Ohio: Portrait of a Swing State, 1944

Frank Lausche, Democratic mayor of Cleveland, Ohio, 1944.
Hansel Mieth and Otto Hagel—Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images
Frank Lausche (left), Democratic mayor of Cleveland, Ohio, campaigning for governor in 1944.

As President Barack Obama and former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney wind up their 2012 campaigns for the White House, it all comes down to Ohio. For the past year, the nation’s pundits and pollsters have been declaring to anyone who would listen that voters in the Buckeye State will likely determine — or at least play an integral, outsized role in determining — the next president of the United States, and considering how close the race appears to be, there’s no reason to doubt that prognostication.

And yet, while it might be vaguely thrilling to political junkies, Ohio’s reputation as a critical win for any presidential candidate is hardly new. In fact, America’s 17th state has been considered a harbinger of things to come for so long that the phrase, “As Ohio goes, so goes the nation,” has been a commonplace in politics for decades.

In its June 12, 1944, issue, for example, in the midst of the campaign between President Franklin Roosevelt and New York’s Republican governor Thomas Dewey, LIFE magazine devoted several pages to a feature titled, simply, “Political Ohio,” paying tribute to the state’s place at the very heart of each and every national election.

Here, on Election Day 2012, with the votes still uncounted, LIFE.com looks back at the mood of the nation in the midst of that long-ago race, as seen through the singularly complex lens of Ohio politics.

Politics has long traditions and high stakes in Ohio, LIFE wrote. Like Virginia, Ohio has great families and leaders who have made national politics a notable career. Like Virginia, Ohio has mothered many presidents — seven Republicans from Grant to Harding. This year Ohio’s politics are once more the nation’s politics.

Ohio joins the agricultural Middle West with the industrial East, and is part of both… A few weeks ago most political dopesters would have said that Ohio was sure to go Republican, but recent events have made them less certain. It is in Ohio that Democrats have uncovered their newest, most promising vote getter [Cleveland mayor Frank Lausche.].

Lausche is the hottest political news in Ohio this year. In Cleveland, where he has twice been elected mayor by landlside votes, he is popualr with workers and employers. He has a shy, earnest manner and a rugged look that apealso city and rural folks alike. Now he is running for the governorship against Cincinnati’s Mayor James Garfield Steward and many Republicans are supporting him.

[NOTE: Lausche won the race that year, serving as the state's 55th, and again as its 57th, governor.]

Ohio has voted three times for Franklin Roosevelt, but it has a Republican governor, two Republican senators, and 20 (out of 23) Republican representatives.

As it turned out, the Dewey actually won Ohio in 1944 — albeit by a measly 12,000 votes. Roosevelt, however, won 53 percent of the popular vote and, despite losing the Buckeye State, tallied a resounding 432 electoral votes to Dewey’s 99 — proof, if anyone needed it, that in the mercurial world of American politics, even a bellwether as reliable as Ohio can sometimes be utterly, unaccountably wrong.

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