Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Painting the Target On Ohio

Could Obama have misspelled his    chances for victory in Ohio?

The eyes of the nation are riveted on the State of Ohio.  Most commentators of both stripes predict next week’s Presidential election hinges on who carries the State.  All four candidates (Obama/Biden, Romney/Ryan), their spouses and their surrogates have spent so much time in Ohio that the State Auditor will probably send them a state income tax return form.  Party advocates from around the country are working the suburban neighborhoods around Cincinnati, Columbus and Cleveland with missionary zeal.  As a lifelong resident of Ohio I have mixed emotions.  While the attention is interesting and arguably flattering, I could do without the hourly phone calls, the glossy mailers stuffing our mailbox, and strangers knocking on my door.  So what is it about the State of Ohio that makes it so darned hard to decipher who will carry the day next Tuesday?   Why is the State so stubbornly torn down the middle?  As a veteran observer of politics in the Buckeye State, please allow me to add my two cents.

Ohio is almost a perfect microcosm of the country.  Fast-food and other consumable companies love to test market their products in Ohio because time and experience has shown the reactions of the targeted consumers virtually mirror those of the country as a whole.  (Not surprisingly, consumer goods giant Procter and Gamble and fast-food titan Wendy’s and White Castle are headquartered in Ohio.)  Ohio has large urban metropolitan areas and their surrounding suburbs (Cleveland, Columbus, and Cincinnati); medium-sized metropolitan areas (Dayton, Toledo, and Akron); smaller metros (Canton, Mansfield, Youngstown, Warren, Springfield, Hamilton, and Middletown); and many Norman Rockwell-like small towns and county seats that support surrounding rural areas (VanWert, Minster, St. Henry, Tiffin, Wooster, etc.).  Historically I-70, which divides the State almost in half, served as a mini Mason-Dixon Line in Ohio.  The areas north of I-70 have more of an industrial and East-Coast feel and typically vote Democrat (with the exception of rural areas in West-Central Ohio and ‘along the spine’ of the State of Indiana) while those south of I-70 have more of a Southern heritage and lean Republican (with the exception of the City of Dayton, Athens, and counties in far Southeastern Ohio).  Columbus and Franklin County were once reliably Republican, but have recently trended Democrat. 
 Did Eisenhower know he built a mini Mason-Dixon  Line when I-70 was created as part of the interstate system?
This near perfect schism makes Ohio almost perfectly reflective of national polling results (recent polls showing at most one to two point leads for either candidate) and makes it difficult enough for a candidate and/or a party to generate break-out momentum in Ohio.  Other states with large population (California, Texas, New York, Illinois) seem to be more easily predictable on Election Day.  Recent events have made it even more difficult particularly for Team Romney to get traction.  These include the GM Bailout, Senate Bill 5, the HHS-Catholic Church dispute and Federal Court decisions relating to early voting.  
GM Bailout.  General Motors (Dayton, Defiance and Warren/Lordstown) and Chrysler (Toledo Jeep factory) have a major presence in Ohio.  Many mid-sized and small Ohio companies are links on the automotive industry’s supply chain.  Obama has successfully socialized the fraudulent notion that he saved and a Romney Administration would have ‘liquidated’ the American auto industry.  We know that is not the case, and Romney has the evidence with his NYT editorial from November 2008.  That editorial hurts as much as it helps, however, primarily because the title of the NYT editors: “Let Detroit Go Bankrupt.”  Romney had no control over the headline, and anyone reading the editorial would agree it could have just as easily been titled “A Better Way to Save the American Auto Industry.”  In reality, the Obama bailout was structured more as a lifeline to the UAW than to GM or Chrysler; non-union retirees and corporate bondholders were effectively shut out in the process.  The bailout Obama and Biden tout as a huge success has been a financial disaster for U.S. taxpayers.  Senator Portman – who is at the top of Romney’s A-List surrogates – is effectively neutering the Obama Bailout propaganda at Romney’s frequent Ohio rallies.  A wild card here is that a large number of GM employees in the Dayton area were members of the IUE and not the UAW, and they did not receive the same sweetheart deal as the UAW.  Still, with a large number of auto and auto-related families in Ohio, the notion that 1) Obama saved GM and Chrysler, and 2) Romney would have chloroformed GM and Chrysler is proving to be a stain that is stubborn to remove.  
SB-5 Hangover.  Shortly after the 2010 election of John Kasich as Governor and a Republican State Senate and House, the Republicans enacted their version of collective bargaining reform.  The initiative, which came to be known as SB-5 (after the Ohio Senate Bill which gave it birth) was, in retrospect, an overreach.  Veteran Republican pols and sympathetic commentators counseled Governor Kasich and the Senate sponsors of SB-5 to start out with half a loaf rather than the whole enchilada.  But (reminiscent of Nancy Pelosi and ObamaCare) they made an ill-advised decision to go for the Golden Ring while they had the votes.  SB-5 was hammered through the Legislature with no Democrat support, and ultimately awoke the Sleeping Giants of the public employee labor unions which had been humbled by the 2010 electoral results.  The opponents of SB-5 secured 1.3 million signatures to get its repeal on last year’s ballot as a referendum.  They heavily advertised with the support of the police and firefighter unions, and achieved an impressive 62%-38%victory to overturn the legislation.  It was now Governor Kasich and the Republican legislature who were humbled. (To his credit, Kasich ate crow after the election, rolled up his sleeves and whipped Ohio's budget into shape.  Recent polling suggests he has rebounded from the SB-5 repudiation). 
