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In so many national elections — and certainly in presidential contests — it often seems that it all comes down to Ohio. Pundits and pollsters are forever declaring to anyone who will 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, the direction of the country for the next several years, yadda yadda.
But it might surprise the casual political observer to learn that Ohio’s reputation as a critical win for any presidential hopoeful 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, as the amorphous field of candidates for the White House in 2016 begins to shape up, LIFE.com looks back at the mood of the nation seven long decades ago, as seen through the singularly complex lens of Ohio politics:
As it turned out, 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.