Swingers: Ohio.

A guide to the swing states.
July 19 2004 1:19 PM

Ohio

Re-elect Bush, and you might get Jerry Springer, too.

(Continued from Page 1)

4.) The Northwest. The agricultural heartland. Farms are also scattered across central and southern Ohio (more than half of Ohio is designated prime farmland), but the Northwest is the state's least urban region. Ohio employs nearly as many farmers and food processors as it does workers in heavy industry. But like the state's manufacturing sector, farming has been in steep decline. During the past half-century, 30 percent of Ohio's farmland was lost. The region is fairly conservative.

5.) The Southwest.The conservative heartland. Situated adjacent to Kentucky, the Southwest is Ohio's most "southern" region (though you'll hear southern accents throughout southern Ohio). It was settled by a mixture of German immigrants and southern farmers. Its centerpiece is Cincinnati, which was Ohio's first economic powerhouse (founded 1788), initially on the strength of hog production and proximity to the Ohio River. Now, of course, Cincinnati, like Cleveland, is in decline. Although Cincinnati itself votes Democratic, the surrounding areas are solidly Republican.

There's actually a sixth Ohio that went unrecognized by the Plain Dealer, a rural stretch of Northeast Ohio that contains the state's most determinedly uncommitted voters, who number 60,000. But presidential candidates almost never woo these voters, because doing so is a waste of time. They're Amish, and while the Amish will occasionally vote on a local matter to protect a narrowly defined interest, their default stance is not to vote at all, especially in national elections. It is therefore not a little mystifying that Bush visited an Amish community in Lancaster County, Pa. on July 9 and asked those in attendance to vote for him. The Amish hedged on the voting, but promised to pray for him. (Ohio, incidentally, is home to significantly more Amish than can be found in Pennsylvania.)

Here is how you elect a Democrat to statewide or national office in Ohio: Win big in the Northeast (you need at least 60 percent in Cuyahoga County, where Cleveland is); win by any margin in Central Ohio (Franklin County, where Columbus is, is the crucial prize); and don't lose too badly in the Southwest (get more than 40 percent of the vote in Hamilton County, where Cincinnati is). The traditional Republican formula is not to lose too badly in the Northeast (you need more than 40 percent in Cuyahoga County); to win in Central Ohio (i.e., Franklin County); and to win big in the Southwest (i.e., get more than 60 percent in Hamilton County). Got that? OK, now forget it, because in 2000 Gore achieved the Democratic trifecta and he still lost to Bush, albeit by a very narrow margin of 3.5 percent. Obviously, the traditional voting patterns had changed.

J.B. Poersch, Comeback Kid
J.B. Poersch, Comeback Kid

Tim Hagan, de facto Cuyahoga County commissioner-elect (he won the Democratic primary, which virtually guarantees he will win in the general election) says that Gore won far more votes in Ohio than he was expected to and might have gone over the top if he hadn't pulled most of his ads off the air as the campaign wound down. (The decision may also have cost Gore West Virginia, because a single media market serves Ohio's Southeast and the westernmost part of West Virginia.) Hagan believes that if Cuyahoga County can increase voter turnout by 5 percent over that of 2000, John Kerry will win Ohio. J.B. Poersch, who is Kerry's state director for Ohio and ran Ohio field operations for Gore in 2000, refuses to discuss any numerical goals. But he takes Hagan's argument about Gore even further. He says (a little ruefully) that the Gore campaign's biggest mistake in Ohio wasn't pulling out so much as never committing a sufficient quantity of resources in the first place. "This is a very different atmosphere than four years ago," Poersch told me as we sat in the tin-ceilinged former firehouse that had become John Kerry's Ohio headquarters the day before.

