SHADOWS ON HIGH: Tuesday’s Vote Tells The Nation A Lot About Ohio ‘08 | November 8, 2007


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Congratulations go out to Ohio Democrats and Progressives where big-city Mayors changed hands in Lorain and Canton (long held by the GOP) and Columbus Mayor Michael Coleman and his well-run coordinated campaign cruised to a third term in a landslide.

There were few misfires down at blue headquarters on State Street, but there are trends that give a glimpse into November 2008.  Lest progressives start high-fiving, Ohio is not going to be a cakewalk in a Presidential race. Just a sobering reminder: the Quinnipiac Poll has the two Presidential front-runners in an Ohio dead heat with Rudy up two points over Hillary in their latest Ohio head-to-head poll.

A few observations:

Democrats Have Research: Clearly technology advances and the ability to overlay campaign and issue IDs from 2004-on have finally enabled them to catch up with, if not surpass, the vaunted Ohio GOP field program. Under Bob Bennett the GOP started combining and accumulating data and using advanced marketing tools in 1993 and have never stopped. But technology advances have made the task more readily available and less proprietary.

Democrats have invested in infrastructure since 2003, and both parties now operate like smooth Madison Avenue marketers – and less like retail.

You can see the results by looking at results for round robin races like the Columbus School Board, Cincinnati City Council and Elyria Council at Large and Mayor’s race – where candidates show similar numbers which clearly indicate a solid voterfile base.

Democrats Have Field When They Want It: Clearly ODP has the tools in a “big-game” strategy to knock on doors. That shows in the Canton Mayors race, Mansfield’s open seat Mayor’s race and the Columbus coordinated campaign.

But there are also reminders that in a statewide effort, Field has a way to go. Voter files and infrastructure can make races tight, but the loss of the Newark Mayor’s race after 16-years indicates that an effective field program is taxed statewide if it is not substantially fed locally and as a result you can lose in a squeaker. The Democratic army is still urban heavy, requiring reliance on outside help.Given the emphasis on the Zack Space seat for Dems, the Bain race is a wake-up call to work on a strong ‘08 ground game for this key swing area. The good news: next door in Lancaster, Democrats grabbed the Council Presidency — quite a coup.

“It’s the economy, stupid” – Redux 1992: Ohioans are still reeling statewide economically, although they are feeling more hopeful. In general:

o   Renewal Levies: Ohioans understood the difference between new money and renewal money in school measures, in most cases, voting back in existing taxes.

o   School Construction: Voters struggled over construction issues. In Northeast Ohio, even tony areas and middle class areas like Aurora, Nordonia and Madison failed. Income taxes in Oberlin, Ledgemont and Tallmadge failed.

County issues do well if they are non-controversial and essential:  Libraries in Geauga, Lucas and Medina counties, Cleveland-Cuyahoga’s Port Authority, Summit’s social service agencies, Lucas County’s regional transit, and Franklin County’s Aging and Social Service agencies passed levies with healthy support.

But, Ohioans decidedly rejected controversial items like the Hamilton County jail tax or items they felt were luxuries in tough times like the Toledo COSI operating levy.

In Hamilton County, politicos were at public loggerheads over the jail issue. In Lucas County the pocketbook malaise we saw with school construction seemed to be at play. Ohioans want a different tone than divisive Washington, at least this year. In 2007, where there was discord or non-essential spending, they showed it with negative votes at the polls.

A Dangerous Time for Ohio Incumbents: Whether it was Bruce Bain’s narrow loss in Newark, or as Cleveland.com reported potentially 12 northeast Ohio Mayors losing re-election (including Lakewood Mayor Tom George as of Wednesday morning), local politics generated a good deal of surprises. In the Toledo suburb of Waterville voters even elected a 21-year old college student as Mayor.

o   Name Games Are Alive and Well: Tyack Pulled a Corrigan: Cleveland politics is notorious for creating Corrigans, Russos and every Irish surname imaginable for Court races.

 Downstate in Columbus, Judge Patsy Thomas, a former Columbus Councilwomen, fell prey to the same game when a GOPer named Tyack won her seat. In Franklin County Judge Gary Tyack and Municipal Clerk Lori Tyack, both prominent Democrats, saw their name erase one of their own. On the flip-side, a GOP O’Grady fell three points short of gaining the final Council seat in a round-robin election.

The lesson is that name games do work. After all, the Democrats used it when John O’Grady took the Clerk of Court’s seat years ago – the same name as a former GOP Judge. It’s unfortunate, but expect to see more of Cleveland’s legendary name-games from both parties now that infrastructure and fundraising has made politics in Ohio competitive at all levels in many places.

