Thursday, August 9, 2012

Ohio battleground guide

Ohio, the epicenter of the Midwest and this year's presidential election, the 18 most important electoral votes in the entire contest, the object of Barack Obama's dulcet seductions and Mitt Romney's laser point charm.

Ohio, the birthplace of Ulysses Grant, the only Union general who actually knew what a flank is and that firing on your own men does not mean you killed more people and are the winner.

Ohio, the so-called "Cradle of Presidents", because eight presidents were born there -- William Harrison, U.S. Grant, Rutherford Hayes, James Garfield, Benjamin Harrison, William McKinley, William Howard Taft, and Warren Harding............. Also known as "The Anonymous President Pack" -- you can find iconic images of them drinking and shooting pool, while they laugh, look at women, and talk about tariffs.

Eastern Ohio, where hills begin to caress the Midwest, promising that better scenery is just ahead (if you cross the state line into Pennsylvania).

Central Ohio, where giant, inflatable Santa Clauses wave in the cold wind on weedy lawns, while the world turns into a gray so dismal that Ansel Adams would mutter “Screw it”; then toss his camera and buy some books on pastels.

Northern Ohio, someplace I’ve never been, but that I’m pretty sure still sucks.

Southwestern Ohio
, the home of Cincinnati – a really beautiful city that nevertheless gives you one of your annual six or seven double-takes of the year: “Woah, I did NOT realize Cincinnati had such a high crime rate.”

To politics and such...

The big thing to remember about Ohio is that Republicans are still reeling from the November 2011 electoral repeal of their push against collective bargaining. As The Wall Street Journal noted, that entire brouhaha helped tip Ohio back toward the blue side of things after a strong midterm election for Republicans in 2010.

Reuters reported that Reagan Democrats started returning to the fold, and online donations to the Democratic party quadrupled in 2011. Let me tell you -- when "Reagan Democrats" are actually, you know, voting like Democrats, then the GOP has a rough go of it.

That fight could not have come at a more nightmarish time or nightmarish place than Ohio, because without Ohio, Mitt Romney will be without the White House.

Another factor working against Romney is the unemployment rate, which has fallen from a peak of 10.6% in January 2010 to 7.3% now. That's a 3% drop and a compelling argument for Barack Obama in the state.

Thus, the political atmosphere is colored with three good dynamics for Obama -- the collective bargaining win, GM, and a falling unemployment rate.

Now.....quick house-keeping: I've included the 2010 gubernatorial and senatorial election results, as well as the collective bargaining repeal, to give you some idea of a county's political preferences.

But the two big caveats are that Ohio Sen. Rob Portman way overperformed what normal Republicans do in the state, and also, that turnout in 2010 was favorable to Republicans and, on average, about 20% lower than it was in 2008.

BUT.... it's nevertheless useful to consider the big, state-wide, 2010 races (Senate and Governor) when talking about this November.

So keep that in mind as you imbibe.

And now... let's imbibe.

LAKE COUNTY = 11th most populous (White 91% Black 4% Hispanic 4%)

2008: Obama 49.3% McCain 49%
2004: Bush 51% Kerry 49%
2000: Bush 51% Gore 45%
1996: Clinton 44% Dole 42%

2010 Turnout: 51%
2008 Turnout: 76%

2010 Gubernatorial election: John Kasich (R) 55% Strickland (D) 45%
2010 Senatorial election: Rob Portman (R) 60% Lee Fisher (D) 40%
2011 Collective Bargaining Legislation: Repeal 59% No repeal 41%

If an alien came to earth and asked you what the metaphor “close shave” meant, this is probably how you’d explain it.

“Well, in 2008, Obama beat McCain by .3% in Lake County, Ohio, and Bush only beat Kerry by 2% in 2004. So Lake County is an enormously close swing county, and whatever happens, it’s going to be a close shave again. That’s what a ‘close shave’ means, E.T.”

That’s how you have to reason with aliens. Their 30 inch eyes and anal probes are confusing to you; confuse them back.

Lake County lies just outside of Cuyahoga County and is a northeast suburb of Cleveland.

