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Don't Read Too Much Into the Ohio Referenda

By Sean Trende - November 16, 2011


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Last week, Ohio voters resoundingly rejected a ballot measure known as Issue 2 by a 61 percent to 39 percent margin. A "yes" vote would have affirmed Ohio's version of Wisconsin's collective bargaining law, which would have made it more difficult for public sector workers to organize and bargain with the state government. By rejecting Issue 2, Ohio voters repealed the law championed by Gov. John Kasich, and did so by a wide margin.

The punditry has interpreted the results as a warning sign to Republicans, and a hopeful sign for President Obama’s re-election effort. For Democrats, what’s been called “the Right Wing's Shellacking in Ohio” has, in the words of one author writing in the New York Times, served to “change[] the political landscape in Ohio” and “could and should be a harbinger for the 2012 presidential election.” Even Republicans are joining in the handwringing, as Henry Olsen, vice president at the American Enterprise Institute, worried that last week’s election “indicates that the GOP marriage with the white working class is on the rocks. That’s bad news, since the epic Republican landslide in 2010 was fueled by record-high margins among these voters.”

Time magazine summarizes the conventional wisdom as follows:

Democrats and their labor allies won because they managed to convince Ohioans that Kasich had turned the state’s 350,000 public sector-union employees into scapegoats, snatching away their bargaining rights and punishing cash-strapped local communities even as he sought to slash taxes for the wealthy and privatize services. It was a tailor-made wedge issue for a party in desperate need of one.

There’s clearly at least some truth to this analysis, and the mailing and donor lists that labor unions compiled will give them a nice head start for 2012. But while we don’t have exit polling to help us parse what was going through voter’s minds, I think that Ohio voters were more likely voting to stop what they perceived as the defunding of fire departments, police stations and EMT teams.

To put this in perspective, I live in Delaware County, Ohio. It’s something of a new-growth, high-end suburban county adjacent to Columbus. It has voted Republican in every presidential election since 1920, including a 20-point win for John McCain in 2008. Delaware voted to approve Issue 2, but by a surprisingly narrow 54 percent to 46 percent margin. It wasn’t unusual to see “Vote No on 2” signs in front of houses that were probably valued above $500,000. It seems reasonably clear that these voters didn’t reject it because of a wider anti-corporate backlash.

Instead, they most likely cast “No on 2” ballots because the anti-Issue 2 forces, after initially toying with an advertising campaign consistent with the conventional wisdom about the topic, ultimately framed the issue as one of public safety. You can find the complete “We Are Ohio” advertisement archives here. Let’s focus on the “home stretch” ads that were running on TV when people were paying the most attention, in October and later:

Here’s one featuring an elderly Ohioan discussing how firefighters saved her great-granddaughter Zoey, stating that Issue 2 “makes it illegal to negotiate for enough firefighters to do their job.” She also steals something of a page from the Tea Party handbook, railing against “politicians in Columbus” for making decisions for firefighters. She includes a brief line about these politicians turning their backs on the middle class.

The same grandmother appears in a later advertisement, castigating supporters of Issue 2 for misconstruing statements from her. This advertisement features a teacher, and does use the term “collective bargaining,” but does so in the context of smaller classroom sizes, newer textbooks, and school safety issues. It raises the specter of more standardized testing as well.

This advertisement features a heart attack victim, and notes that Issue 2 makes it “illegal to negotiate for safe staffing levels.”

This one again focuses on paramedics, and observes that Issue 2 “makes it illegal to negotiate for enough first responders to do the job.”

Other advertisements include one implying that Issue 2 would make it illegal for police officers to negotiate to have partners on the beat with them, an “omnibus” ad decrying cuts for all “everyday heroes,” and an advertisement featuring iconic former Democratic Sen. John Glenn speaking in favor of repeal.

The yard signs and bumper stickers floating around central Ohio echoed these themes. They rarely mentioned union affiliations, and instead urged voters to “stand with firefighters.” Likewise, the official arguments for and against Issue 2 exclude any reference to unions or collective bargaining rights. While these arguments do sound some of the anti-corporate themes the conventional wisdom suggests were prevalent, the arguments are clearly of subordinate importance to the safety issues that dominated the campaign.

Overall, the “final argument” carefully avoided any reference to labor unions. Only one advertisement released during this time even used the term “collective bargaining.” The rest opted instead for the more neutral term “negotiation.” A low-information voter -- and most voters are this sort, to an extent that pundits have difficulty appreciating -- wouldn’t necessarily know that they were voting on a pro-union measure. Instead, they would see themselves voting to fund firefighters, police officers and paramedics, something that even a libertarian like Ron Paul would support. The only advertisement during this time that really hit squarely on anti-corporate themes (aside from a few lines in the “Zoey” ad) was this one, which plainly fits the bill. But again, it’s only one of nine ads that were released in October/November, when people were paying the most attention.

Also remember that this election has to be evaluated in a broader context. Wisconsin is probably two or three points more Democratic than Ohio. Yet Wisconsin Republicans have repulsed two attacks on that state’s collective bargaining law. The clearest victory came in the narrow re-election of Supreme Court Justice David Prosser over liberal candidate Joanne Kloppenburg. But the Republicans’ ability to hold onto the state Senate, losing only a Republican in a heavily Democratic district, and (by a narrow margin) a Republican who had been living outside of his district with his 26-year-old girlfriend, also suggests that Republicans can win on these issues. Moreover, polling now shows that the Wisconsin public is less-than-enthusiastic about recalling Gov. Scott Walker. The critical difference between Wisconsin and Ohio? The former’s collective bargaining law exempted police and firefighters, suggesting that removing the “public safety” line of attack from labor’s arsenal helps Republicans a great deal. And, as one reporter noted, the Ohio electorate wasn’t in an especially generous mood on other issues, as a majority of school levies failed across the state.

Of course, similar criticisms can be leveled against Republican claims that “Ohioans rejected Obamacare” when they voted to reject an individual mandate by a 66 percent to 34 percent margin. That ballot initiative never mentioned the federal law, either in the text or in the official arguments for and against the bill. Many low-information voters were probably unaware that they were voting to reject a portion of the president’s health care plan. And just because voters rejected one part of the president’s bill doesn’t mean that they would reject the legislation as whole. After all, some voters might balk at the individual mandate, but wish to enjoy the subsidies, or being able to buy insurance even with a pre-existing condition. While Obamacare is likely unpopular in Ohio, it wouldn’t be surprising for it to have greater than 34 percent support.

At the end of the day, prognosticators should always focus more on the forest than any one particular tree, especially if the tree is a complex ballot issue. And this particular tree looks pretty out of place when viewed against the wider woodland. 

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Sean Trende is senior elections analyst for RealClearPolitics. He is a co-author of the 2014 Almanac of American Politics and author of The Lost Majority. He can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @SeanTrende.

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