Friday, July 25, 2008

A FIELD GUIDE TO OHIO POLITICS

Two polls out recently report this about the presidential race in Ohio: Obama is ahead by 10 points; Obama is trailing by 8. Welcome to the Buckeye State. So let me use these schizophrenic results to make some observations about politics in Ohio.

First, we must understand that Ohio has always been one part Rust Belt and one part Bible Belt, and that second part is growing. While the industrial economy in the state’s northern half has collapsed, and all those Democratic-voting union members have left, the bottom half of the state has seen a major influx of Appalachian refugees over the last 40 years.

They have fled Kentucky, West Virginia and even Tennessee, and settled in Cincinnati, Dayton and Columbus. You can watch this as the landscape proliferates with Southern churches – Rod Parsley, one of the most despicable of the big-box church preachers is headquartered in Columbus. I-70, which cuts east-west across Ohio is really the new Mason-Dixon line.

Second, the state does not have a dominating metropolitan region which sets the political tone of the state and functions as the major economic engine, as is the case increasingly in places like Illinois, Pennsylvania, Colorado and Nevada. Instead, Ohio is balkanized into five small regions, each centered on a small and struggling metro area: Cincinnati in the southwest; Toledo in the northwest, Cleveland in the northeast; Columbus in the middle. (The southeast, devastated by years of coal mining, really might as well be in West Virginia).

While each of these regions has a different cultural and economic make up, they are all suffering. Indeed, the smell of economic desperation pervades all corners of the state now. Ohio is losing jobs, is a national leader in foreclosures and is exporting college graduates.


Third, until 2006 Ohio was thoroughly in the iron grip of one-party Republican tyranny: 16 years of Republican governors and Republican control of the legislature. Before the 2006 elections no Democrat held state-wide office in Ohio. That has had two bad consequences.

On the one hand, it has left Congressional districts (and state legislative districts) more elegantly gerrymandered than those in Texas. Democrats nationally are poised to pick up even more House seats in November, but at least at this point no one seems to be predicting that Democrats in Ohio will take over any Republican districts. (Keep your eye on Sharen Neuhardt in the 7th District race. She is smart, savvy and running in an open seat occupied for 18 years by an epically mediocre Republican).

On the other hand, this Republican domination has left the state Democratic party in a shambles. Over the last decade, Republicans routinely ran un-opposed, the party raised virtually no money, and it had no organizational presence at the grassroots level.

The good news is that Ohio voters elected a Democratic governor and a US Senator in 2006 by stunning margins (though the House seats stayed Republican). Governor Ted Strickland has made it a priority to rebuild the party machinery.

However, Ohio’s combination of economic despair and Southern-style religion and politics will prove a real challenge for the Obama campaign. Faced with all the bad news, many Ohio voters are scared of change. They have turned mean and McCain’s increasingly shrill, sniping campaign will appeal to those voters for whom guns, god and gay-bashing substitute for jobs, education and hope. In 1992 James Carville quipped that Pennsylvania was Philadelphia at one end, Pittsburgh at the other and Alabama in the middle, but in fact Ohio is fast becoming the Alabama of the North.

3 comments:

David said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
David said...

Modified slightly since I didn't realize the new addition to this blog was the author.

I think it is mostly right on, though I'd argue that the 71 corridor of Cincinnati and Columbus are keeping their heads above water (though the abandonment of Wilmington by DHL is a real kick to the groin of the area in between).

There are a couple of variables worth considering. Hamilton Cty (once one of the most Republican and I guess conservative counties in the nation) is trending Democratic pretty strongly these days. A lot of sprawl in the area between Cincy and Dayton has removed a big part of the GOP population base to out of county suburbs. Obama crushed Clinton there and the old-line GOP that produced Robert A. Taft and others is not doing so well these days (example numero uno - Jean Schmidt).

The Southernization is strongest in Dayton, parts of Columbus, and Akron. SE Ohio was settled by Virginians so that is really reverting to form. Toledo is limping along as Detroit goes under. Cincinnati is more diverse with P&G, Macy's and others bringing a somewhat more cosmopolitan voice to the area.

I can't speak to Cleveland much.

I'd also add that the Catholic Church/Catholics remains a major force in all the urban areas (save Akron) of the state, though the sex abuse crisis has certainly weakened its hold on people as it has throughout the country.

Strickland has impressed a lot of folks who would traditionally have strongly opposed Democrats. He learned how to speak to the more Kentucky/West Virginia part of the state representing them for so long in Congress.

Sorry to hijack this post.

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