. 

Charlie Neibergall/AP
President Barack Obama walks past Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney during the first presidential debate at the University of Denver, Wednesday, Oct. 3, 2012, in Denver.

President Obama mentioned Cleveland; Mitt Romney cited Dayton. Both Ohio cities made it into the first national presidential debate Wednesday, and Maggie O’Toole, an undecided voter from this small city in southeast Ohio, definitely noticed. 

Not that she was all that pleased about it. “Way to name-check a swing state,” Ms. O’Toole says sarcastically, settled into her living room sofa to watch Mr. Obama and Mr. Romney spar for 90 minutes over domestic policy on a University of Denver stage. “They have to prove they know it. It’s weird.”

In the end, Ms. O'Toole – a 20-something marketing professional – remains on the fence, unswayed by either candidate's performance and still not ready to commit. She says she felt that Obama and Romney mainly revisited their familiar talking points, and she often found their words disappointing.

With 18 electoral votes, Ohio is an important battleground state in the November election, and both candidates are pushing to win over uncertain voters like O’Toole who will likely determine who will win the state – and perhaps the whole election. A Friday rally for Obama at Cleveland State University will be his 22nd appearance in the state this year; Romney has parachuted into Ohio 16 times so far, most recently last week.

“The thin slice of that electorate is up for grabs in Ohio,” says Paul Allen Beck, a political scientist at Ohio State University in Columbus. “Undecideds are still in play. The debates will be important in moving them” to make a final choice.

The latest Ohio polls show Obama with a single-digit edge over Romney – 49 to 45 percent, according to Public Policy Polling in Raleigh, N.C. – with 7 percent of state voters undecided. The survey was conducted Sept. 27-30 among 897 likely voters with a margin of error of 3.3 percent.

Though leading, Obama by no means has the state locked up: His approval ratings among Ohioans are split 48 to 49 percent, akin to Romney’s favorability ratings, 45 to 49 percent. The numbers are close enough that the outcome in Ohio remains unpredictable.  

O’Toole, a marketing coordinator for an accounting firm and an MBA student at the University of Akron, considers herself a moderate Republican who swings to the left on social issues such as abortion rights and gay marriage. “I have a number of friends who are gay and I want them to have the same opportunity I would have,” she explains. But O'Toole is also worried about the state of the economy and how it has languished for the past four years. She comes from a family of lifelong Republicans and voted for GOP presidential nominee John McCain four years ago. In the 2008 primary, though, she voted Democratic, for Hillary Rodham Clinton.

Watching Wednesday’s debate with a friend in her stylish, two-bedroom apartment while dining on carryout Chinese, O’Toole says she is disappointed with how the candidates use competing statistics to hammer each other in assessing who is suffering most in the current economic climate.

“They can take the exact same data to tell you two different things,” she says. Romney is the most misleading, O’Toole says, when he says the average middle-class family’s household income is down $4,000. “I don’t think that’s a fair average.… Also, how are you determining who is middle class, which is a huge debate the country has been having for many years,” she says.

O'Toole also takes issue with Romney's statement that Obama has cut $716 billion out of Medicare for current beneficiaries. The entire discussion of entitlements, she says, is an exercise by both sides in “pandering to elderly voters.” 

“It’s kind of frustrating because, regardless, my generation is going to pay for [the rising costs in health care for current retirees],” she says. “On some level it should cost something. The idea that a significant portion of our country is exempt from paying for the largest portion of our GDP is wrong.”

O’Toole recoils when Romney invokes “death panels” when saying Obama’s health-care overhaul “puts in place an unelected board that's going to tell people ultimately what kind of treatments they can have.” For her, the discussion is too reminiscent of the incendiary rhetoric of former vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin four years ago.

“That was her one contribution to the campaign, aside from the jokes,” O'Toole says. 

One challenge for Romney is that his message of an economy in dire straits is not so apparent in Ohio: State unemployment fell from 8.8 percent to 7.2 percent over the past year, and is now about a percentage point below the national average. More than 20,000 factory jobs have been added since January.

Even so, O’Toole says people she knows “still feel worse off than they were four years ago,” because of shrinking retirement benefits and a general sense that economic recovery is not as swift as they once thought.

“A lot of people whose jobs tanked, they’re seeing recovery, but everybody who had anything like a pension took a hit and it’s not coming back,” she says.

Another challenge for Romney in the Buckeye State is the automotive industry, which supports 1 in 8 jobs – about 80,000 total. He has long criticized Obama’s decision to use federal dollars to bail out General Motors and the Chrysler Group, which together employ about 13,000 people in Ohio.

“Ohio is an auto industry state, and [the bailout] is an issue that is more important to a lot of Ohioans than it is to people in most other states,” says Mr. Beck of Ohio State. “That is a big advantage for Obama.”

When the presidential debate turns to fiscal policy and the role of the federal government, O'Toole says she doesn’t believe Obama “has the political will to make [spending] cuts” needed to close the country’s yawning deficit.

“He will make the efficiency cuts, but will he actually cut social benefits or limit them in any way? I don’t believe he will do it,” she says.

A CNN/ORC International poll released early Thursday found that 67 percent of registered voters who watched the debate said Romney fared better, compared with 25 percent for Obama.

O’Toole is with the minority on this, saying Obama was the clear winner for his confidence and for seeming to have a better grasp of policies. Romney, she says, refused to drill down more deeply regarding his tax policy and health care: “Ultimately, Mitt Romney needs to give some of that information, and the longer that this goes on, the worse it looks for him.” 

Yet the debate she saw Wednesday was not enough for O'Toole to seal the deal with either candidate. She turned to the debate for a more substantial discussion about, not just the economy, but social issues, and what she heard were retooled versions of familiar stump speeches.

“We’ve heard the same numbers a million times that haven’t been backed up. You can tell they hit their talking points, but it was nothing to shift the conversation,” she says. “I do agree a lot more with President Obama, but if neither of them have an economic solution, which it seems like they don’t, will I vote for the guy with whom I agree with regarding gay rights or abortion or not? Mitt Romney’s not really giving me a reason to vote for him,” she says.

With two more debates to go, what will it take for O’Toole to make a decision?

“Maybe just [for] one of them to terribly screw up and have a Sarah Palin moment where one of them proves to be inept,” she says.

Beck says O’Toole is typical of Republican-leaning women of the Millennial Generation who are “really turned off” by current Republican Party policies on social issues, ranging from gay rights to contraception.

“The more professional women are really turned off by the Republican Party in general. These are voters who may go up to the very end,” he says.

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