After the election, a time to ask ‘What if?’

COLUMBUS, Ohio— In a matter of hours, Ohio voters likely will have seen the last of President Barack Obama and Mitt Romney asking for their support. The two nominees aren’t scheduled to return after they conclude their Columbus events Monday and head for their final rallies of the campaign – Obama in Des Moines, Romney in Manchester, N.H.

Once they leave and the votes are counted, the question will be, what might have been?

The Ohio Poll from the University of Cincinnati, released Monday morning, gives Obama 50 percent, Romney 48.5 percent. A Columbus Dispatch poll published Sunday showed Obama with a 2-point margin. Based on that, the state could go for either candidate, but Obama appears to be in a slightly stronger position in this key battleground.

Politics, like so much in life, can be haunted by questions of “What if?” That will be especially true for Romney if, after all the time and money and effort he has put into this state, he loses it and the presidency to Obama.

There are three big questions for Romney’s campaign to think about: What if he had not opposed the auto bailout? What if he had not run that controversial Jeep ad in the final two weeks? What if he had picked Ohio Sen. Rob Portman as his vice-presidential running mate? Would Ohio look different one day before Election Day if any or all of those had gone the other way?

If Obama wins Ohio, his decision to bail out the auto industry may be judged to have saved his presidency. If Romney loses Ohio, his decision to write an op-ed for the New York Times, which carried the headline (that Romney did not write) “Let Detroit Go Bankrupt,” may well be remembered as 872 words that cost him more than anyone could have predicted at the time.

The auto bailout was a risky and unpopular decision. Obama committed tens of billions of taxpayer dollars to the industry. He ultimately forced bankruptcy on the companies. In a heavy-handed move, he ordered General Motors to replace its chief executive.

The bailout became a symbol to conservatives of all they believe is wrong with Obama’s economic philosophy: a preference for big government solutions, grandiose expenditures of government money, and the intrusion of Washington into free markets. As with the president’s economic stimulus package and health-care plan, the bailout became a line of demarcation in the politics of the country.

In Ohio, however, the bailout has been judged a success. Politicians in the two parties may argue over exactly why the unemployment rate in Ohio is almost a full point below the national average. They may quibble over how much the bailout has contributed to Ohio’s improving economic picture. But in a state where roughly one in eight jobs is tied to the industry and where there are auto-related companies in 80 of the 88 counties, the bailout has given the president something tangible to point to as a success at a time when many voters question whether his policies are helping to revive the overall economy.

Romney wrote his bailout piece before Obama was sworn in. Who would have guessed it would dog him throughout his long quest for the presidency. His aides have complained that the headline does an injustice to the arguments Romney made. Romney has said repeatedly that the Obama administration ultimately did what he proposed then, which was to put the beleaguered companies through bankruptcy.

Romney opened the op-ed with this statement: “If General Motors, Ford and Chrysler get the bailout that their chief executives asked for yesterday, you can kiss the American automotive industry goodbye. It won’t go overnight, but its demise will be virtually guaranteed.”

Romney was not calling for abandonment of the auto industry. What he argued was that a government bailout would postpone indefinitely the painful but necessary restructuring the industry had to go through to survive. What Obama has argued is that without the government money, the companies would not have survived long enough to make those changes. Throughout the campaign, Romney has not been able to win the argument.

That may have led to the Romney campaign’s decision to launch a late ad suggesting that Chrysler’s new owners planned to shift production of Jeeps from Ohio to China. The wording of the ad was literally accurate: “Obama took GM and Chrysler into bankruptcy and sold Chrysler to Italians, who are going to build Jeeps in China,” it said, but the impression it was designed to create was false.

Romney has paid a price for the ad. The chief executive of Chrysler said any suggestion that the company was moving jobs out of the United States to China was wholly false. Ohio newspapers have pounded Romney over the ad. Fact-checkers have uniformly called it inaccurate. A General Motors spokesman told the Detroit Free Press that a radio ad by Romney on the auto industry showed that “we’ve entered some parallel universe” during the last days of the campaign.

The motivation for the ad seems obvious. In many polls taken in Ohio over the past two months, Obama has been doing better among white working-class voters, particularly white working-class women, than he is in some other states. The presumed reason is the bailout, combined with the attacks by the Obama campaign on Romney as a corporate raider.

Romney needed to muddy the waters on the bailout, to raise some doubts with voters here about which candidate will do more to protect and create American jobs. His campaign advisers have not backed away from the ad. By Tuesday night or early Wednesday morning, everyone will know whether the gamble paid off.

The final “what if” is Romney’s choice of Rep. Paul Ryan(Wis.) as his running mate. The choice gave Romney an important boost of enthusiasm, particularly with conservatives. It may have made Wisconsin even more competitive than it would have been. But would the selection of Portman have given Romney enough of an extra boost in Ohio to make the difference?

Joe Hallet of the Columbus Dispatch wrote this Sunday: “U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, the GOP veep nominee, has been a surprisingly good campaigner, but he can’t pull along Ohio in a close race. Portman, a Cincinnatian, could have, particularly by maximizing the vote in Republican-rich southwestern Ohio.”

Will anyone ever know the answers to these questions? Perhaps not. But on the eve of Election Day, they loom large in what may happen here.

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