If there was any question about Ohio’s status as the battleground state among battleground states, the past week has put it to rest. The candidates, their surrogates, and even independent celebrities have been barnstorming Ohio. And of course last night Ohio was center stage for the vice-presidential debate in Cleveland. It appears Ohio will continue to see the presidential campaign up close and personal for the next 30 days.
This is a change from the Gore campaign in 2000. To the chagrin of local Democrats, Gore pulled most of his ad buys and focused his visits on states like Florida. Despite trailing by double digits in some polls in late September, Gore only lost the state by 3.5 percent. It appears that strong union support and get-out-the-vote efforts closed the gap late in the race. Ever since, Democrats have been convinced that if their candidate will stick it out, they can win Ohio and its crucial 20 electoral votes.
It looks like Democrats will get their wish. Kerry visited Youngstown and Cleveland over the weekend to rack up his 19th visit, and the senator is sure to be back again after last night’s debate. Of course, Bush is no slouch either: The president has visited Ohio 27 times during this campaign, including stops in Columbus, Mansfield, and Cuyahoga Falls on Sunday. Bush often jokes about his great-grandfather’s ties to Ohio (Samuel P. Bush lived in Columbus), and how he hopes voters will consider him an honorary Buckeye. Given his frequent visits to the state, and his plans for even more down the stretch, the president looks more like a gubernatorial candidate than a presidential one.
The candidates aren’t the only ones visiting this battleground state. Numerous celebrities have descended on Ohio in an attempt to affect the election. The Vote for Change Tour hit Ohio this past weekend with six concerts across the state. John Mellencamp’s was in Columbus; Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band with R.E.M.–and the Dixie Chicks with James Taylor–were in Cleveland; Pearl Jam played in Toledo; the Dave Matthews Band played in Dayton; and Jackson Browne and Bonnie Raitt played Cincinnati. All of these concerts benefit Americans Coming Together, a liberal political action committee technically independent but strongly anti-Bush.
Not to be outdone by the rock-and-roll crowd, a group of authors organized by novelist Stephan Elliott are also seeking to sway Ohio by energizing and getting out the youth vote. The idea behind Operation Ohio is to use hip young authors to encourage college students to register and vote. Elliott has rounded up a group of fellow writers who have volunteered to call students on Election Day. If this New York Times story is any indication, however, students prefer rock stars to contemporary authors. I guess the oft-cited youth vote remains illusive.
Rock stars aside, voter registration is a hot topic these days. Local boards of elections have been practically overrun with applications leading up to the October 4 deadline. Both parties, and a host of independent groups, have mounted intense campaigns to register voters and get them to the polls. Most observers seem to think the Democrats have an edge, but Republicans are convinced they can get their voters to the polls in larger numbers. To give you an idea of how large this effort has been, in 2000 nearly 4.7 million Ohioans voted in the presidential election. This year the secretary of state’s office estimates the total number of registered voters may reach as high as 7.7 million. Ohio has approximately 8.14 million residents at least 18 years old.
Another issue that could play a role in the election is the proposed defense-of-marriage ballot amendment. It reads:
Only a union between one man and one woman may be a marriage valid in or recognized by this state and its political subdivisions. This state and its political subdivisions shall not create or recognize a legal status for relationships of unmarried individuals that intends to approximate the design, qualities, significance or effect of marriage.
It appears–barring an Ohio supreme-court ruling to the contrary–that the amendment will be on the ballot in November, and the most recent Columbus Dispatch poll has the initiative winning by a two-to-one margin (63-30). Although many in the business community–and even Republican attorney general and likely 2006 gubernatorial candidate Jim Petro–are opposed to the measure, fearing that it is overly restrictive, the issue favors the GOP. Conservative support for the measure is high, and will motivate Republicans to get to the polls in November. This is sure to be a boost for President Bush.
On the bright side for Democrats, it doesn’t appear that Ralph Nader will be on the ballot this cycle. Apparently, loose oversight of the company gathering the petition signatures led to fraudulent and invalid signatures. The Nader camp is hoping an appeal to the supreme court can still get them on the ballot, but that scenario remains doubtful. Nader was polling around 2 percent in recent surveys.
So what does all of this mean? Well, it means a hard-fought race right down to Election Day. The latest poll from the Columbus Dispatch has Bush leading Kerry 51-44, but that poll was conducted mostly prior to the first debate. The Kerry camp is confident their candidate got a boost from that debate and point to national polls that show the race is tightening. An energized base is one thing, but the question remains: Can Kerry move the numbers significantly? The Bush camp has prepared for a tight race from the start and is planning on a fight to the finish. With two more presidential debates left, there is still plenty of time for momentum to shift between the candidates.
In fact, Bush’s perceived lackluster showing in the first debate has heightened the importance of the remaining debates. Normally not seen as particularly important, last night’s veep debate seems to have had added importance, given the change in tone and momentum coming out of the first debate. A solid performance by Dick Cheney energized the GOP base and helped get the campaign on the offensive again in preparation for the presidential debate on Friday.
With the vice-presidential exchange now done with, look for the candidates to return to Ohio regularly in the final weeks of the campaign. Kerry knows that a win in Ohio is crucial to his hopes of gaining the presidency, while Bush knows that holding Ohio is one more step toward reelection. Ohioans, meanwhile, just know that they will have to endure a few more weeks of campaign commercials, candidate visits, yard-sign battles, and fluctuating polls.
–Kevin Holtsberry is a freelance writer in Ohio.