Can Hillary Clinton Win Ohio?
by mrgavel, Wed Apr 25, 2007 at 05:33:03 PM EDT
Can Hillary Clinton Win Ohio?
David N. Brown
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 Moveon.org. 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," Boston.com, Nov. 3, 2004.
Walter Shapiro, "The greedy truth about media consultants," Salon.com, May 9, 2006.
"Washington Post Analysis", Washingtonpost.com, 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 http://www.mcdac.blogspot.com