How Obama Can Win Ohio

Note: This week’s blog is a repost of John Russo’s column from Friday’s Opinionator blog at the New York Times.

The decisive referendum vote to repeal the bill that would limit collective bargaining by public sector unions has changed the political landscape in Ohio. Tuesday’s vote on Senate Bill 5 could and should be a harbinger for the 2012 presidential election. By mounting a direct assault on public sector workers and the unions who represent them, Gov. John R. Kasich of Ohio may have done more to help Barack Obama win re-election than anything Obama’s political team is likely to do over the next 12 months.

With Ohio’s continuing high unemployment rate (9.1%!, just like the rest of the U.S), it had seemed unlikely that President Obama could win Ohio, and without Ohio, he’d have difficulty getting re-elected. The same factors make re-election a challenge for Senator Sherrod Brown, an Ohio Democratic and one of the most pro-labor members of the Senate. But Kasich, the Republicans in the Ohio legislature and outside conservative financers and think tanks like the Buckeye Institute, may have done Obama and Brown a big favor.

Karl Rove described Senate Bill 5 as a much “more extensive reform” to public sector unions than was enacted in Wisconsin, in part because the Ohio version included firefighters and police officers. While the protests in Columbus were smaller and received less national attention than those in Madison, unions and community groups in Ohio organized a ballot initiative with 10,000 volunteers circulating petitions in all 88 counties. Over 1.3 million Ohioans — more than five times the number required to put the initiative on the ballot — signed the petitions.

Despite a large influx of money from conservative organizations like Citizens United, Freedom Works, and Restoring America, Ohio voters repealed Senate Bill 5 by an overwhelming 22 point margin — 39% yes, 61% no (a no vote was pro-union). Democrats and independents voted overwhelmingly against the measure, and, if pre-election polls are correct, 30% of Ohio Republicans also voted to reject Senate Bill 5.

This should be good news for Obama. While Ohio is notorious for swinging back and forth between supporting Republicans and Democrats, its 18 electoral votes are especially important for Republican candidates. It’s almost impossible for a Republican to win the presidential election without Ohio, and that means winning significant support among union household voters.

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.

This gives Obama the opportunity to score a big victory in Ohio, but that won’t happen solely on the basis of Senate Bill 5. The president must offer a positive economic vision and a program for economic change. The American Jobs Act – even if it must be pushed through piecemeal — is a good start, as are the president’s recent actions on mortgages and student loans.

Such positions will also help Senator Brown’s chances of re-election, but in 2012, in Ohio at least, the usual pattern of members of Congress benefiting from presidential coattails could be reversed. Brown’s solid support for organized labor, community groups and those who have been most hurt by the continuing economic crisis — positions that resonate with the millions of Ohio voters who overturned Senate Bill 5 — may help Obama more than anything Obama has done will help Brown.

None of this is guaranteed, of course. In order for the battle over Senate Bill 5 to influence the 2012 election, those who have organized so effectively to defend unions must continue to work together. Unions will have to keep educating members and reach out to those outside of the labor movement. They will also have to work closely with community and neighborhood groups like the Ohio Organizing Collaborative, which played a pivotal role in community organizing around Senate Bill 5.

None of that will be easy. Competing interests within and between organized labor and community organizations make the coalition very fragile. The A.F.L.-C.I.O. is relatively weak in Ohio, and some tensions exist between public and private sector unions. Meanwhile, Ohio Republicans are threatening to put parts of Senate Bill 5 through in a series of smaller bills next year. Without solidarity across labor organizations, the coalition that fought so well against one big bill could fracture. It may be that other issues won’t have the unifying effect of Senate Bill 5. After all, the same voters who overturned that bill approved a constitutional amendment barring the implementation of the individual insurance mandate of the Patient Protection and Affordable Health Care Act.

But if the organizers of the campaign against Senate Bill 5 can hold together and if the Obama campaign can tap into the anger and solidarity of that fight, Tuesday’s vote could turn out to be the turning point in the 2012 election.


John Russo, Center for Working-Class Studies

This entry was posted in Contributors, Issues, John Russo, Working-class politics and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to How Obama Can Win Ohio

  1. Varg Freeborn says:

    I am very curious about something here. While your assessment of the political landscape in Ohio and it’s penchant for swinging left and right is quite plausible, I am given serious pause by the author’s implied assumption that an Obama win is a victory of any sort for the working class and those at or below the poverty level.
    Here is why: (This is not off-topic from the article, please let me explain)

    During the horrible Bush Administration, Democrats were constantly up in arms about the undeclared wars, invasions and occupations of other nations. They were also vehemently vocal about the abuses of civil liberties such as those codified into law by the Patriot Act. On top of this, Democrats were vicious in their opposition to political pandering to Wall Street and lobbyists. I remember the protests, the anti-war rallies in front of the Eastwood Mall (and across the nation), and the anti-Bush rallying cries based on the above transgressions of said administration.

