In a state where only 29% believe their family’s finances have improved in the past four years and nearly 60% rate the local economy as “not so good” or “poor,” the obvious question is: how did Bush manage to win Ohio, the Democrats’ top red state target?
Poring over the Ohio exit polling data—which, for obvious reasons, must be taken with a heaping grain of salt—almost every standard indicator would suggest doom for the incumbent.
The overwhelming majority of late-deciders broke for John Kerry (contrary to much of the rest of the country), moderates split for the Democrat decisively, 59-41, and polling leading up to the election asking the famous “right direction/wrong direction” question found folks answering roughly 35-65.
This in a state that Al Gore essentially conceded—and then only lost by 3.6%. Throw in a slumping local economy, and Bush’s goose should have been cooked.
Though identifying what put a candidate in a close contest “over the top” is sort of like crediting the final basket scored with winning the basketball game, it appears that a ballot initiative, known as Issue 1, banning gay marriage provided Bush with the winning margin in Ohio—and thus, the electoral college.
In the state’s three largest counties—Cuyahoga (home to Cleveland), Franklin (Columbus), and Hamilton (Cincinnati)—Gore scored a 130,000-vote margin out of 1.36 million cast. Gore won big in Cuyahoga (169,000), and pulled a surprise upset in once-Republican Franklin (5,000). Bush was saved by Hamilton, where he won by 43,000.
With the Democratic National Committee and George Soros-funded Moveon.org and America Coming Together focused on getting Kerry supporters to the polls in those three counties (and a handful of others), Kerry improved on Gore’s showing dramatically.
Kerry cleaned Bush’s clock in Cuyahoga by a stunning 218,000, and shocked almost everyone with a 31,000-vote victory in Franklin. Compounding matters, Bush barely carried Hamilton, with a net gain of less than 25,000. All told, Kerry beat Bush in those three counties by 225,000.
In almost any other election, such big margins in the three biggest counties would mean certain victory.
Turnout in rural, exurban, and outlying areas tells the real tale in Ohio. Bush blunted Kerry’s gains in traditionally Democratic, culturally conservative counties (think Reagan Democrats), and racked up huge numbers in rural and exurban counties.
With the energies of both the Democratic and GOP machinery focused on Ohio, many more voters turned up at the polls. According to Secretary of State Ken Blackwell’s office, there have been nearly 900,000 new registrations this year—and the number of ballots cast was up over 2000 by almost the same amount.
But while the national media cared only about the Bush-Kerry horserace, hundreds of thousands of Ohioans were most passionate about Issue 1. Some 550,000 signed the petition to get it on the ballot, and 62% of voters supported the ban on gay marriages.
Although Bush famously backed a proposed Constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage, most of the Ohio GOP establishment (including the governor and both U.S. Senators) opposed Issue 1, largely because it would also ban civil unions. Without help from the party, the Ohio Campaign to Protect Marriage executed an impressive get-out-the-vote effort.
Over 17,000 churches participated in the effort to pass Issue 1, and over 850,000 calls were made. National groups, such as Focus on the Family, Family Research Council, and American Family Association, e-mailed their entire lists in Ohio, which combined reached well north of half a million potential voters.
The turnout numbers in many counties are eye-popping. Vote totals in the three largest counties increased roughly 15%, less than the statewide figure of 16.5%. In many of the GOP strongholds, however, the increase was over 20%.
In the three counties surrounding in the southwest corner of the state (Cincinnati’s exurbs), Bush rolled. In Butler County, turnout was up 18%, and Bush’s 40,000-vote margin there in 2000 swelled to 52,000. Clermont County counted a 28% surge in ballots cast, and Warren County doubled the statewide increase, with 34% more voters than in 2000.
The most remarkable figures are in Delaware County. Turnout was up over 40%—a staggering figure for a county that already had an above-average portion of registered voters come to the polls in 2000. There were so many new voters in the county that the number of ballots cast was almost as high as the number who were registered four years ago.
The net result: Bush got almost as many votes (52,237) as he and Gore got combined (53,773), doubling the number of ballots cast for Kerry.
Ohio-based GOP strategists contacted by this columnist all agree that Issue 1 turned out large numbers of Bush backers across Ohio—many of them first-time voters. And all agree that Issue 1 never would have been on the ballot had the Massachusetts Supreme Court not legalized gay marriage.
In other words, the irony is that four justices from Kerry’s home state may have cost him Ohio—and with that, his ticket to the White House.