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Dems have room to grow in Ohio

I’ve been studying Ohio for a while. I began with fourth-grade Ohio history. My first responsible job in politics was for John Gilligan’s successful gubernatorial campaign — working so far under manager Mark Shields that I think I only glimpsed him twice. I was honored to serve as the pollster to two of our greatest senators — Democrats Howard Metzenbaum and John Glenn, helping them defeat the likes of Republicans George Voinovich and Mike DeWine.

I’ve been studying Ohio for a while. I began with fourth-grade Ohio history. My first responsible job in politics was for John Gilligan’s successful gubernatorial campaign — working so far under manager Mark Shields that I think I only glimpsed him twice. I was honored to serve as the pollster to two of our greatest senators — Democrats Howard Metzenbaum and John Glenn, helping them defeat the likes of Republicans George Voinovich and Mike DeWine.

Since then, Ohio, a paradigmatic swing state for generations, has been a wasteland for Democrats. While that is likely to change soon, it is worth examining how bad timing and worse luck conspired to create a weak bench that put Ohio Democrats out of business for the past decade.

Instead of eating their young, Ohio Republicans give them a second chance. So two years after losing to Metzenbaum, Voinovich was elected governor. Along with him came a tough, effective Democratic attorney general, Lee Fisher, who had an eye on the governor’s mansion.

The national debacle of ’94 hit Ohio, too. The Democratic nominee for governor gave up early, barely leaving his house to campaign, and Voinovich captured an astounding 72 percent of the vote.

That political tsunami helped knock out every statewide Democratic candidate including Fisher, who lost narrowly. The bench was gone.

Four years later, Fisher ran for governor, as planned. But the landscape had been altered. Bill Clinton’s policies were producing record economic growth and good feeling about the Republican administration in Columbus. Second, Fisher was running as a private citizen against scion and Secretary of Sate Bob Taft. Had Fisher been running as a two-term attorney general, the outcome might have been different.

Though still a swing state, Ohio no longer had any Democrats with sufficient statewide stature to mount a credible campaign against the Republican incumbents.

But things are changing. Democratic mayors are running successful cities. Members of Congress have held swing districts. Perhaps most important, one-party rule is sowing the seeds of its own destruction. The arrogance it produces has led to massive scandals and GOP tax increases. At the same time, George Bush’s policies have cost hundreds of thousands of jobs.

Ah, but what of 2004, when some of my colleagues predicted an Ohio Kerry win? We were hopeful but knew we went into Election Day a couple of points behind.

Thanks to an exhaustive analysis of precinct data by The Columbus Dispatch, we have a clearer picture of election 2004. Two central facts emerge. First, both sides did a great job turning out their base voters. But, contrary to conventional wisdom, Democrats did a better job than the Republicans. There just weren’t quite enough Democratic votes to win.

Claiming Democratic turnout superiority is controversial, so let me offer a nugget of data. In base Democratic precincts (the 1,740 that Kerry carried with 70 percent or more), turnout was 8.2 points higher than it had been in 2000. In the 1,306 base Republican precincts, turnout increased by a slightly lesser 6.1 points.

Second, despite Herculean and effective efforts by Democrats in ’04, there are still more votes to be turned out. Though Democratic turnout grew more than did Republican participation, turnout was higher in the Republican base (78 percent) than in the Democratic base (58 percent). Democrats remain less likely to vote than Republicans, but that gives Democrats more room to grow.

The approval ratings of the current incumbents provide Democrats with clear incentives to increase that turnout. Taft is the least popular governor in the nation. His party’s nominee will be wearing the incumbent like an albatross. Meanwhile, DeWine is tied with Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) as the least popular senator in the country.

My fourth-grade Ohio history teacher would have loved to be around to watch.

Mellman is president of The Mellman Group and has worked for Democratic candidates and causes since 1982, including Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) last year.