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Reconsidering the Conventional Wisdom About Ohio

Everybody knows what happened in Ohio, right? Hordes of evangelicals descended on the polls in rural and exurban areas and their votes for Bush swamped the Democrats' valiant, but doomed, mobilization efforts in urban areas.

Steve Rosenthal, head of the leading Democratic 527, America Coming Together (ACT), has a very interesting article in The Washington Post today that questions this conventional wisdom with hard data, including a post-election poll of 1,400 rural and exurban voters in Ohio counties that Bush won by an average of 17 percentage points. I recommend it strongly.

Here are some key excerpts from the article:

The first myth: Many more churchgoing voters flocked to the polls this year, driven by the Bush "moral values" and the gay marriage referendum. Reality: In Ohio, the share of the electorate represented by frequent churchgoers actually declined from 45 percent in 2000 to 40 percent in 2004.

Second myth: The Bush campaign won by mobilizing GOP strongholds and suppressing turnout in Democratic areas. Reality: Turnout in Democratic-leaning counties in Ohio was up 8.7 percent while turnout in Republican-leaning counties was up slightly less, at 6.3 percent. John Kerry bested Bush in Cuyahoga County (home of Cleveland) by 218,000 votes -- an increase of 42,497 over Gore's 2000 effort. In Stark County (Canton) -- a bellwether lost by Gore -- Kerry won by 4,354.

Third myth: A wave of newly registered Republican voters in fast-growing rural and exurban areas carried Bush to victory. Reality: Among Ohio's rural and exurban voters, Bush beat Kerry by just five points among newly registered voters and by a mere two points among infrequent voters (those who did not vote in 2000).

Fourth myth: Republicans ran a superior, volunteer-driven mobilization effort. Reality: When we asked new voters in rural and exurban areas who contacted them during this campaign, we learned that they were just as likely to hear from the Kerry campaign and its allies as from the Bush side....[A]ccording to our post-election polling; only 20 percent of exurban and rural Ohio voters reported that they had been contacted by someone from their church, and only slightly higher percentages were contacted by conservative organizations....[V]oters in these Republican counties were just as likely to be visited by a Kerry supporter at their homes as by a Bush supporter. Fewer than 2 percent were visited by a Bush supporter whom they knew personally.

I would add the following to what Rosenthal says, based on my own analysis of Ohio county voting data. Gore lost Ohio by about 165,000 votes in 2000, so Kerry needed a net gain of 165,000+ votes to take the state. My analysis shows that Kerry only gained about 103,000 net votes in all of metro Ohio outside of the exurbs. Therefore, Bush’s 66,000 net vote gain in the exurbs and rural areas was not particularly consequential to the outcome. Kerry didn’t gain enough votes outside of those areas to win anyway.

Or look at it this way. If you take all of the metro, non-exurban counties where Kerry registered net vote gains, including Cleveland's Cuyahoga county (52,000), Columbus' Franklin county (37,000), Cincinnati's Hamilton county (18,000), Akron's Summit county (14,000) and the rest, he still only had a net gain of about 155,000 votes–not enough to take the state even before any counties where he lost net votes, non-exurban metro, exurban or rural, are taken into consideration.

In that light, consider Warren county, that much reported-upon exurban county outside of Cincinnatti, which made for great copy in the 2004 election, as a sort of an evangelical-drive vote machine for George Bush. But in the end it was not key to Bush’s victory in Ohio; he would have carried the state even he had not received one additional net vote from Warren this year.

Finally, it's instructive to compare Kerry's performance in 2004 not just with Gore's in 2000 but with Clinton's in 1996, when the Democrats actually carried the state. While there was heavy falloff in 2004 from Clinton's performance in Ohio's rural and exurban areas, it is also true that Clinton did much better--by a margin of 150,000 votes--than Kerry in Ohio's non-exurban metro areas. Interestingly, about two-thirds of this falloff can be accounted for by declining Democratic support in Ohio's medium-sized metro areas (think Youngstown's Mahoning county, Canton's Stark county, Dayton's Montgomery county, Toledo's Lucas county and so on). Even more interesting, if Kerry had matched Clinton's victory margin in non-exurban metro counties as a whole, he would have won the state, despite the sharp fall-off in rural and exurban support.

Comments

Great to know that it wasn't the Republican miracle in the exurbs that cost us Ohio. My question is where does that leave us? If we didn't lose because of a surge in the God-fearing vote, what did us in? Would love some feedback...

I am surprised that you made it through this post without mentioning the massive voter suppression efforts in Ohio, which surely cost Kerry tens of thousands of votes (or more).