In 2008, The Cleveland Palin Dealer found that Lake was the most predictive county of Ohio’s presidential results from 1960-2008.

You know what that means? Watch Lake County on election night as if Ohio and the entire nation depends on it, because, yeah, it sort of does.

So what are things looking like?

Well, in 2010, Rob Portman won Lake, 60%-40%, over Democrat Lee Fisher. That was slightly better than Portman did in Ohio, at large, so if you were into taking something from the ’10 Senate election, you can say that Lake marginally trended Republican.

But Portman was such a behemoth of a vanilla cone that it’s really hard to take much from his win and apply it to the presidential race.

A better comparison would be the 2010 gubernatorial race between Republican John Kasich and incumbent Democrat, Ted Strickland.

Kasich bludgeoned Strickland, 55%-45%, in Lake, even though he won, statewide, by less than 1%.

So, at least in 2010, Lake seemed to move back into the red column. The problem is that turnout in 2010 was only 51% (which favors Republicans), while turnout in ’08 was 76%.

If you assume that higher turnout favors Democrats, then you have to also assume that there’s no way Romney could replicate Kasich’s 10% win in Lake.

BUT… it does show that the heavily white county seems to heading the Republicans’ way. After all, the GOP is 2-0 there since Obama carried it in 2008, and Romney’s supposed to be, like, "Mr. Suburb" and whatever.

The only caveat is that Kasich's collective bargaining stuff got trounced here, so you can call it 2-1 GOP.

If Romney can win Lake, well, remember that thing about it being the most predictive county in Ohio between 1960-2008?

= 3rd most populous (White 67% Black 26% Hispanic 3%)

2008: Obama 52% McCain 47%
2004: Bush 53% Kerry 47%
2000: Bush 54% Gore 43%
1996: Dole 50% Clinton 43%

2010 Turnout: 51%
2008 Turnout: 71%

2010 Gubernatorial election:
Kasich 52% Strickland 48%
2010 Senatorial election: Portman 60% Fisher 40%
2011 Collective Bargaining Legislation: Repeal 59% No repeal 41%

Hamilton (which was named after the most famous guy in the U.S. to be killed by another guy in a duel and still get on currency) lies in the utterly green, buttery, and beautiful swath of rolling hills, extending from Kentucky into Ohio.

Hamilton County is all about Cincinnati.

Cincinnati has the fine political tradition of producing more U.S. presidents than any other city, has seven hills like Rome, and is named after the Roman hero, Cincinnatus. (Other things named after Romans include Little Caesars pizza; possibly, CiCi’s Pizza, and Jim Rome, so yes, the Roman empire has, indeed, fallen or at least downsized to an all-you-can-eat-pizza-buffet).

In 2004, Bush won by 6%, but four years later, Obama reversed that and won by 5%. That was the first time a Democrat had won the county since 1964!

The suburbs are the purview of big corporations and a fairly wealthy population, but Democrats are helped by Cincinnati’s large black population.

They're also helped by the 2011 collective bargaining fight.


Here, as in most places in Ohio, Republicans hurt themselves when the state legislature passed a bill restricting union rights.

That measure was repealed in overwhelming fashion, including in Hamilton County.

So there, WSJ for you.

Democrats, the Wall Street Journal notes, are crediting that with renewed enthusiasm and a nice organizational shot in the arm.

Thus, a county that looked Republican in the 2010 election seems to have drifted back toward the middle.

If there’s any place in Ohio where Rob Portman could help Romney, it’s here.

His old congressional district includes parts of Hamilton County, and this is about the only place in the world where he’s well-known.

Portman's zeal for Romney’s cause in the primaries is well-documented, and much of that energy was spent coaxing every last drop of political mojo with his somewhat dull but no less expansive tentacles in the southwestern reaches of Ohio.

IF Romney picks Portman, Hamilton will provide an utterly fascinating bit of data to the argument over whether a veep can bring home his geographic region. After all, if Portman can't help Romney on Hamilton, neither he nor, really, anyone else can help anywhere

CUYAHOGA COUNTY = Most populous county (White 61% Black 30% Hispanic 5%)

2008: Obama 69% McCain 30%
2004: Kerry 67% Bush 33%
2000: Gore 63% Bush 33%
1996: Clinton 61% Dole 29%

2010 Turnout: 44%
2008 Turnout: 61%

2010 Gubernatorial election: Strickland 63% Kasich 37%
2010 Senatorial election: Fisher 59% Portman 41%
2011 Collective Bargaining Legislation: Repeal 69% No repeal 31%

Monster county that houses Cleveland.

