Before we plunge off the fiscal cliff, here are some final thoughts on the 2012 presidential campaign in Ohio, gathered at a Nov. 15 seminar sponsored by the Ray C. Bliss Institute of Applied Politics at the University of Akron.
Participants included consultants Mark Weaver and Gerald Austin, who are distinguished chairs at the institute and teach the “Battleground Ohio” class; Bruce Tague and Gabrielle Seay, political directors in Ohio for, respectively, the Romney and Obama campaigns; and journalist Joe Hallett of the Columbus Dispatch and me.
Both Tague and Seay emphasized the importance of “the ground game,” that is, efforts to reach out and organize supporters, then get them to the polls. So, while there were a lot of television ads and rallies, what mattered most were turnout strategies.
Seay noted two factors that helped give Obama the edge in Ohio. First, the Obama campaign organized early, making initial voter contacts during the primaries, when the Romney camp was still battling for the nomination. Second, the Ohio campaign organization was the largest in the country.
Why is all that so important? Because, said Austin, battleground Ohio used to be known as a 40-20-40 state. In other words, in most elections, about 40 percent of the voters would be Democrats and 40 percent Republicans, with the rest undecided, up for grabs during the campaign.
But today’s polarizing brand of politics has reduced the middle ground substantially, Austin suggesting a 47-6-47 state. The dramatic narrowing of the middle made convincing undecided voters less important than getting out core supporters.
Several of the strategies pursued by the Obama organization deserve attention because they show the increasingly sophisticated ways being used to motivate voters and turn them out.
Seay described a “hyper local” effort by the Obama team, identifying “team leaders” neighborhood by neighborhood. Messaging, too, was hyper local. In areas such as Toledo and Youngstown, where there are big auto plants, auto workers were featured at campaign events.
Data drove efforts to reach wavering voters, using information from successful referendum campaigns against Senate Bill 5 (reining in public sector unions) and House Bill 194 (reining in early voting, among other changes to Ohio election laws). Finally, there was a big push to get people to the polls, during early voting and on Election Day.
Hallett and Austin felt that Republican efforts to tamp down voter turnout backfired by infuriating Democratic voters, who redoubled their efforts to get to the polls. The Obama campaign then succeeded in opening up the final three days before Election Day to early voting, through a federal lawsuit.
Tague pointed to a solid showing by the Romney campaign, including flipping Stark County to the Republican side. Stark was among five smaller counties to flip from 2008; all the others went Republican, too.
But, as Hallett pointed out, Romney underperformed George W. Bush’s totals in 2004 in the Toledo and Cleveland areas, and that, not the Canton area, is where the votes are.
Weaver and Austin underscored the importance of defining the opposition before it has a chance to define itself. The Obama campaign’s early efforts to paint Romney as a wealthy, out-of-touch capitalist who shipped jobs overseas hurt him with weakly identified Republican voters, Weaver concluded, just the sort Romney needed to repeat Bush’s 2004 victory.
For all those who tend to overthink things, Austin reminded about the role luck plays. No amount of planning could have produced the “47 percent” video, Hurricane Sandy, which helped President Obama look presidential and led to New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie’s embrace, or the Ohio GOP’s clumsy efforts to suppress early voting.
My big point? Thought you’d never ask. In a pre-election column predicting an Obama win in Ohio, I pointed to the importance of the auto bailout, which resonated with white, middle-class voters.
Overall, the Romney campaign suffered from a disconnect with Ohio voters on the economy. The auto bailout was part of it; so were the boom in oil and gas jobs and Gov. John Kasich’s crowing about Ohio’s turnaround. In other words, many voters didn’t buy what Romney needed to sell: He was the answer to an economy in ruins.
Hoffman is a Beacon Journal editorial writer. He can be reached at 330-996-3740 or emailed at email@example.com.