The creation of Ohio was one of the great acts of the American Enlightenment. Its founders did not consider the state distinctive or romanticize its landscapes and its peoples. Such things did not matter to them because they were not trying to create something unique.
— Ohio: The History of A People, by Andrew R.L. Cayton
This is my Jerry Springer moment
I don’t want this moment to die
So dip me in chocolate and throw me to the lesbians
I don’t want this moment to die
— Jerry Springer: the Opera, by Richard Thomas and Thomas and Stewart Lee
For Ohio Democrats, the 2004 presidential election is principally about evicting George W. Bush from the White House. But it may also determine whether they have to stomach Jerry Springer as their nominee for governor in 2006. Two hundred and one years after it was assembled from land held in reserve for Virginia and Connecticut, Ohio has finally achieved uniqueness.
“Ohio’s our best chance for a big-state pickup,” former President Bill Clinton told an interviewer in the Aug. 5 Rolling Stone. Among swing states, only Florida and Pennsylvania have more electoral college votes than Ohio, and the Kerry and Bush campaigns have spent more money in Ohio (on a per-elector basis) than in either of those states. (When independent expenditures are factored in, the combined ad buy so far may exceed $20 million.) One reason for Ohio’s preeminence is that its voting patterns, though fairly predictable in previous years, are now in flux. Superstition is also a factor. Traveling around the state last week, I heard just about every political operative or analyst I encountered cite two statistics: 1) No Republican has ever won the White House without winning Ohio; and 2) Ohioans have gone with the winner in every presidential election since 1964. To make these two facts an argument for campaigning heavily in Ohio is to confuse cause and effect—Ohio’s vote tracks closely with the national vote not because its voters have any greater ability to affect voters elsewhere but because its demographics track national ones more closely than most.
Many people long considered Ohio, at least from a distance, to be a boring place. Its very representativeness made it uninteresting. But Ohio was always quite interesting when viewed as a collection of regions whose distinctive identities cancel each other out. In a recently launched newspaper series destined to be widely quoted in this Ohio-obsessed campaign season, the Cleveland Plain Dealer counts five Ohios:
1.) The Northeast. The state’s manufacturing region. Cleveland, Akron, and Youngstown are all here. Although the Northeast has declined more than sufficiently to justify the term “rust belt”—Ohio lost 97,000 manufacturing jobs between 2000 and 2003 alone—manufacturing still represents 20 percent of Ohio’s employment, or 6 percent above the national average. (I’m indebted here and throughout this article to The Ohio Almanac, edited by John Baskin and Michael O’Bryant.)
2.) The Southeast. This is Ohio’s slice of Appalachia. This low-income, coal-mining region has more in common with West Virginia, which it borders, than with the rest of Ohio. Thirty percent of all adult males in the Southeast are veterans, and while the region is overwhelmingly patriotic, nearly one-quarter of its citizens have soured on the Iraq war, according to the Plain Dealer.
3.) Central Ohio. The swing-voter heartland. Columbus, this region’s focal point, has grown from a charming slice of Americana (James Thurber, grouch extraordinaire, wrote nostalgically about his Columbus boyhood) to Ohio’s most populous city, with a population of 711,000. Indeed, Columbus is the only one of Ohio’s six major cities that didn’t lose population during the 1990s. Columbus has achieved this seeming miracle by repeatedly expanding its city borders to absorb surrounding suburban areas. State government (Columbus is Ohio’s capital), higher education (Ohio State), and various white-collar enterprises are major employers in Central Ohio.
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.
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, 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.
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.)
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.”
Springer’s name recognition is close to 100 percent, but it isn’t fame that would get him elected. Springer’s negatives, according to Ohio GOP chairman Bennett, go as high as 75 percent. As Springer himself says, “There are pluses and minuses. The plus is that I’m known by everybody. The minus is that I’m known by everybody.” Springer’s asset is money. In its current diminished state, the Ohio Democratic party is a weak host highly susceptible to invasion by the Springer virus. Springer has lavished more than $250,000 in contributions to Ohio Democrats, and he’s traveled around the state to help candidates raise money. By all accounts he’s a very compelling speaker. The Ohio Democratic party expressed its gratitude this spring by naming Springer Man of the Year at its annual dinner. If Springer gets the nomination, his campaign can be largely self-funded.
Jeffrey Rusnak, an Ohio-based political consultant working with MoveOn PAC and a new “527” organization called Bring Ohio Back, rejects the idea that the Democratic party needs Springer. “Regardless of who the Democrats have in ‘06, we’re going to be starting from a lot stronger position,” he told me. “We’re on a better footing and better ground.” But the enormous energy that the Democratic party and its various money-raising allies are pouring into the presidential contest will be difficult to sustain if, after an unprecedented effort, they still aren’t able to prevail in 2004. And as Ohio State political scientist Herb Asher points out, if Kerry loses, there will be no Democrat powerful enough to dissuade Springer from running, or to dissuade party leaders from supporting him. When you consider all this, winning Ohio for Kerry isn’t merely something Ohio Democrats should desire. It’s something that may save them from becoming the nation’s laughingstock.