638,000 souls cast their votes in Cuyahoga during the last presidential election, and that accounted for roughly 12% of the state’s vote.

Cuyahoga is one of the great, Democratic bastions of the Midwest, and we’ve all know many an election night when Michael Barone advises us to hold off on calling Ohio, because most of Cuyahoga hasn’t come in.

That’s not to say that there aren’t Republicans in Cuyahoga. In fact, John McCain scored more votes there than he did in seven separate states (Politifact Verified!).

Ohio whiz John McClelland, the public affairs director for Strategy Group for Media, tells me there's an important dynamic to consider, and that's a population shift in the Cleveland area. A number of voters have moved out of Cuyahoga and into surrounding counties. Of course, that doesn’t change state-wide totals. It’s just a reapportionment of weight, and a reminder that Cuyahoga will be responsible for slightly less this time a-round than in past years. In fact, it's population decreased 8.2% from 2000 to 2010.

So of course, keep your eye on Cuyahoga on election night, but just remember, the county hasn't just been overwhelmingly Democratic over the years, it's also been remarkably consistent at the margins.

MONTGOMERY COUNTY = 5th most populous (White 75% Black 21% Hispanic 2%)

2008: Obama 52% McCain 47%
2004: Kerry 51% Bush 49%
2000: Gore 50% Bush 48%
1996: Clinton 50% Dole 41%

2010 Turnout: 49%
2008 Turnout: 72%.

2010 Gubernatorial election: Strickland 50% Kasich 49.9%
2010 Senatorial election: Portman 57% Fischer 43%
2011 Collective Bargaining Legislation: Repeal 61% No repeal 39%

If you live in this county, you’ll probably go to the Kroger grocery store and think to yourself “Man, the check-out lanes look a little emptier than usual.”

Then you’ll probably go to the laundromat and remark to yourself, “There aren’t as many pairs of old underwear left in here.”

Then, if you’ve got the freakishly perceptive powers of a random lead character on a USA show, you’ll probably correctly guess that between the years 2000 and 2010, Montgomery County actually lost residents, and yes, you are picking up on the slight but real population loss.

What does that mean?

Well, for one thing, it means we haven’t seen the kind of demographic upheaval in Montgomery that we’ve seen in loads of battleground counties across the country.

To wit: In 2000, whites made up 77% of the population. In 2010, they made up 75%. The black population shifted 2%, and the Hispanic population barely registered. That’s some ethnic inertia.

With a relatively stable population, you can predict patterns more easily, and Montgomery’s has been consistent – it went for Clinton, Gore, Kerry, and Obama, but not by much. It’s competitive enough to be competitive without any doubt as to the winner, if that makes any sense

The big bird in Montgomery County is the city of Dayton, Ohio, and I say bird because Dayton is where the Wright Brothers either stole or came up with powered flight.

Dayton and its surrounding regions feed off the defense and aerospace industries, health services, and manufacturing – although that industry is in heavy decline and has led to population loss and a general sense that Dayton’s best days are behind her.

The Dayton metropolitan area consists of six counties – all except for Montgomery are strongly Republican (In fact, if you add Obama and McCain’s votes from all six counties in the Dayton area, McCain wins 53%-47%).

Dayton, though, is only 51% white and is the most important city in Montgomery County, which is bully for President Obama’s chances of winning there.

Montgomery is heavily Democratic at the local level – eight of nine local offices are occupied by Democrats, save for one. Wanna know which one? Sheriff! Folks want Democrats for every office, except the guy with the badge.

In 2010, Democratic incumbent Ted Strickland nipped John Kasich, 50%-49.9% in Montgomery, but that was in a Republican climate with turnout that was 23% lower than in 2008. Granted, Kasich wasn’t a terribly great candidate, but it suggests that – with higher turnout – a Democrat’s margins might inch up. ESPECIALLY when you consider the after-effects of the collective bargaining effort, which is near and dear to the heart of Montgomery.

