State of Disunion

Election '04

Ohio is a state of electoral contradictions. It is socially conservative enough to have one of the most muscular same-sex marriage amendments in the nation on its November ballot and its state government is completely in the Republican Party's control. At the same time, Ohio voters have opted for Bill Clinton twice, and there are hundreds of thousands of newly registered Democrats on the rolls.

Ohio likes to call itself "The Mother of Modern Presidents" because eight presidents came from Ohio, and because Virginia already had dibs on "Birthplace of Presidents." While John Kerry's defeat of Cleveland congressman Dennis Kucinich during the Democratic primaries guarantees that the next president won't be an Ohioan, that president is still going to have to at least come through – if not from – Ohio. This year Ohio can consider itself the "Midwife of Presidents."

Ohio's 20 electoral votes give it more than all but six other states, and of those six, only two of them are up for grabs – Pennsylvania and Florida. And while George W. Bush won Ohio in 2000, he did so only by a margin of 3.5%, or 165,000 votes, and only after Al Gore's campaign pulled out and abandoned the state 45 days before the election, mistakenly thinking Bush already had it locked down.

That's the practical rationale for the fevered campaigning in the state this year, though there's also the oft-cited trivia that no Republican has ever won the White House without first winning Ohio, and Ohio has successfully voted for the winner of every presidential election since 1960. As goes Ohio, so goes the country – or is that the other way around?

Neither Republican Red nor Democratic Blue, Ohio is technically "purple" in punditese, although it's recent history can make it look like more of a fuchsia. Democrats haven't won a statewide election in Ohio in 13 years, when the last Democratic governor left office. Since then, Republicans have (comfortably) controlled not only the governor's office but both houses of the state legislature, both U.S. Senate seats, two-thirds of the representatives to the U.S. House and every single non-judicial elective statewide office.

Of course, presidential politics is an entirely different matter than state politics, as Bill Clinton illustrated by winning the state twice during this Republican reign, so history can only go so far toward predicting how Ohio will vote. Especially considering the unpredictable issues involved this year – terrorism, war and the polarizing effect of President Bush – and the slew of out-of-state players coming in to get out the vote.

For a state used to flyover status, whose very capital city of Columbus is derisively nicknamed "Cowtown," all of this attention can be a little flattering – and a little wearisome. In the space of a few short summer weeks, the League of Pissed-Off Voters, Clothing Of The American Mind, Driving Votes, Fuck The Vote, Run Against Bush, Mothers Opposing Bush, Billionaires For Bush and sundry other anti-Bush activists have barnstormed Columbus. The city gets such attention lavished on it because Central Ohio is considered to be the most in-play part of an in-play state.

The other politically distinct sections of Ohio – referred to as "the Five Ohios" in a Cleveland Plain Dealer reported series – are easier to divide between political parties. The northeastern industrial area, including Cleveland, Akron and Youngstown, is solidly liberal. The northwestern farm lands, whose only big city is Toledo, is very rural and tends to be fairly conservative. To the southeast is Ohio's section of Appalachia; low-income and often-ignored, it's chock full of veterans and conservatives. The southwest, including Dayton and Cincinnati, is the most reliably Republican part of the state.

The way for a party to win an Ohio election, traditionally, is to win big in the most loyal of their five Ohios, not lose too badly in the other party's Ohios, and make swinging central Ohio, consisting of Columbus and its sprawling suburbs, their own.

With a relatively steady economy driven by government, education and service jobs rather than manufacturing, central Ohio is immune to some of the problems afflicting the rest of the state. Cheap cost of living draws immigrants, including a surprisingly large Somali population, to Columbus, and Ohio State University and several other colleges attract students, teachers and campus hanger-on types from around the world. The results are a state government dominated by Republicans that does business in a city completely dominated by Democrats that is housed in a Republican-controlled county. The fact that the Bush and Kerry campaigns all but collide into one another as they campaign in and out of the area shows just how hard both are working to win it.

Demographics there, as throughout the rest of Ohio, have shifted dramatically since 2000. The Latino population, which often leans Democrat, has grown in the state, as it has throughout the country. Gay voters in the big cities who were split between Gore and Bush in 2000 will likely swing to Kerry this year after Bush's support of the so-called "federal marriage amendment." And Muslim voters, more populous in Ohio than many other states, are overwhelmingly turning on Bush, who won a majority of their support and endorsements in 2000.

If that all sounds like bad news for Bush, here's some good news – Ohio will most likely vote on an amendment to the state constitution that would make same-sex marriage even more illegal than it already is. If the issue continues to survive court challenges, conventional wisdom holds that social conservatives will have that much more motivation to show up at the polls. Phil Burress, chairman of the Ohio Campaign to Protect Marriage that has been working to get the issue on the ballot, told the Toledo Blade in September that efforts to keep it off the ballot are to boost Kerry's chances of becoming president.

The most important demographic of all, however, may be new voters, who weren't even in play in 2000. According to the secretary of state's office, on Oct. 4 – the deadline to register to vote – Ohio had estimated 7.6 million registered voters, up 500,000 since the March primaries.

A recent analysis in the New York Times that has been warming the hearts of state Democrats found registration among Democrats to be up 250% over that in 2000, while registration among Republicans is only up 25%. That seems like a pretty clear advantage for Democrats, but Ohio Republican Party spokesman Jason Mauk isn't worried.

"Where we believe we have the upper hand is turnout," Mauk said. He notes that the Democrats have completely ceded registration efforts to independent ally groups like America Coming Together, Project Vote, Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now and others.