    Of course, Obama made several promises to stop all of this horrible nonsense. I was there when he came to YSU, I sat in the bleachers on campus and heard the speech that wintry day. We’ll bring the troops home in the first year, we’ll investigate the civil liberties abuses of the Patriot Act, we’ll stop Wall Street and lobbyists from running Washington. To quote him during campaign season 2007 concerning Iraq, “This war’s lasted longer than World War I, II, the Civil War; 4,000 Americans have died (and of course Americans are the only people that matter in the war). More than 60,000 have been injured; we spent trillions of dollars; we’re less safe.”

    Now, 3 years later, not only has Obama for all intents and purposes continued the Bush wars, he has expanded the war machine, by direct military action or under the guise of NATO, to include war activities in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, Somalia, Libya and Yemen, against groups that didn’t even exist at the time that 9/11 was perpetrated. Drones are dropping bombs in all of these 6 countries now. Innocents are dying and being maimed. He has TRIPLED the number of troops in Afghanistan, and many of those promised to come home from Iraq are being redeployed there now.

    And remember the Democrat hot-button issue of private corporations profiting from war? there are 87,000 contractors in Afghanistan; 71,000 in Iraq.

    On civil liberties, he is worse than Bush ever dreamed of being. He extended the Patriot Act. In fact, just yesterday on Dec. 31, 2011, he signed away the protection of Habeas Corpus, revoked pieces of the Bill of Rights, and declared it legal for the U.S. government to detain U.S. citizens indefinitely without a trial or charges, based only on SUSPICION. Wow, and this guy is good because…?

    What does this mean to the working class and poor of the U.S.? For starters, it means a nation spending $2 Billion PER WEEK in Afghanistan alone (not to mention the operations in the 5 other countries that we know about). This equates to a massive overspending at the federal level that forces our government to increase the debt ceiling and print money. Inflation of the currency is a direct tax that hits the poor and middle class in the worst way, by devaluing the dollars they earn and thereby limiting their purchasing abilities and quality of life. It also saddles current and future generations with massive debt obligations that none of us will be able to pay off for generations. (Not to mention making us less-safe as a nation due to angering generations of the inhabitants of these lands which we indiscriminately bomb).

    As a side-effect of this, as job prospects become more and more scarce in the nation, it is primarily the poor and middle class who seek to enter military service simply to make a living for their families. It is always overwhelmingly the poor and middle class who fight and die in the wars.

    Wall Street, lobbyists, and corporations are also huge failure issues for Obama. He folded on his promise about revolving-door lobbyists almost immediately. As the Washington Post’s Zachary Goldfarb reported, securities firms — the trading arms of big banks and hundreds of other independent firms — have fared even better. They’ve generated at least $83 billion in profit during the past 2 1/2 years, compared with $77 billion during the entire Bush administration, according to data from the Securities Industry and Financial Markets Association.

    That is utter failure to protect the working class and poor, and a complete success for the Wall Street crew. Why would it be any other way, Obama’s own campaign largely being funded by that same group of Wall Street banks that the OWS is now fighting against in protest. I’m sure I don’t need to include here an explanation concerning how Wall Street is killing the working class and poor.

    In conclusion, I find it quite difficult for you to make your case that an Obama victory equates to a victory for the working class or poor. It’s simply a blue team win, only a victory if politics were a team sport like football.


  2. This blog has me thinking. I’m a Wisconsin resident, and now that the Recall Walker petitions are out on practically every street corner, I’ve been torn about whether or not to sign one. On the one hand, I did not vote for Scott Walker, and I agree with most of the arguments presented by the protestors. However, I also lean toward the idea that if more people had actually voted in the gubernatorial election, perhaps we wouldn’t be in the current situation. Therefore, by not moving forward with a recall, we realize the consequences of our inaction and encourage all those eligible to exercise their rights and vote in the next election. The points made above are making me think that the recall election may be a unique opportunity to send a message not only to Scott Walker and the Wisconsin legislature, but to the nation as a whole. We can change our fates – we don’t have to live with the status quo. And finally, Americans may believe once again in the purest form of democracy – one person, one vote, and elected officials truly represent their constituents.


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