Governor Romney is experiencing a hangover from last year’s SB-5 controversy.  The Republicans rolled the SB-5 grenade in the public unions’ tent, and unfortunately it blew up in their face.  A retired firefighter, who supports Romney, tells me he is a political pariah when he talks politics with his firefighter friends.  He attributes it in large part to SB-5 fallout.  This is disappointing because by nature firefighters and police officers are socially conservative (quintessential ‘Reagan Democrats’).  But the SB-5 campaign last year galvanized the public employees and their families against Republicans of all stripes. 
Last fall Obama came out in full-throated support for the repeal of SB-5.  Romney wisely played his cards close to his vest on the issue when he visited the State.  But the firefighters and police officers and their families remember who they think had their backs.  Some even think Romney, if elected, could enact something akin to SB-5 on a national level.  The ability of a President Romney (or any other President) to intervene or influence relationships between a State and its public employees is essentially nil. 
There’s a long backstory on SB-5, and the Republicans definitely overplayed their hand (an interesting state-level parallel to Obamacare).  Unfortunately, Romney may be paying the price for the political malpractice of the Ohio State Senate. 
The Catholic Vote.  Ohio has many Catholics, both in the urban centers and the rural farmlands (especially in West-Central Ohio).  Despite the best efforts of many articulate and enthusiastic spokesmen, publicity regarding the controversy with the HHS mandates seems to have diminished.  I know many Catholics who are voting for Obama.  When I discuss the impact of the mandates on religious freedom and Obama’s extreme position on abortion they don’t seem to be moved.  I’m frankly surprised how many churchgoing Catholics are unaware of the HHS mandates (it’s hard to imagine how any Catholic could be unaware of Obama’s extreme position on abortion).  The typical rejoinder of pro-Obama Catholics is an expression of support of ‘social justice’ and the possible impact of ‘Paul Ryan’s Budget.’  These are the standard liberal talking points.
The Ohio Catholic leadership can and should highlight the religious freedom and pro-life issue in the remaining week of the election, much as Archbishop Chaput has done in Philadelphia.  National Review reports that the leadership in the Cleveland Diocese spoke to these issues this past Sunday.  Romney must get the majority of the Catholic vote to win Ohio. 
Court Decisions.  Ohio has a very generous early voting period.  Applications for absentee ballots were sent to every registered voter in the State.  A few months ago John Husted, the Secretary of State, decreed there would be no early voting on the final weekend preceding the election for anyone but active military personnel so that County Boards of Election can prepare for Voting Day.  The Obama Election Campaign promptly filed a lawsuit to overturn his decision.  The Federal Court agreed and reinstated the last weekend of early voting, a decision which was affirmed by the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals.  The Supreme Court declined to consider Husted’s appeal.  The same District Court issued decisions requiring Boards of Election to accept provisional ballots when a voter votes in the wrong precinct, or even when the voter casts a ballot at the wrong polling location altogether as long as he is in the right county.  Husted is appealing the last decision, but it is doubtful the Appellate Court will reverse that decision at this late date.   (Thursday postscript: on Wednesday the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals stayed the last decision, which would have effectively enabled Ohio voters to show up at any polling location in their county and cast a provisional ballot.  This could have resulted in Election Day chaos.  To its credit, the Court ruled that voters bear some responsibility for at least locating their polling location.  Chalk at least one up for common sense.)
In 2008 the Obama Campaign jammed the polls on the last weekend of voting season, often busing voters directly from Sunday religious services.  Obama’s Ohio margin over McCain was fueled on the strength of early voting turnout.  Anecdotal and some polling evidence supports a possible enthusiasm gap for Obama from 2008 among college-age voters.  Current polling also suggests Team Romney is holding its own on early voting.  But it is difficult to overcome an early lead.      
I’m confident Romney will overcome these headwinds and win a close election in Ohio.  There is lasting enmity for ObamaCare in the State; in last year's election, even with the SB-5 referendum on the ballot, the same voters overwhelmingly repudiated ObamaCare by a 2:1 marginThe state Republican party holds virtually every constitutional office and is in firm control of both chambers of the Legislature.  Romney’s top surrogate is a seated U.S. Senator from Ohio.  John Kasich is reanimated and regaining popularity.  Ohio voters are generally sensible midwesterners who know we cannot tax and spend our way out of the current malaise. 

With the speedbumps discussed in this article, if Romney achieves the coveted Ohio electoral vote prize he will certainly have earned it. 
Romney and Obama are duking it out in Ohio with the ferocity of other traditional fall rivals.

1 comment:

  1. Good analysis. I think that SB-5 could have worked out much better if it had gotten any support whatsoever after its passage. But it was abandoned and the Republicans let the Democrats completely take over the narrative. The same effort survived in a more liberal Wisconsin, because it wasn't abandoned.The firefighters and policemen who were the poster children for the anti-SB5 crowd are but a small portion of public sector employees.