For Ohio Democrats, beating Bush ought to be easier in 2004 than it was in 2000. The president is a weaker candidate than the "compassionate conservative" of 2000. There are fewer jobs in Ohio than there were when he took office, thanks to a recession and a slow recovery—and Ohio's recovery has been slower than the country's. The Iraq war has also cut into Bush's popularity. As Poersch puts it, "There's no morning in this president's America." Local factors may also help Ohio Democrats. The state Republican party has been embroiled in a legislative scanda l involving alleged kickbacks to two powerful aides to the House speaker. There's been some vicious backbiting among supporters for rival Republican candidates for governor in 2006, and a budget crisis left the current two-term governor, Bob Taft, looking weak and ineffectual. "Most of our statewide officeholders would tell you they're glad they're not on the ballot this year," Robert T. Bennett, chairman of the Ohio Republican party, concedes.

Jo Ann Davidson, Tupperware Queen
Jo Ann Davidson, Tupperware Queen
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Jo Ann  Davidson, a former Ohio House speaker and now regional chairman for the Bush campaign in the Ohio Valley, takes a much sunnier view. What the 2000 election really showed, she told me as we sat in her high-rise office overlooking Columbus'* replica of the Santa Maria, was that the Republicans were better off than they'd realized. The Democrats, after all, did not win, even though they satisfied a previous tried-and-true formula. The reason they didn't win, she said, was that the GOP found a rich new source of votes in exurban "collar counties" sprinkled throughout the state. (These are the voters that David Brooks has labeled"Patio Man" and "Realtor Mom.") Davidson featured prominently in an April 25 New York Times Magazine piece comparing Bush's vote-getting strategy to a Tupperware party. One volunteer is required to recruit a certain number of additional volunteers, who are themselves required to meet similar quotas, etc. She rattled enthusiastically about the campaign's 7,000 precinct captains and nearly 50,000 volunteers. As for the problems besetting Ohio's GOP, she assured me that the people out in the collar counties don't follow local politics very closely, which, sadly, may be true.

Guess who's coming to dinner?
Guess who's coming to dinner?

Perhaps you're wondering what all this has to do with Jerry Springer.

Before The Jerry Springer Show, the gladiatorial trash-talk program he's presided over these past dozen years, Springer was an Ohio politician. A Democrat, he served on Cincinnati's City Council, weathering a scandal in which police uncovered a check bearing Springer's name made out to a Kentucky prostitute. In 1977, Springer became mayor of Cincinnati, and in 1982 he lost a nomination bid in the Ohio gubernatorial election to Dick Celeste. Celeste went on to serve two terms, but after he left in 1991, Republicans grabbed hold of the governorship and didn't let go. No Democrat has been governor since. The Ohio Democratic party, as its exile from power stretched to a decade and beyond, withered and decayed. Today, the Republicans control not only the governor's office, but also both houses of the state legislature; all of Ohio's nonjudicial elective statewide offices; both seats in the U.S. Senate; and two-thirds of Ohio's delegation in the U.S. House.

Small wonder, then, that Springer, having apparently had his fill of transsexual Nazis, saw an opportunity to return to politics. Last year he briefly pondered entering the Democratic primary to challenge Sen. George Voinovich. For various reasons, he scrubbed that idea, but now he's seriously interested in running again for Ohio governor. (Click here to see his "Jerry For Ohio" Web site.)

Harvey Pekar, Bard of Cleveland
Harvey Pekar, Bard of Cleveland

When I asked various Ohio Democrats what they thought about this, their responses varied from professed neutrality to undisguised contempt. One day in Cleveland Heights I had lunch with Harvey Pekar, the retired Veterans Administration file clerk whose autobiographical comic books were recently turned into the film American Splendor, elevating Pekar from local counterculture hero to Ohio bard. Because Pekar presents himself in his books as the common man, I wondered what he made of Springer. "I'm no expert on Jerry Springer," he demurred, explaining that he'd never seen any of his shows from beginning to end. When prodded, however, Pekar cut to the quick: "I certainly wouldn't want to be in a position where I made my living showing people at their worst."

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