That being said, Rob Portman cleaned up with a 57%-43% advantage, so it’s not out of the question for a Republican to do well in Montgomery. But again, it’s dangerous to generalize much from Portman’s huge win.

Even though Montgomery has, historically, been quite competitive, it’s hard to see Romney winning here, but keeping the margins within a few percentage points is important.

Here’s one more key: McCain was strong in Dayton’s surrounding counties and performed roughly equally to George W. Bush in 2004, but it was Montgomery County that saw a sizable jump for Obama. Can Romney push Obama's margins back to Kerry's?

DELAWARE COUNTY = 14th most populous (White 88% Asian 5% Black 4% Hispanic 2%)

2008: McCain 59% Obama 40%

2004: Bush 66% Kerry 34%
2000: Bush 66% Gore 31%
1996: Dole 59% Clinton 33%

2010 turnout: 58%
2008 turnout: 78%

2010 Gubernatorial election: Kasich 67% Strickland 33%
2010 Senatorial election: Portman 73% Fischer 27%
2011 Collective Bargaining Legislation: Repeal 47% No repeal 53%

Forbes magazine says that if you really must move to Ohio, you should unload your U-Haul in Delaware County, which sits just north of Columbus, Ohio.

The magazine calls it one of the five “best places to raise a family”, and plenty of people seem to be buying the Delaware County Kool-Aid.

This is the fastest growing county in Ohio and the 20th fastest growing county in the nation, speeding along at a healthy 58.4% clip between the years 2000 and 2010.

This is an incredibly white place. It’s like everyone here is either Rob Portman or Tim Pawlenty, or if they’re not are professional mimers of Rob Portman and Tim Pawlenty (a bumper industry, from what I hear).

Delaware County is also the famous home of the world famous Little Brown Jug harness race.

Harness racing is basically the modern version of charioteering, except it’s less important to the development and expansion of empires and the course of human history.

(As you can see, Ben Hur and this guy are basically doing the same thing).

Back to Delaware County.

This is one of the largest Republican counties in the state of Ohio, and as such, is a terrific source for Romney to squeeze raw votes from.

Just how Republican is it in Delaware? The last time the county elected a Democratic County Commissioner was 1976!

It’s not a battleground by any stretch of the imagination, so you might ask why it’s one of the five most important counties. Well, it makes the list because this is where Romney needs to rack up big raw votes.

Neither Kerry nor Gore made it out of the low 30% region here, but Obama cracked 40%. If Romney is going to win Ohio, he needs to blow Obama out by the customary 30% here.

Is that doable? Yes. Tough, but doable. In 2010, Rob Portman pulled in 73% of the Delaware County vote, but we all know you can’t really generalize Portman’s performance in Ohio to Romney’s. Portman was a beast of a vanilla ice cream cone.

You CAN, however, take John Kasich’s numbers as a guide for how Romney could nip Obama in the state, and Kasich’s numbers in Delaware were pretty good. He picked up 67% of the vote, while Strickland only pulled in 33%. That’s almost exactly what George W. Bush scored in the county both times he won the state. So, if Romney can do as well as Kasich here, he’s in the money.

So what's my conclusion on the state of OHIO?

Well, let's finish by going to the polls, Vanna.

Obama has sported an enormously stubborn lead in the state over the past two years. In fact, he's led in 29/33 Ohio polls over the past two years, and has led in six straight polls since May.

That makes sense when you combine it with the big 3 political dynamics that are working in Obama's favor -- dropping unemployment, GM, and that collective bargaining brouhaha.

For all that, I pin Obama as the favorite to win Ohio.

This means that I've completed four battleground guides -- Missouri (click here), Virginia (click here), Florida (click here), and now Ohio.

My conclusions after researching and writing those guides?

Romney is a lock in Missouri, Obama should win Virginia, Romney will edge Obama in Florida, and Obama has the upper hand in Ohio.

[Photo credit: Santa is from and the harness racer is with permission from David Monniaux]