School Issues Were a Mixed Bag: The biggest coup in Richland County wasn’t just the well-placed finishes of Mansfield’s new Mayor Don Culver but the surprise passage of the Mansfield School Levy.  In Cincinnati, voters handily defeated a $326.5 million property tax levy. Yet in suburban areas Marymount and North College Hill, measures passed.

It appears that the shaky economy affected voters in different ways. It also appears that where messaging involved potential cuts coupled with a community rallying in unison, issues like Mansfield’s passed.

That said, the final and most important message in Ohio ‘07, should be for the state GOP after another Right-Wing candidate Bill Todd did his best impersonation of Ken Blackwell and managed to lose by even more in the end.  In both 2006 and 2007, the GOP managed to hold their 1/3 of a base vote – and little else.

Just as when the GOP first took over in 1990 and the then vaunted ODP built by Toledo’s Jim Ruvolo began to crumble – the vacuum of moderate leadership seems to have disappeared over at GOP state headquarters.

If Giuliani is nominated, there would appear to be a real rift between those right-wing factions who have lost two straight major elections overwhelmingly and managed only to pass divisive gay-marriage legislation in 2004. If Giuliani isn’t nominated, there is a risk of alienation for a third straight election in the key swing vote central part of Ohio.

For Democrats, the challenge will be to continue to unite – progressive and moderate – behind a very smooth Ted Strickland who has managed to embrace rather than divide. In the process he has held a sometimes nervous progressive base and reached into the now identified Bush-Strickland or Bush-Brown voters (there are subtle differences but both achieve the necessary 50% + 1).

The wild card for Ohio Democrats in ’08:

ESSENTIALS OVER LUXURY: Ohioans seem hopeful about the economy but their votes portend skepticism and a need for essential services, not luxuries.

PEOPLE OVER POWERPOINTS: ODP has the infrastructure built from 2003-on to compete. The question isn’t about planning or voter files – it now comes down to execution. Ohio is a big place. Strange faces in familiar places are less effective then neighbor-to-neighbor communications – it will come down to bodies and person-to-person communication at doors, phones and computer interfaces – all of which the more local, the more effective.

ECONOMY, JOBS, ECONOMY: The economic issues linger in Ohio – whether anger at NAFTA which sent Sherrod Brown to the U.S. Senate, or the need for a TurnAround Ohio as captured by Ted Strickland. Likely nominee Hillary Clinton has to build into Ohio economic hopes and soothe Ohio fears. A likely Rudy Giuliani will have to address moderate economic fears and split himself from a White House which polls show have left 2/3rds of Ohioans alienated with little faith or economic hope.

APPALACHIA: Southeast Ohio and south-central Ohio will once again determine our nation’s and the free-world’s future.  How will two New Yorker’s fit in to Appalachia – and will Ted Strickland and Bill Clinton’s popularity in the area have coat-tails.

SMILE & CHANGE: Ohioans seem weary after eight years of being battleground central. If the election were today, Hillary Clinton could win in Ohio, despite her polarized persona.  She can do so by uniting progressives and moderates effectively because of George W. Bush’s dismal Ohio ratings – Bush is the figure that made having a (D) on the ballot so successful on Tuesday.

For Rudy Giuliani or whoever emerges for the GOP – they have to somehow unite a very divisive Ohio conservative and right-wing base that has botched two straight elections – and somehow at the same time distance themselves from President Bush.

Right now, in Ohio, that means taking a polarized 1/3 GOP base that still loves “W” and holding them steady while at the same time after the GOP primary attempting to run as fast as possible from “W”, the Iraq conflict, and the right-wingers who have taken over — their only course to carve a path into the 1/3 of Ohioans who are moderates.

That makes 2000, and 2004 very different from 2008 in that the GOP is hemmed in with only two paths to win in Ohio:

  • Unite and hold a skeptical right-wing base while somehow pulling in Ohio moderates (as they did with national security and gay marriage in 2004),
  • Or vilify an already polarized Hillary Clinton to Bush-Strickland voters (who likely already have an opinion) and hope Ohioans hold their nose and vote not FOR the GOP candidate, but AGAINST Hillary – or don’t vote at all (willingly or through suppression.)

Given the tea leaves in Ohio on Tuesday, Democrats holding a progressive base with a popular Ted Strickland and an unpopular George W. Bush would seem easier than Republicans morphing the Ken Blackwell wing of the party into Rudy Giuliani’s moderate appeal on New York big-city social issues.

As for vilification – Ohioans already know Hillary Clinton and are polarized, and given the negative tactics against Ted Strickland in ’06 and Michael Coleman in ’07 their vilification strategy left the GOP with a base-only right-wing vote that showed up at 33% and 30% respectively.

After two previous rounds in the epicenter of our globe’s four-year re-discovery of Ohio, Ohioans seem well-tuned out to bedroom innuendo and swift-boating – and well tuned in to their wallets – at least they were on Tuesday.

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