Can Hillary Clinton Win Ohio?

Can Hillary Clinton Win Ohio?

David N. Brown
Medina, Ohio
April 19, 2007

    Every four years it all comes down to Ohio. It always does.

Knowing that I have worked on Ohio campaigns since 1972, every four years my friends from around the country start calling me in the days before the presidential election to ask me how things are going here. They call because they know one simple fact about these elections: no Republican has ever been elected president without carrying Ohio.

It has been this way since the founding of the Republican Party. The state which holds the key to the White House for Republicans is this state. If the Democrats want to lock out the Republican nominee, they know they can do it by winning Ohio. It is self-evident that if Al Gore had carried Ohio in 2000 or if John Kerry had carried it in 2004, we would have avoided either all or the last half of the Bush disaster.

So as the exit polls and the early returns began coming in in 2004, so once again did my friends' calls. They knew I was running a medium-sized county for Kerry and that I knew other county coordinators from around Northeast Ohio--where most of Ohio's Democrats live. And they wanted to know if Ohio was going to go for Kerry.

The exit polls looked good, and the counties in Northeast Ohio were on their way to producing a huge number of Democratic votes, so my responses to the calls I received in the afternoon were optimistic. Not long after the polls had closed and official results began to be reported, however, everything had changed, and by 10 PM we all knew that the catastrophe known as the Bush Administration was going to continue for another four years.

Later I will revisit Gore and Kerry and what I think they showed about the Ohio presidential electorate. But for now I want to stick to two basic points--the central role this state has played in the past and will inevitably play again in 2008 in determining whether we elect a Democratic president and the kind of Democratic presidential nominee Ohioans have been receptive to over the past century .

A detailed look at the history of Ohio's presidential elections over the past century shows that--with the sole exception of FDR (and even he lost Ohio in 1944)--Ohioans have been unkind to Democratic presidential candidates from the Northeast. Apart from FDR, who was elected and reelected under the special circumstances of, first, the Great Depression and, second, the onset of World War II, only the following Democratic presidential candidates have been able to carry Ohio since 1900: Bill Clinton (twice), Jimmy Carter, Lyndon Johnson, Harry Truman, and Woodrow Wilson. What each of these candidates shared were the following two characteristics--they were Southerners (or, in the case of Truman, from a border state), and in winning Ohio they also won the presidency.

Northeastern Democrats rejected by Ohioans include John Kerry, Mike Dukakis, and John F. Kennedy. JFK's loss is particularly instructive. He was charismatic, articulate, telegenic in the campaign involving the first televised presidential debates, a war hero, married to a glamorous (and pregnant) woman, and running against a plug ugly candidate in the person of Richard Nixon. Further to his advantage, he was running when unions were still strong in Ohio, when the national security issue was still a strength for Democrats, and when divisive social issues like abortion and gay rights had not yet appeared on the national scene. As a Catholic running in a state with a "Catholic belt" which ran from Toledo to Youngstown and with Catholic voters eager to elect a Catholic president for the first time (it was later estimated that up to 80% of Catholics did indeed vote for Kennedy), he could count on Catholic votes to offset any anti-Catholic votes from Ohio's Bible belt. In short, JFK was ideally positioned to win Ohio.

And yet he lost Ohio by 273,000 votes. Various answers have been offered for his loss, including voters' displeasure with Ohio's Democratic governor, Mike DiSalle. Nevertheless, given the huge size of Kennedy's loss in Ohio and given the strong preference Ohioans have shown for Democratic presidential candidates with a Southern connection, it is tempting to ask whether JFK's Northeastern identity did not play an important role in his loss.

The answer may well be that he lost for the same reason that Kerry and Dukakis lost the state in 2004 and 1988, respectively, and that FDR lost it in 1944 (even as the Allies were sweeping across Europe): Ohioans, particularly conservatives from the southern part of the state who draw a good bit of their conservative cultural identity from the South, seem to have a predisposition against Democrats (especially those perceived as liberals) from the Northeast. At the same time, they are much more willing to vote for southern Democrats.

The southern character of this part of Ohio is discussed by Kevin Phillips in American Theocracy, in which he refers to a study by the sociologist John Shelton Reed suggesting the substantial extent to which people from southern Ohio perceive themselves to be Southerners.  In a November 3, 2004 story about the outcome of the just-concluded election, Yvonne Abraham of The Boston Globe referred to Ohio's social conservatism ("...[a] strong social conservatism runs through the state"), though she did not describe it as being confined to any particular region of Ohio. The state's cultural conservatism was again demonstrated in the November, 2006 election when, by a wide margin, Ohioans rejected the introduction of slots parlors into the state. Ohio is now completely surrounded by states that have casino gambling in one or another form, but the recent rejection of gambling by Ohioans represented their third rejection of gambling issues since 1990.

It is against this backdrop of a culturally conservative, southern-looking electorate that one must view the willingness of Ohioans to look to the South and not to the Northeast in deciding who to vote for in presidential elections.