It has been shown that the punchcard machines with the highest error rates (undervotes, etc.) were located in heavily Democratic precincts. Ditto for spoiled ballots.

Likewise, the ratio of machines to registered voters was much lower in some heavily Democratic precincts (inner cities, college campuses). This was true in Cuyahoga County, for instance. In Franklin County, dozens of machines were kept in storage all day and night, even though lines in some Democratic areas were 3, 4, 7 or more hours long.

Any shift worker with a job to get to would simply not be able to vote under such circumstances. Ditto for any mother with young children at home. Isn't it interesting that you did not hear about any long lines in heavily Republican areas? They had enough machines per voter.

There were many reports before the election of voters receiving phone calls giving them the wrong precinct location. How many people went to vote, waited in line, and finally got to the front only to find they were not on the list. Presumably many of these people were given provisional ballots, and we know that in Ohio provisional ballots cast in the wrong precinct were tossed out.

Here is a link to some maps showing the distribution of spoiled ballots and provisional ballots, among other things, in Cuyahoga County.

http://www.dailykos.com/story/2004/12/5/94939/4521

Bush's margin in Ohio works out to a little more than 10 votes per precinct. All of these voter suppression efforts combined can easily explain that kind of margin--and that's if you assume there was no tampering with any of the machines tabulating vote totals from the precinct level.

I think we should let all of the votes be counted before considering these analyses to be correct and or useful...

How can you say "Therefore, Bush’s 66,000 net vote gain in the exurbs and rural areas was not particularly consequential to the outcome"?

If Bush doesn't have that net vote gain, we might still be counting votes and looking at chads, etc.

66,000 votes were huge and important. It was these 66,000 votes that led Kerry to call it early on Wednesday after the election.

The fact of the election remains that despite the Democrats' and 527's enormous efforts to turn out the vote, it didn't matter because Bush turned out just as many (over the whole nation at least) with less publicized efforts.

Also, despite the myth debunkingt, I think the crucial question remains: Why did Kerry lose Ohio?

Daniel

onceler "I think we should let all of the votes be counted..."

All the votes HAVE been counted...and they will be certified as such today!

and as for laurabelin's conspiracy theory, you read the same article I did, and yet failed to pick up on the 165,000 vote differential in 2000. Do you really think Kerry did 165,001 votes BETTER in 2004 than Gore did in 2000?? (which by your thinking would mean Kerry won)

Folks, Kerry LOST. Move, uh, on.

Actually, Mr. Rosenthal made a number of missteps in his defense of his organization's efforts in Ohio. I posted this over on the group blog I participate in (http://www.rippleofhope.net/2004/12/rosenthal-not-so-much.shtml), and it seems relevant as an addition to your comments, as well:

...Steve Rosenthal spent a couple dozen paragraphs defending his organization's efforts in Ohio in the Washington Post his morning.

His conclusion that Bush's message resonated better than Kerry's, er, lack of message, is painfully, obviously valid. His piling on to the oft reported conclusion that the early-trumpeted influence of the so-called "values" voters was a dramatic overstatement is a welcome addition to the wealth of smart people making that case. However, his attempt to debunk the "myth" of the stellar GOP mobilization in Ohio is incredibly weak.

First, Rosenthal says that the Republican effort couldn't have been all that because, " Turnout in Democratic-leaning counties in Ohio was up 8.7 percent while turnout in Republican-leaning counties was up slightly less, at 6.3 percent. John Kerry bested Bush in Cuyahoga County (home of Cleveland) by 218,000 votes -- an increase of 42,497 over Gore's 2000 effort. In Stark County (Canton) -- a bellwether lost by Gore -- Kerry won by 4,354."

What he conveniently leaves out is that while the increase in turnout numbers in Democratic versus Republican strongholds wasn't too bad for Democrats, the Republicans did a much better job of turning out their voters in those areas. In 78 of 88 Ohio counties, the percentage of Bush voters was higher this year than in 2000. So, even in most of the counties Bush lost he picked up a greater percentage of the vote than he did last time. Add that up across 78 counties, and it's easy to see how even dramatic victories in Ohio's six big-city counties weren't enough for a Kerry win, even with more voting there.

Just looking at the voter turnout numbers, Rosenthal glosses over the fact that while the average increases in Democratic- versus Repulican-leaning counties wasn't too far off, in many of the individual counties that "lean" most heavily Republican turnout was in fact through the roof. In Delaware County, for example, where Bush won with 66% of the vote, turnout was up by 43%. Forty-three percent. Turnout in Cuyahoga County (Kerry's with 67%) was up by 13.5%.