ACT has 200 canvassers working Ohio, and, together with their allies, have registered and talked issues with some 300,000 people, some of whom they've visited repeatedly. Project Vote says it registered 147,000.

But those numbers don't take into account change of address forms, double registration or invalid forms, Mauk said.

"You can go down to the local bus stop or the courthouse and see these folks blitzing the sidewalks, they'll sign up anyone on the street whether they're Republican or Democrat or independent," Mauk said. "We're confident that at the end of the day, the 200,000 people that we've registered are not only Republicans, but they are loyal supporters of President Bush and we will be able to turn them out on Election Day."

If they can't, then the Republicans could be in serious trouble, according to the Democrats' apparent registration advantage. State Sen. Mark Mallory, a Democrat from Cincinnati, a blue city in the reddest part of the state, said the registration advantage cited in the Times puts even his rock solid Republican county in play, since there's an 80-20 split favoring the Dems among new registrants there.

"Here's the situation: Al Gore lost Hamilton County by 38,000 votes in 2000," Mallory said. "We have registered 60,000 new people ...i f you do the 80-20 math I just laid out, we could quite possibly win Hamilton County. It is not out of the realm of possibility."

The major issue among Mallory's constituents is the same among those in every other part of the state.

"It's been the same for the last 30 years," State Sen. Robert Hagan of Youngstown, whose brother Tim Hagan was the last Democrat to unsuccessfully run for governor. "Jobs and more jobs."

Youngstown has been particularly hard hit by globalization and the dwindling of American manufacturing. These jobs are gone, and aren't coming back. Of course, if jobs have been an issue in Ohio, and the northeast in particular, for three decades, doesn't that give Bush a pass on the economy? Not quite. Hagan hope voters will associate the president with the Republican-friendly corporations that fled his Ohio. And as bad as the last 30 years may have been for Ohio's rust belt, the last few years have been worse.

Ohio lost well over 200,000 jobs in the last four years. The state was recently ranked 49th in year-to-year job growth among the states, and August's unemployment rate was 6.3 percent, up from 6 percent in July (and way up from just over 3 percent four years ago), while the national rate in August was 5.4 percent and decreasing. Ohio had 370,000 unemployed workers in August, up from 354,000 in July.

A public school funding crisis has led to skyrocketing property taxes, and a recent budget shortfall led to a $3 billion tax increase, including a temporary 20 percent increase of the sales tax, extending taxes to new services like manicures and satellite television and increasing certain state fees.

Taken all together, that's enough to put the economy at the top of the list of issues concerning Ohio voters, above war and terrorism. Conventional wisdom holds that Democrats win when the economy is the issue, but State Sen. Teresa Fedor said she doesn't have a prediction one way or another on how Ohio will vote, apparently breaking a cardinal rule of campaign season – aren't partisan politicians always supposed to predict victory for their side?

"If the secretary of state conducts a fair and honest election, I believe Sen. Kerry will win Ohio and be the next president of the United States," the Toledo Democrat said, but that's a big if in her mind.

Apparently, being a must-win big swing state isn't the only thing Ohio has in common with Florida – it could also be ground zero in a scandal-plagued recount nightmare. At least, that's the message Democrats were pushing on Sept. 27, when they filed a lawsuit in federal court against Republican Secretary of State J. Kenneth Blackwell, accusing him of trying to "cook the vote" through his directive on provisional balloting, and warning that he could be the "Katherine Harris of 2004" – minus the eye shadow, of course. By week's end, Fedor and other state senators were calling (in vain, it's safe to assume) for Blackwell's resignation.

Fedor's been fretting over the integrity of the election for well over a year now, when she first became aware of the dangers of electronic voting machines and had a hard time getting Blackwell to meet with her, or return her calls, or write back to her. Today she can tick off a list of strikes against Blackwell – he's been slow to respond to how many voters were purged from Ohio voter rolls and why, he disenfranchised ex-felons by misinforming them about their voting rights, he cited an arcane ruling that only registrations issued on 80-pound paper should be considered valid (at least until public pressure caused him to reverse it), and he sent a directive regarding provisional balloting that Democrats say is in direct violation of the Help America Vote Act and is the subject of the Dem lawsuit.

"I consider this, at this point, with all of the things we've had to go toe to toe with him on, a very partisan attack to corrupt Ohio's election," Fedor said. "How much more proof do you need? Do we have to wait until after the election?"

Blackwell's spokesperson, Carlo LoParo, responded to the lawsuit by saying they had anticipated a slew of "frivolous lawsuits and legal shenanigans" related to the election, and that they would be more than able to deal with such "distractions" while conducting a competent election. As for Fedor's accusations, he responded simply "I'd advise Senator Fedor that she has an obligation to tell the truth."

Of course, why bother trying to steal an election when you can win it the old fashioned way? Republicans have an excellent shot, and the Bush campaign knows it. President Bush has visited Ohio 27 times in his presidency, 14 times this year alone, including such high profile stops as a speech to over 20,000 in a Columbus arena the day before his speech to the Republican National Convention and a September rally with over 50,000 supporters near Cincinnati.

At the Columbus event, Bush pointed out that his grandfather was raised there and asked his supporters to send a local boy (actually, he said "home boy," but you know what he meant) back to Washington D.C. He was joking around, of course, but in 2004, the candidate who convinces the most Ohioans that he's one of them will likely be the winner. Provided the Midwife of Presidents doesn't experience any unforeseen complications during labor, of course.

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