There is perhaps no better example of the contrast between the acceptability of a Southern Democrat and the unacceptability of a Northeastern Democrat to Ohio's voters than the outcomes of the 2000 and 2004 presidential elections. In 2000, Gore wrote the state off early. The Boston Globe reported that he "pulled out of Ohio with a month to go...." 

Then-Democratic Party chairman Terry McAuliffe said that the pull-out occurred even earlier. In a 2006 article in the online magazine Salon, McAuliffe was quoted as saying that in 2000 "Al Gore had to pull out of Ohio six weeks before the election because he was broke." 

No matter whether it happened a month or six weeks before the election, Gore's abandonment of Ohio had a serious impact here. He halted his television advertising, and as will be noted shortly, even his most basic campaign operations became badly impaired. And yet Gore, a Tennessean, only lost the state by 165,000 votes.

Contrast this to what happened to John Kerry in 2004. Yvonne Abraham's article described Kerry's Ohio effort as "gargantuan" and "enormously expensive." A pre-election analysis of Ohio by the Washington Post noted that "Ohio has been ground zero of Campaign 2004 since Kerry wrapped up the Democratic nomination, swarmed over by the candidates, bombarded by television ads, and blanketed by organizers...."

The difference between the Gore effort in 2000 and the Kerry effort in 2004 was also mentioned by Brad Friedman in a post on his blog, BRAD BLOG, on November 30, 2004. He wrote of a "recent email I received from someone in Warren "Lock Down" County" and quoted the relevant passage:

"I was in Warren County during the 2000 Gore campaign. We had no money, no supplies and when Gore pulled out 6 weeks ahead of the election our headquarters closed. We did not phone bank or canvass. We did not have a GOTV [Get Out The Vote]. Gore got 28% of the vote.

In 2004 we had two headquarters set up by July. We phone banked, and canvassed, starting in July. We had yard signs, bumper stickers t-shirts, house parties, bonfires, barnstorms, ACT and We had a booth at every festival over the summer and fall. We caravaned to rallies. When we reached 1000 volunteers we opened a third HQ, and we still had to turn people away because there wasn't enough room. We had our own lawyer and had training sessions for Challenging the Republican Challengers. Our GOTV was from 4 sites and was amazing. Kerry got 28% of the vote after they locked out the press. Gore got 28% after not even trying and Kerry got 28% after the biggest democratic campaign in Warren County's history."

My experience in Medina County was very much the same: we covered every event, canvassed and phone banked relentlessly, and ran such a strong operation generally that John Kerry's brother Cameron came to our headquarters to thank us personally the day before the election. Bush had beaten Gore by 11,924 votes in 2000. Another 1,960 votes had gone to Nader. Assuming that most of these votes would have gone to Gore if Nader had not run (a fair assumption, in my view), Bush's margin was more like 10,500 votes. In 2004, Bush beat Kerry in this county by 10,714 votes. All our work had had almost no effect on the margin of defeat.

In sum, the intense focus on Ohio by Kerry had produced an equal and opposing intensity of effort by Bush, and the net result was a wash. While Kerry got many more votes here than Gore did, Bush also greatly increased his vote total between the two elections.  After all the time, money, and effort spent by and on behalf of Kerry in Ohio in 2004, he lost to Bush by 118,601 votes out of the 5.6 million votes cast. Having gone dark in Ohio six weeks before the election in 2000, Gore lost the state to Bush by 165,019 votes out of the 4.6 million votes cast.

Again, the margin had barely budged. So Kerry met the same fate met earlier by FDR in 1944, JFK and Mike Dukakis. The voters just were not willing to elect someone from the Northeast.

Thus it is fair to say that Hillary Clinton faces a regional bias in Ohio as she begins her campaign for the Democratic nomination. Ohio Democrats--particularly the activists like me--will doubt that Ohioans are prepared to vote for someone who will be branded by her opponent and the media as yet another Northeast liberal. She faces two other obstacles as well.

First, she is closely tied to NAFTA (her husband will be forever seen as its architect) in a state where the voters are angry about the effect of globalization on the state's industrially-oriented economy. And, second, she follows four years of Bush I, eight years of the first Clinton, and eight years of Bush II. Given the disastrous nature  of the second Bush presidency, voters here may well be disinclined to trust the fate of the country to a candidate whose election will continue the recent tradition of dynasty in the White House.

On Election Day in 2008, my phones will begin to ring again. This time I would like to be the bearer of good news to my friends. I would like to tell them that Ohio went for the Democrat. If Hillary Clinton is the candidate, I doubt that I will be able to convey that message.
______________ ________
  Kevin Phillips, American Theocracy (Viking, 2006), p. 160.
  Yvonne Abraham, "Turf war puts focus on battlegrounds,", Nov. 3, 2004.
  Walter Shapiro, "The greedy truth about media consultants,", May 9, 2006.
  "Washington Post Analysis",, November, 2004.
  Email as quoted by Brad Friedman in his post titled "The Stench Builds in Ohio" , BRAD BLOG, November 30, 2004

Cross-posted at

Tags: 2008 election, Hillary Clinton, John Edwards, Ohio (all tags)



Re: Can Hillary Clinton Win Ohio?