Next, Rosenthal claims that this: "Among Ohio's rural and exurban voters, Bush beat Kerry by just five points among newly registered voters and by a mere two points among infrequent voters (those who did not vote in 2000)," somehow debunks the idea that newly registered voters in the suburbs and exurbs carried the day. Maybe Mr. Rosenthal forgot to notice that Ohio was lost by about 2.5%. It seems to me that the 2-5 point margin for Bush among new and infrequent voters is not insignificant, given the margin. Setting aside the numbers for a moment, let's stand back and note that, by however small a margin, Bush won the new voters in surburban, exurban, and rural OH. Wasn't this supposed to be the election where disaffection with the clearly incompetent President would turn out droves of people coming out of the woodwork just to vote against him? Hmmmm....let's return to our discussion of how we can be a credible alternative, shall we?

Finally, Rosenthal takes on the "myth" that Republicans ran a superior, volunteer-driven mobilization effort. "When we asked new voters in rural and exurban areas who contacted them during this campaign, we learned that they were just as likely to hear from the Kerry campaign and its allies as from the Bush side. (In contrast, regular voters reported more contact from the GOP.) . . . Much has been made of the Republican effort to turn out voters through personal contact. Yet our poll shows that voters in these Republican counties were just as likely to be visited by a Kerry supporter at their homes as by a Bush supporter. Fewer than 2 percent were visited by a Bush supporter whom they knew personally."

The fact that new voters heard from Kerry and Bush people with equal frequency certainly bolsters Rosenthal's claim (preceded and no doubt echoed by every Democrat who's written anything on the election) that Bush won them over because he had a strong message. The second part of that paragraph is telling, though: reliable voters heard from Bush more often, and lo' and behold, they voted for him more reliably. That's evidence in favor of the GOP's approach to field in Ohio, not that they were somehow less impressive than it seems.

I can't imagine Mr. Rosenthal is being willfully deceptive in trumpeting his finding that just 2% of voters in Republican counties had been "visited by a Bush supporter whom they knew personally," as evidence of the GOP plan's failure, but he is absolutely dodging the key point. The argument has never been that voters must be contacted by people they know personally, but that local volunteers are better than imported campaign workers (volunteer or otherwise). It's fair to surmise that either they didn't bother asking that question, or ACT found (predictably) that OH voters had in fact been contacted more frequently by Bush supporters from their neighborhood than by Kerry supporters from their neighborhood. Anyone who's made voter ID and persuasion calls can attest (I know I can) whether you know your neighbors or not, it's extremely effective to start a conversation with, "I live around the corner from you." Research shows that it's far more effective than, "I came to Ohio from Connecticut because I think you should vote for Kerry," or some equivalent. It's the basis of the 72 Hour Plan, and the "Virtual Precinct Captain" tools and other tactics that made up the extremely effective GOP ground game in Ohio and nationwide.

Steve Rosenthal and ACT did tremendous work and certainly built a foundation for voter mobilization efforts in elections to come. It was a commendable effort. But it failed in Ohio (and elsewhere). A crappy candidate with no message helped pave the path to failure, but it was a failure. He - and we - can defend what ACT, et al, did and try to diminish what the GOP did on the ground to beat us, or we can learn from it and fight back not just harder, but better, in 2006 and beyond. Rosenthal's defense doesn't inspire my optimism that we'll pursue the latter course.

Well, I am an Ohioan who is older than most of the fresh-faced Kerry organizers we recently had here. I read a lot and I'm a single custodial dad of two who live on a small farm, so I'm situations that most people from the city (read: journalists) aren't. I do not simply buy the basis of the Wapo article.

I went to the state fair in Columbus and several county fairs (we have animals and fairs are good for kids) and let me tell you something: Bush's evangelists were out in force touting that stupid Anti-Gay Issue. We, the stupids of Ohio, passed it overwhelmingly. To read this article that tut-tuts the impact the scare of gay marriage put into the average Ohioan completely misses the boat. Heck, the anti-Gay vote was over 60%! Do you think that many of those people voted against gays and FOR John Kerry?

Guess again!

Yes, Ohioans bought the anti-terrorism rhetoric of Bush. Yes, Kerry did a lousy job of closing the deal (don't ever call him a great closer again --- Please!)

And yes, most Ohioans seem to be silly enough to stick with a president who is presiding over one of the longest recessions ever in Northeast Ohio. (Man, it is TOUGH over here! What are these people here drinking?)

While Kerry waffled and parried and made nice, Bush's goons went for the juglar. At the fairs, I heard them say over and over to people they corraled to sign their petitions "They're gonna put a gay in every home". "Your kids are gonna be seduced by them!" they cried.

And the famous line: "Yes, but would you want one of them queer couples moving into your neighborhood?"

