Is Ohio turning round?

Dateline: 17 February, 2006

My article “What’s going on in Ohio?” looked at how the long-dominant state Republican Party seemed to be throwing away its lock on the state. Larry J Sabato of Crystal Ball still has the state down as leaning to a change of parties in this gubernatorial election. Certainly, both the governorship and the US Senate seat are in play in November, but I differ from Sabato’s assessment that the Democrats are ahead in the race for the state house.

Opinion polls in the state give mixed messages as to which party is ahead depending on which candidates are assumed to be in the race come November. But the leader in the Republican primary, Ken Blackwell, comes out at least 10% ahead of any Democrat opponent. Granted, polls show Blackwell’s rival, Jim Petro, trailing the Democrats. But this very fact is surely likely to strengthen Blackwell’s hand in the primary.

Given the margins of error in polls and the fact that the election is still 10 months away, there is every chance that the Democrats could still win, but it is difficult to argue that they are currently favoured to take the state.

Just how can we expect the polls to move over the next few months? Currently the GOP remains badly hit by scandals surrounding the current governor, Bob Taft, who pleaded no contest to criminal charges last year. This issue is not going to go away, but it is reasonable to suppose that its impact will diminish as time passes. Furthermore, after the primary election in March the Republican candidate will have six months to distance himself from Taft. Blackwell should find this particularly easy, as he and Taft have been bitter opponents for some time. Blackwell even raised a petition to overturn Taft’s tax rises. There is plenty of time for things to go wrong with the Blackwell campaign, but also every reason to suppose that he is already past the nadir and his popularlity is on the rise. Just a few months ago he trailed Democrat, Ted Strickland, in the polls and is now ahead.

One complicating factor is that Blackwell is an African-American. There has been evidence in the past that more people are prepared to SAY they will vote for black candidates than are actually prepared to do so. Polls often overstate support for African-American candidates. Could Blackwell’s support be thus inflated?

Yes, that’s possible. But most of the evidence for polls inflating black support refers to Democrat candidates, simply because the Democrats put up more black candidates than Republicans do. The Democrat Party remains an odd and uneasy coalition, incorporating old-style Klansmen, such as the Party’s senior US Senator, Robert Byrd, and a strong base in black communities. The Klan may be a diminishing part of the Democrat coalition, but it is presumably white racists (mostly more moderate than the Klan itself) who declare willingness to vote for black candidates but fail to actually do so.

Black Republicans may be vulnerable – despite the Party’s lack of historical connections to the Klan – the same defection by white racists. But they can compensate for this by winning additional voters from the African-American community. For Democrats, this is barely an option, because the Party routinely wins 90% of the black vote even for its white candidates.

It is possible that black Democrat candidates can boost turnout in African-American areas. But there is no reason to suppose they can do this more effectively than black Republicans. Who are the abstainers in the black community? Some, undoubtedly, come from the least privileged sections of society: the homeless, drug addicts, single mothers. Such groups, black or white, are much less likely to vote than the average citizen. But such people are difficult to pull into the voting pool. It is reasonable to speculate that another group of black abstainers is those of conservative inclination: churchgoing families who support school choice and traditional values. School choice is very popular among black parents. Conservative blacks may well be reluctant to vote Republican, because it is so unusual in black communities, but find they have little in common with Democrats. Surely such people are ripe for harvesting by an articulate and popular black Republican.

Of course, these factors are complex, and all we have is speculation, but I think there are good reasons for supposing that running an African-American candidate is a net benefit to the Republicans, while it might not be to Democrats.

Furthermore, it might well be that these net benefits are not yet, in Blackwell’s case, fully factored into the opinion polls. While most people know who their state governor is, other state officials – Blackwell is Secretary of State – often remain fairly anonymous. Perhaps many of the voters faced with a pollster’s choice between “Democrat Ted Strickland and Republican Ken Blackwell” are answering without knowing Blackwell’s race. Indeed, since Blackwell is engaged in a close Republican primary fight, it is reasonable to suppose that the people most likely to be paying attention are Republicans. Thus it is distinctly possible that any negatives are already factored into Blackwell’s poll ratings whereas the positives – potential defectors from the Democrats – are not.

Finally, there is the question of Blackwell’s personal merits as a candidate. This early in the campaign this will not have been much of a factor. But Blackwell seems to have impressed voters at every previous outing. He has been mayor of Cincinnati, and elected to two statewide offices. He is widely described as being extremely charismatic. As the election nears Blackwell’s charisma will begin to shine through.

For all these reasons – Blackwell’s opportunity to distance himself from Taft, the potential to reach out to black voters and the increasing focus on his personal merits – it seems probable that current polls are understating Blackwell’s likely lead on election day.

Copyright © 17 February, 2006

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