Barack Obama became the first Democrat in 44 years to end the Republican stranglehold on the southwestern corner of Ohio in the 2008 election, winning in Hamilton County, which includes Cincinnati and its conservative suburbs.
Mr. Obama flipped counties across the Rust Belt, helping him carry Ohio and Indiana and win more traditionally Democratic states such as Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin.
But now, as Mr. Obama is in the middle of a two-day “Betting on America” bus tour across Ohio and Pennsylvania, political analysts said he will have to reassemble the “hope and change” demographic coalition of 2008 that relied on a high turnout of youths and blacks, and winning a larger-than-usual percentage of Hispanics and whites.
“Somehow, he again has to drive up the turnout among blacks, Latinos and other minorities who strongly supported him four years ago,” said Mark J. Rozell, a George Mason University political science professor. “But also, and perhaps most difficult, he somehow has to reach working-class white voters who have turned away from him in large numbers since 2008.”
By most accounts, that will be easier said than done, especially after the elections in 2010, when voters sent a strong message of discontent to Mr. Obama by electing Republicans in nearly every competitive race in the Rust Belt and pulling the plug on the Democrats’ four-year reign in the House.
Furthermore, each of Ohio’s 88 counties, including the Democratic stronghold of Cuyahoga, overwhelmingly supported State Issue 3 in 2011, which aimed to undercut the president’s health care law.
Ohio Republican Party Chairman Bob Bennett cited the 2010 elections and Mr. Obama’s poor primary performances this year in Kentucky, where 42 percent of the vote went “uncommitted,” and West Virginia, where 40 percent of the vote went to federal inmate Keith Judd, as proof that the incumbent is out of sync with Rust Belters, particularly those living in southeastern Ohio, which Mr. Bennett dubbed “our Appalachian Bible Belt area.”
“Those people think the same way as those people in West Virginia and Kentucky do,” Mr. Bennett said before making the case that Mr. Obama’s policies on coal and energy, as well as his support for same-sex marriage, don’t sit well with those voters.
“They are not supporting Obama this time around, and he picked up a lot of votes down there in ‘08,” he said.
Henry Olsen, director of the American Enterprise Institute’s National Research Initiative, said things haven’t deteriorated that much for Mr. Obama.
“So far, Mr. Obama’s Rust Belt coalition remains largely intact,” he said. Handicapping the race, he put Mr. Obama’s chances of retaining Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin at around 2-to-1 and of hanging on to Ohio and Iowa at about 55 percent to 45 percent.
Mr. Obama’s victories across the industrial Midwest were built on maximizing turnout among key supporters, and not getting swamped among white voters.
“The reason Obama won Ohio is because of a lower-than-average turnout for whites and an extremely strong turnout for blacks,” said William H. Frey, a demographer and senior fellow at the Brookings Institution who noted similar scenarios in other battleground states, including Florida and Nevada.
“It is a trade-off between the turnout enthusiasm of blue-collar whites in those states and the turnout and enthusiasm of the growing minority populations,” he said.
But rebuilding that coalition will be an uphill battle unless he can reverse the 2010 trend, when blue-collar white voters swung against Mr. Obama and his party.
“Blue-collar whites did not back Obama in 2008, but this group turned even more fiercely against him since 2008 because of the economy and because they came to believe that Obama does not share their values or understand their lives,” Mr. Olsen said. “In 2010, Republicans carried non-college-educated whites by a 63-to-33 margin, a record high for a congressional election.”
In 2008, Mr. Obama lost whites without college education by a margin of 58 percent to 40 percent.
The challenge for presumptive Republican nominee Mitt Romney is to tap into that anger and persuade those voters to turn out again this year, said Ford O’Connell, who ran rural outreach for John McCain’s 2008 presidential campaign.
“This is the group that has soured on Obama the most. Therefore, Romney must appeal to white working-class voters and drive up their turnout or else he will lose in 2012,” he said. “If Romney fails to outperform McCain with white working-class voters, his only other path to victory is essentially to hope that Hispanics don’t turn out to support Obama, and frankly that is not a very good game plan.”
With four months until the election and the unemployment rate stuck at 8.2 percent, there are signs that Mr. Obama is struggling to re-create the same levels of support.
A Gallup poll release last month showed Mr. Obama’s support among all voters has dipped 5 percentage points since 2008 — and dropped slightly more among his key white constituencies, which include young adults and female college graduates.
Mr. Obama’s campaign is aware of the geographic challenges.
This week, it began running ads in Ohio and Pennsylvania highlighting the government’s bailout of General Motors Co. and Chrysler LLC. The campaign also is trying to undermine Mr. Romney’s message that his experience in the private sector has given him the skills needed to strengthen the nation’s economic recovery and get more people out of the unemployment lines.
“Mitt Romney’s companies were pioneers in outsourcing U.S. jobs to low-wage countries,” the ad says, citing news reports, which the Romney camp challenges, about Bain Capital investments in companies that moved jobs overseas. “He supports tax breaks for companies that ship jobs overseas. President Obama believes in insourcing.”
It’s a message Mr. Obama carried to Ohio on his bus tour Thursday, repeating the “pioneers” line to a cheering crowd.