As soon as our pollsters get their collective heads out of the sand and see how the average voters were scared into submission in this election by the leader(?) of the free world, we (you) will never understand how we lost an election America so badly needed to win.

In truth, abortion is a dead issue in Ohio. A large majority are for a woman's right to choose. But, many of these same people are deathly afraid of what they do not know and can only imagine (or see on Reality TV): Gay couples!


So, having refuted all these myths, what do you suggest as the meaningful explanation for Republican turnout?

I think you may be missing the forest for all the trees here- everything had a cumulative effect, even if every individual bit was small. I'd suggest it all amounted to a matter of the many things reflecting the Modern world- global politics, global economics, Democratic openness to accommodating fundamental change of the social order- falling on the Heartland and hardest to accept in the middle stretch of the electorate's age range. Republicans emphasized it and argued that voting for them would stall things, be a remedy of sorts. And they made it easier for such people to go through the mechanics of voting, of course. Democrats had to counter it with a more blatant message of 'acceptable change' and social/moral courage- I can't say it would have won things, but it would have been the exact counter.

Ruy - It's fun to analyze voting results, but unless the numbers reflect reality, it's a meaningless and potentially damaging exercise. Your assumption that the pre-recount vote totals in Ohio reflect the actual vote is not only naive but it also does a disservice to Democrats. Those numbers are only what the Rebublicans would like everyone to believe. They almost certainly don't reflect the true makeup of the Ohio electorate, but they are a monument to Republican prowess in manipulating the vote. By using them as the basis for an authoritarian analysis of the Ohio vote, you are lending your reputation to legitimizing what is widely considered to be yet another stolen election. What the Democrats need now is an analysis of the tactics that were used to rig the Ohio and Florida votes and concrete suggestions for exposing them now and countering them next time.

My thanks to Luigi for giving us his on the ground perspective. The idea that Rove's anti gay strategy in Ohio was ultimately irrelevant when the Glorious Leader supposedly prevailed by 2% strains credulity. Given the numbers, it seems to me it was decisive.

And how many times does it have to be observed that there is absolutely no reason to link frequent church-going with hateful social "conservatism"? The anti-gay Ohio voters that Rove intentionally stirred up apparently don't go to church that frequently. What a surprise.

If all this is true then John Kerry really won Ohio. And AlGore won Florida. So Kerry beat AlGore in O4! I suppose if you don't spin analysis you'll just break down and cry. You'll have a Merry and Blessed Christmas.

The Rosenthal article argues two points that are quite independent of each other: (1) that Bush won less by turning out new voters than by convincing regular voters to switch, and (2) the issues he won on were fear of terrorism and support for the Iraq war rather than gay marriage and abortion.

My personal observations in a few days in Ohio make it very hard to credit #2. However, I think it's quite plausible that the effect of the gay marriage and abortion issues was more to switch Democratic voters than to bring out new voters. As I say, these two propositions are quite independent of each other.

(Sigh)--laurabelin: The provisional ballots *have* been counted, and Bush still leads by almost 119,000 votes. If *every single* spoiled vote were for Kerry--which is ridiculous-- Bush would still win. And you still haven't answered Rosenthal's point: if the Republicans were so great at vote suppression, how come "Turnout in Democratic-leaning counties in Ohio was up 8.7 percent while turnout in Republican-leaning counties was up slightly less, at 6.3 percent. John Kerry bested Bush in Cuyahoga County (home of Cleveland) by 218,000 votes -- an increase of 42,497 over Gore's 2000 effort. In Stark County (Canton) -- a bellwether lost by Gore -- Kerry won by 4,354." Some suppression!

There were long lines in plenty of places around the country. It's very unlikely they cost Kerry 119,000 votes in Ohio.

I am really alarmed by the utter denial of reality by some of my fellow Democrats. I think we can get 1.5% of the electorate to change its mind in 2008--which is all we need to do to win. But we won't be successful in doing this if we think we don't have to because "we really won" in 2004.

Bush got 55,000 more African American votes in Ohio in 2004, than he received in 2000, damn near half of his margin of victory in that state. His percentage of the Black vote in Ohio increased from 9 to 16 percent. Either a huge hunk of the Black vote was stolen or suppressed, or quite possibly the same-sex marriage issue cut deeply into Kerry's vote among African American church-goers. A poll of African American voters taken in Sept-Oct found that 46 percent favored no legal recognition of same-sex marriages, compared to 37 percent of the general population. Progressive Black leaders like Cornell West, Jesse Jackson, Rev. Joseph Lowery, Coretta king and others have all spoken out against amendments banning same-sex marriage. But many local preachers have been actively supporting the amendments, much to the delight of Ralph Reed and Karl Rove.