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Ohio Lessons Can Help Obama Win Working Class Votes

This item by J.P. Green was originally published on November 11, 2011.

In his National Journal post, "A Model for Obama?," Ronald Brownstein sorts out the political leanings of white workers in Ohio, in light of a Hart Research/AFL-CIO survey of voters conducted 11/6-8 and the vote on issue 2, which repealed the ban on collective bargaining for Ohio public workers. Brownstein explains:

As impressive as the depth of the win was its breadth...the survey, released Wednesday afternoon, offers the best picture available of the coalition that overturned Kasich's prized legislation:

--The repeal campaign won broad support. Fully 86 percent of union members voted to repeal, but so did 52 percent of non-union voters. A solid majority of every age group voted to repeal. Not only did 92 percent of liberals vote to repeal but so did a preponderant 70 percent of moderates. (Conservatives supported maintaining the law by almost two-to-one). Nearly three-fifths of independents voted for repeal, along with over nine-in-ten Democrats. Almost three-fifths of whites, as well as a big majority of minorities, voted to repeal.

--The repeal vote reached well into the groups that powered the Republican surge in 2010. A 54 percent majority of whites older than 60 voted to repeal, according to figures from the survey provided by Hart Research's Guy Molyneux. So did a 61 percent majority of whites without a college education. Even a 55 percent majority of non-college whites who do not belong to a union voted to repeal. All of those are groups that have not voted much in recent years for anything favored by Democrats. Even 30 percent of self-identified Republicans and one-fourth of voters who backed Kasich in 2010 voted to repeal.

The success of the repeal vote among the overlapping groups of senior and blue-collar whites - each of which, nationally, gave 63 percent of their votes to Republican House candidates in 2010, according to exit polls - might be the most striking result in the poll. For Democrats who want a class conscious message from Obama in 2012, it's evidence that these prodigal Democratic voters can still be reached with an edgy on-your-side appeal.

The white house should learn the important lesson from the vote and the poll, argues Molyneux:

The idea that you can get Democratic voters, not just young and African-American voters, but working class voters energized and excited about fighting for their economic interests is a lesson I hope the White House will take on this...What killed Kasich was the sense that he was looking out either for the rich and powerful or his own party's political interests. Either way he was not focused on helping average working families in Ohio. And I think that's what Obama needs to set up about his opponent - motives and concern and in whose interest they are going to govern.

In his New York Times op-ed "How Obama Can Win Ohio," John Russo, co-director of the Center for Working-Class Studies at Youngstown State University, offers this encouraging assessment:

According to CNN exit polls from the last few elections, union household voters remain a strong presence in Ohio, even after more than three decades of de-industrialization. Twenty-eight percent of Ohio voters come from union households, compared with 23 percent nationally. In 2008, they underperformed for Obama, who won 56 percent of their votes in Ohio versus 59 percent from union households across the country. No similar data exists for the 2010 midterm election, but many labor leaders admit that Kasich beat the Democratic governor, Ted Strickland, in part because voters from community groups and union households either voted Republican or stayed home (essentially giving half a vote to Kasich).

If union households in Ohio lost their enthusiasm for Democratic candidates in recent years, Kasich's actions, together with the national Republicans' just-say-no politics and kill-Medicare initiatives (like the Paul Ryan budget), have made the Democrats look a lot better than they did in 2010.

It all comes down to math. In 2008, 2,933,388 Ohioans voted (or 51.5%) for Obama, 258,897 more than McCain won. If union households maintain their proportion of the electorate, and if just 1 percent more of them vote for Democrats, they can add 15,700 votes to the Democratic vote and subtract the same number from the Republicans - a swing of more than 31,000 votes. If Ohio's union household voters increase their support for Democrats by 3 percent - that is, if they match the national average for union household voters - they would generate 47,100 additional votes for Obama, a swing of 94,200 votes. That alone could give the president Ohio's electoral votes.

But because of Senate Bill 5, we might reasonably expect an even larger shift. A recent Quinnipiac poll suggests that the anger generated by the anti-union bill and the organizing fostered by the effort to overturn it has 70 percent of union household voters planning to support Obama and the Democrats in 2012. That translates into an increase of 219,829 votes for Obama, a swing of almost 440,000 votes. Put differently, a mobilized Ohio labor movement with 742,000 members, including many teachers, police officers, and firefighters who have often voted Republican, will be more likely to vote for Democrats in 2012.

Russo believes that Obama must press the case for "a positive economic vision and a program for economic change" and the President's jobs legislation and Obama's recent initiatives on mortgages and student loans should help.

Writing in The Daily Beast, Michael Tomasky adds in his post, "Ohio Vote Shows Obama Winning Back the Rust Belt":

...The larger context in which this vote took place is important, too. And that context is Operation Wall Street, income inequality, Republicans in Congress killing the jobs bill piece by piece, Obama finally getting some blood flowing through those veins again instead of water. People have started to care about class issues, and it's pretty clear what they think: The Republican Party isn't representing them (unless they happen to live in a household with an income of at least $368,000 a year). In the new NBC/Wall Street Journal poll, 76 percent agreed that "the current economic structure of the country is out of balance and favors a small proportion of the rich over the rest of the country."

What this means for next year is twofold. First, it suggests that Davids Plouffe and Axelrod should work the Rust Belt. Plouffe in particular has been signaling a strategy that would put more emphasis on Virginia and Colorado and North Carolina (where the convention is being held) at the expense of states like Ohio, Wisconsin, and Michigan. But the way Democrats and majorities of independents are acting in those Rust Belt states now, they're looking more like states Obama can hold. You may have seen the Ohio poll in which, despite his low approval rating, Obama beats all the Republicans handily--Mitt Romney by nine points, 50 to 41, and the others by double digits.

Tomasky believes the Ohio vote debunks the conventional wisdom that Dems can win either the base or the center, but not both. As Tomasky says, "...What the Ohio result shows is a way to unite liberals and moderates, Democrats and independents, behind one message that both want to hear. That hasn't happened much in recent American history. The White House had best be alert to it."

In the wake of the Ohio vote it's now clear that the GOP made a huge blunder in declaring class war on unionized workers, providing Dems with a powerful weapon. As Molyneux puts it, "...If the class-conscious Ohio repeal campaign genuinely offers Obama a roadmap to remaining competitive with more older and blue-collar whites, he can keep graying Rust Belt states like Ohio and Wisconsin in play - and reduce his need to repeat his 2008 breakthroughs in the diverse and fast growing new swing states across the Sun Belt."