Excellent post!  If Ohio is a tough road with Hillary as our nominee, then it seems to me her only other place that she could make up that loss is with Florida.  And even that would be tough.

by minvis 2007-04-25 07:34PM | 0 recs

I enjoyed reading your diary, but can't help but notice that you're ignoring Blackwell's influence as SoS at the time. There's been a lot written about what happened in Ohio and it's clear that there was a whole lot of fraud and disenfranchisement going on - more than enough to have made the difference in Kerry's favor despite the structural factors aligned against him as a north-east liberal.

by Quinton 2007-04-25 08:47PM | 0 recs
Re: Can Hillary Clinton Win Ohio?

Interesting post upto the point where you try to connect it to HRC and which point it falls to pieces. There is no logic to your statements - assuming HRC will get portrayed as a north-eastern liberal? The Clinton Bush thing, again why? They don't relate to the earlier assessment of previous elections.

HRC's chances in Ohio are excellent now that we have a democratic SoS.

by kundalini 2007-04-26 02:40AM | 0 recs
Re: Can Hillary Clinton Win Ohio?

I noticed in 2004 that in every article on outsourcing in Ohio, Ohioans said that manufacturing had been disappearing for years. Any advantage that Kerry hoped to gain by pinning outsourcing to Bush was lost by the Democratic association with NAFTA.

by clarkent 2007-04-26 06:51AM | 0 recs
Did Bill Clinton endorse and sign NAFTA?

If you can answer THAT question and HRC is BC's wife, then the answer will be NO.  NAFTA has hurt most of the midwest harder than anyplace else in the union and she will have to SELL her position on NAFTA, meaning wiggle out of NAFTA and go staunchly against her husband and say it was a bad deal.

But will the public believe it?  I say NO.

by icebergslim 2007-04-26 07:20AM | 0 recs
So many questions ....

Will Ohio vote for an inexperienced African American?  Will they vote for a trial lawyer from the south?   Will they vote for hispanic who said he was drafted to play baseball?

Who knows.   Good grief.

I think the Democratic nominee will have the best chance in many years to carry Ohio in '08.  The Republican Party in Ohio is on life support.

by dpANDREWS 2007-04-26 07:58AM | 0 recs
New Poll Today has Clinton Leading in Ohio

Quinnipiac University aseID=1053

                        FL      OH      PA  

Clinton                 36      37      36    
Edwards              11      17      13  
Gore                    15      11      14  
Obama                 13      14      14  

by samueldem 2007-04-26 08:56AM | 0 recs
Re: New Poll Today has Clinton Leading in Ohio

That's all well and good except for this diary being about winning Ohio in the general election and you posted polling for the democratic primary.

The poll seems designed to get some buzz for the polling firm as they say "Gore is the best for democrats in swing states," while polling Edwards amongst primary voters in each state, BUT not in the head-to-head matchups against republicans.

Only reason I can see they'd do that is so they can ignore his numbers (was best in Ohio general election match up in another recent poll) and shake things up by saying Gore would be best.

by Quinton 2007-04-26 11:56AM | 0 recs
Re: Can Hillary Clinton Win Ohio?
   Okay, let's see. Gore, a Southerner, lost because he ran out of money, and Kerry, a Northeasterner, lost because Bush spend dollar for dollar what he did and FDR, another Northeasterner, lost because he was running for a third term and Dukakis lost because he wore that funny helmet, I guess?  
   With all due respect, I fail to see a common element in all of these circumstances much less any that would be a predictor of anything!  Is Hillary a Northeasterner or a Midwesterner (Chicago born Goldwater girl), who cut her political teeth in the South, was married to a Southern President, and is only most recently the Senator from New York who voted to give Bush the authority to go to war but is his greatest critic for how he used that authority?  Does any of the other candidates come anywhere close to sharing a similar resume? And, if not, how do we keep from comparing apples and oranges?
  Is NAFTA something you can hang on her because of what Bill championed over a decade ago and ignore her work to get universal health care when it was not "cool" to be for it and everyone is on the reform of healthcare bandwagon?  
   I know the parlor game, for all of us armchair experts, is to handicap the candidates but I think Hillary is going to be hard to stick in ANY mold for the simple reason that all those other candidates were, if you notice, MEN.  And I think that ignoring the gender element might make things a lot clearer to those of us who desire clarity 19 months in advance of Election Day but I doubt that it will be the non-factor we might like it to be.
by Steve Love 2007-04-26 10:01AM | 0 recs
Simple Answer: Yes

by dpANDREWS 2007-04-26 11:30AM | 0 recs


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