With Ohio’s 20 electoral votes — more than Nevada, Utah and Colorado combined — presidential candidates work hard to win over the state’s modest, workman-like and pragmatic voters.
Last year both presidential campaigns spent so much time here their team could probably order at Skyline Chili without even glancing at the menu. In an effort to claim the state’s coveted votes, John McCain held Sarah Palin’s coming out party in Dayton and Barack Obama chose Canton to make his final campaign speech before Election Day.
Ohio was the most closely contested of the nine states that swung blue in November. In a state that until 2006 hadn’t voted a Democrat to the governor’s seat since 1983, Obama’s victory by a margin of 4.5 percent statewide illustrates a changing political landscape.
Voting behavior tends to be passed down through generations, but Ohio State University political science professor Paul Beck says Obama’s unprecedented success among young voters might have turned Ohioans destined to conservatism in another direction.
“It could nudge the state in a more Democratic direction for the next 20 to 30 years,” he says.
Traditionally Ohioans are socially conservative but economically liberal, which might explain the change in regime.
Ohio’s shift away from the GOP started in the hotly contested 2004 presidential elections. President Bush eked out a victory over John Kerry by just 118,000 votes — about 10 votes per precinct.
Then, in the 2006 mid-term elections, Ted Strickland was elected governor and Sherrod Brown was elected senator. Democrats had failed to win either of the state’s two senate seats for a decade.
Those two victories re-energized Ohio Democrats.
Fast-forward to 2008 when, in addition to supporting Obama, Democrats won three of the four key congressional races they focused on across the state. One of those was Steve Driehaus’ ousting of Republican Steve Chabot, who had represented the 1st District, most of it in Hamilton County, for 14 years.
Driehaus won in a county that had backed a Democratic president only four times in 100 years. Yet Obama won Hamilton County with 52 percent.
Driehaus says Ohio’s shift is partially due to the outward expansion of Ohioans from cities into rural and suburban areas, altering the state’s demographics. Those moving away from urban areas are mostly Republican while the big cities, including Cincinnati and Columbus, are becoming increasingly Democratic.
The GOP’s playbook
The Republican regime in Ohio remained strong because of it’s organization within the state. Ohio Republican Party officials weren’t available for comment, but local Democrats are well aware of the GOP’s strength here.
“The Republicans had an effective strategy,” Driehaus says. “They went on talk radio, they went after smaller offices like county commissioner and school boards. They beat us on the ground.”
Meanwhile, Democrats were putting forward inexperienced, nameless candidates without proper funding.
“For a while the Democrats were very hard-pressed to come up with a viable candidate,” says Beck. “They ended up bestowing nominations on people who would lose in a landslide.”
Republicans faced a darkening political atmosphere due to corruption scandals. In 2005 then-Gov. Bob Taft was charged with four misdemeanors stemming from undisclosed gifts and campaign funding. U.S. Rep. Bob Ney resigned his 18th District congressional seat after pleading guilty to corruption charges in the scandal surrounding convicted lobbyist Jack Abramoff.
Considering the Republican scandals on a state level — along with the Iraq War, recession and Bush’s poor ratings — Ohio Democrats were slow on the uptake. Driehaus says they needed a wake-up call, which is what Obama provided.
“It was the message that was missing,” he says. “Since Bill Clinton, Ohioans were not getting a clear message from the Democrats of what they stood for.”
Red to blue
Democratic races across Ohio were given a boost by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee’s (DCCC) “Red to Blue” program. The committee highlighted the nation’s top congressional races and provided financial and direct campaigning support.
According to Driehaus, the DCCC operates as an independent expenditure. The DCCC’s and candidates’ campaigns don’t communicate for legal reasons.
The DCCC does its own television ads, mail-outs and ground operations without the candidates knowing what message is being sent out.
“They did things on the ground that I had no part in,” Driehaus says. “On the one hand you’re very thankful for their support, but on the other hand you’re thinking, ‘I hope they get this right.’ ”
Last year the DCCC was involved in four campaigns in Ohio. In addition to helping Driehaus win, it helped Mary Jo Kilroy take the Columbus-centered 15th District from eight-term U.S. Rep. Deborah Pryce, and John Boccieri pick up Ohio’s 16th District in the northeast.
Despite the DCCC’s efforts, Republican Jean Schmidt defeated Victoria Wulsin, holding onto her House seat in Ohio’s 2nd District, which stretches from Hamilton County east along the Ohio River.
Spending figures for the 2008 DCCC efforts aren’t yet available, but reports from 2006 show that it raised an average of $404,000 for each campaign it was involved in that year.
Some Republicans attributed the Democrats’ gains in 2008 to the Obama-led turnout and DCCC efforts, but Driehaus says that’s a “gross simplification” of what happened last November.
“They are going to receive a wake-up call in 2010,” he says. “No one wants to go back to business as usual.”
Ohio Democratic Party Chairman Chris Redfern says another key to the Democrats’ recent success was better organization.
“Democrats as a voting bloc are largely disorganized,” he says. “It’s much more difficult to get them to the polls because they’re working hourly and their kids are in daycare.”
The party seems to have finally gotten its act together, organizing buses to take voters to the polls and making information on early voting readily available.
But the biggest asset for the party is its newly accumulated in-depth voter profile, Redfern says. The database, created in 2005, prepares door-to-door and telephone campaigners for exactly what type of voter they’ll be encountering.
The profile offers information on the type of car in the driveway, a voter’s reaction to questions about issues they’re interested in and who they plan to vote for.
A change in statewide voter participation in primary races also indicates the party’s strength. Last year 165,000 Ohioans voted in the Democratic primary, more than three times the number from 2000.
Republicans, however, saw a 72 percent drop to 83,400 voters during the 2008 primaries.
Don’t kill the messenger
Redfern says that the recent wins aren’t necessarily a success for the left. “Ohioans are very much conservative when it comes to social issues,” he says.
A recent Ohio Poll revealed that 63 percent of Ohioans favor making casino-style gambling legal in the state to help local businesses, but 57 percent are against legalizing same-sex marriage.
“The pendulum is swinging the Democrats’ way, but I wouldn’t say the result is that Ohio is a center-left state,” Redfern says. “It’s securely center.”
For 12 years the Republicans held strong in Ohio while Democrats waned, allowing their opponents to capitalize on their weaknesses. The next few years will determine whether the recent changes will be long-lasting.
Beck says that Ohioans haven’t shifted in terms of their ideology, but what has changed are the conditions around elections.
“These are short-run factors,” he says. “It depends on the performance of the Obama administration. If the economy stays in the doldrums, then the Democrats aren’t going to do well.”
Some believe the Obama-led turnout last November is what tipped Ohio’s congressional races to the Democrats. But Driehaus says that although voter participation will decline in 2010, as it always does during mid-term elections, the ratio of voters won’t change.
Laying the groundwork for 2010, the DCCC has singled out 40 “frontline candidates” in marginal districts who are first- or second-term representatives. Driehaus, Boccieri and Kilroy are on that list.
Republicans are gearing up for the mid-term elections, too. The National Republican Senatorial and Congressional committees are taking an aggressive line against incumbent Democrats earlier than they did in 2006 and 2008.
“Republicans are trying to catch up,” Redfern says. “They don’t have a national spokesperson. If Rush Limbaugh and Dick Cheney are the spokespersons for the party today, that means the Democratic Party will continue to succeed.”