COLUMBUS, Ohio — For 10 months, the Buckeye State had been the center of the presidential election universe, a magnet for stump speeches, millions in advertising dollars, and disputes over balloting.
So it was fitting that it was Ohio that pushed President Obama over the top last night, when networks called the state for the Democrat shortly after 11 p.m., giving him enough electoral votes to clinch a second term.
The president ground out a hard-fought victory here on the strength of an extensive operation — he had 131 field offices, compared with just 40 for Romney — and capitalized on the popularity of the auto bailout in a state where many manufacturing jobs are linked to Detroit.
“The president had a couple of advantages,” said John C. Green, the director of the Bliss Institute of Applied Politics at the University of Akron. “The economy has been recovering here. The unemployment rate is lower than the national average.”
And the auto bailout — which Mitt Romney opposed — may have played a key role in pushing up his vote in northern Ohio, said Bob Taft, the former Republican governor of the state.
“It really looks like Obama did well in the northern part of the state, where there are a lot of auto jobs,” said Taft, now a researcher at the University of Dayton.
Ohio’s 18 electoral votes had been considered pivotal, especially for Romney. No Republican has ever won the White House without winning Ohio. The Romney campaign, and its allied super PACs, blanketed the state with advertising, hoping to reverse Obama’s five-point victory in 2008.
Romney extended his campaign schedule to make a final visit to Ohio on Tuesday, flying to Cleveland after casting his ballot in Belmont, Mass. He stopped by to see volunteers in Cuyahoga County and then flew to Pennsylvania.
Exit polls in Ohio suggested Obama had been buoyed by support from young voters, minorities, and women. Romney fared better among high-income voters, born-again Christians, and whites, though he did not seem to do as well among whites in Ohio as he did elsewhere.
For both campaigns, the last day was largely devoted to one of the timeless tasks of politics — badgering supporters to show up at the polls. At one Republican headquarters southwest of downtown Cleveland, dozens of volunteers gathered Tuesday morning to “flush” supporters who had not voted yet. Sipping orange juice and munching on doughnuts, they waited for the first update of the voting list that they would use to identify their targets.
An hour later, as if to underscore Ohio’s central role in the campaign, an unusual traffic jam developed at Cleveland’s airport, as jets carrying three of the four major-party candidates — Romney, his running mate Paul Ryan, and Vice President Joe Biden — all arrived within a 45-minute time frame.
For a brief period, all three men sat in their separate planes, separated only by a few hundred feet as motorcades of sport utility vehicles formed outside.
From the airport, Romney and Ryan went to thank supporters, stopping afterward at Wendy’s, while Biden — whose visit had not been announced in advance, but ensured that Romney’s visit wouldn’t monopolize the local news — paid a visit to a Greek diner.
The national spotlight on Ohio has at times been harsh. When Republican state lawmakers reduced early voting days last year, it was widely criticized as a partisan move to lower turnout among African-American voters, who use early voting disproportionately and are Obama’s strongest constituency.
Most of the state’s early voting period was restored after the outcry, although most voters still had fewer days.
For many Ohio voters, the end of the campaign came as a relief.
“I’m so glad it’s over with,” said Lisa Parsons, 45, as she left a polling station in Grove City. Parsons had voted for Republican John McCain over Obama in 2008, but switched her vote to the Democrat.
Parsons said she didn’t trust Romney because of “the way he wouldn’t apologize for his business career.” She added: “Obama has made the country a little better off.”
Suburban voters helped provide Obama his margin of victory in 2008, but voters in Grove City were divided on the president’s performance.
Ron Shear, 69, a retired Teamster and janitor, said he voted for Obama. “He’s done a great job,” Shear said. “He’s for the middle class. If Romney gets in, he’s going to kill us.”
But Susan Stewart, 45, a nurse who voted for Obama in 2008, said she decided at the last moment to cast her vote for Romney, ignoring the advice of her 7-year-old son, who came with her to the polls.
“I voted biblical values,” she said.
Still, despite voting for Romney, Stewart was sympathetic to Obama, saying he had inherited a mess.
“I think Obama was a fall guy. Anything that went wrong was going to be his fault.”