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York: In Ohio, the GOP puzzles over missing white voters

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The latest post-election question is whether Republicans were blind to the defeat headed their way because they chose to live in a cocoon in which they paid attention only to Fox News, conservative talk radio and right-wing websites. Listening to outlets that told them what they wanted to hear, the thinking goes, left them with no idea what was in store for them on Nov. 6.

Out in the field, the Republicans actually involved in the election are talking about different things. For example, in Ohio -- the most hotly contested state in the entire race -- Republicans are asking why a large group of voters, carefully cultivated through personal contacts and putative supporters of Mitt Romney, just didn't show up at the polls.

In 2008, John McCain got 2,677,820 votes in Ohio. In 2012, according to a still-unofficial tally from the Ohio Secretary of State, Mitt Romney got 2,583,582. If before the election you had said to any politically involved Ohio Republican that Romney would receive fewer votes than McCain, you would have gotten a blank stare in return. "I would not have believed that," says Alex Triantafilou, head of the Republican Party in Hamilton County, a critical swing area that includes Cincinnati. "I would have argued strongly that that was not going to be the case."

Before the voting, Romney officials said constantly the race in Ohio would be close. It was. President Obama won Ohio by 107,259 votes out of about 5.3 million votes cast, according to the Secretary of State's office -- 50.18 percent to Romney's 48.18 percent.

Republicans faced two big problems. The first is that a lot of black voters turned out. The second is that a lot of white voters didn't.

In 2008, when Obama first won Ohio, blacks were about 11 percent of the electorate. (They are about 12 percent of Ohio's population.) This time, blacks were 15 percent of the electorate. There has been no population explosion of African-Americans in those four years. Obama simply succeeded in getting more black voters to the polls than he did four years ago. Given the high level of black enthusiasm for Obama in 2008 -- big turnout, 97 percent for Obama -- that probably seemed impossible to most Republican strategists. It wasn't. That four-percentage-point increase in black turnout produced about 200,000 votes, more than Obama's winning margin in the state.

Four years ago, white voters were 83 percent of the Ohio electorate. This year they were 79 percent. There has been no implosion of the white population in Ohio in those years. There was simply lower turnout among white voters -- somewhere in the 200,000 range, which is, again, more than Obama's winning margin. (Latino voters weren't a major factor in Ohio; they were 4 percent of the electorate in 2008 and 3 percent this time.)

There are several theories about those missing white voters, but the most plausible is that the ones who were undecideds or weak Republicans were deeply influenced by Obama's relentless attacks on Romney in May, June, July and August. A steady stream of negative ads portrayed Romney as a heartless, out-of-touch rich guy, and Romney didn't really fight back. The missing white voters didn't like Obama but were also turned off by the Republican, so they stayed home. That's the theory, at least; Republicans will know more when they actually interview lots of those nonvoters.

"Obama won Ohio because he did what Bush did in 2004 -- surprised pundits by increasing turnout in his base," says Mark Weaver, a veteran Ohio Republican strategist. "Also, by demonizing the undefined Romney, he tamped down Romney's ability to motivate weak Republicans to turn out."

What does all this have to do with a conservative cocoon? Not much. The missing voters certainly weren't in the cocoon, and there's no evidence the Romney campaign ignored those voters because conservative media told them the election was already in the bag. Just the opposite; Romney chased them hard.

In the end, while Obama, with all the advantage of incumbency, soared with his base, Romney couldn't fully connect with voters who might lean Republican. "My general impression is that the base, the activists -- the people you need -- never emotionally invested in Romney the way they emotionally invested in George W. Bush," says a senior GOP operative involved in the campaign. Maybe not even as much as they invested in McCain.

Developing a clear idea of why Romney lost is important because it will help Republicans fix the things that need to be fixed -- and not blow up the party if there are less radical solutions.

Byron York, The Examiner's chief political correspondent, can be contacted at byork@washingtonexaminer.com. His column appears on Tuesday and Friday, and his stories and blog posts appear on washingtonexaminer.com.

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Byron York

Chief Political Correspondent
The Washington Examiner