Can Bush win the election without Ohio? No Republican president was elected in the 20th century without capturing the Buckeye state. Right now, it’s neck-and-neck in the polls.
If Bush loses here, it will be due to the economy. An ABC News poll from a week ago showing Kerry with a three-point lead revealed that the biggest issue on voters’ minds was the economy and jobs. Thirty-three percent of respondents chose the economy as the most important issue. That means it beat out terrorism (19 percent), Iraq (17 percent), and health care (13 percent). It’s not hard to see why. While the nation’s unemployment rate is at 5.4 percent, Ohio’s is 6 percent, higher than that of all but Michigan, Oregon, South Carolina, and Alaska. Indeed, Ohio can’t seem to get job production rolling. While most other states have seen declines in unemployment in recent months, Ohio’s unemployment rate has hovered at around 6 percent since late 2002.
Presidents receive a lot of blame when the economy is doing poorly. One might object that the president has only limited influence on the economy. But since presidents usually take ample credit when the economy is humming along, fairness demands that they are faulted when it is not.
Ohio, however, is one state for which Bush should probably take very little of the blame. The real culprit is the Ohio GOP establishment headed up by Republican (In Name Only) Governor Bob Taft. Known among anti-tax activists as “Governor Tax,” he has, with the aid of the Republican-controlled legislature, boosted taxes over $900 million in the last three years. As Sam Staley of the free-market Buckeye Institute puts it, “I think the relative state and local tax burden plays a bigger role now in state economic performance than ever before. This is particularly true for older states like Ohio that are struggling to find their niche in the global economy.”
It is not just Taft’s fault. The GOP has been in control of Ohio since 1994, and previous governor and now senator George Voinovich raised taxes in 1997. As a result, Ohio has jumped in the rankings for state and local tax burden from 24th in 1994 to 3rd today, according to the Tax Foundation. (It’s even more depressing for Ohioans if they go back all the way to 1970, when Ohio was ranked 47th.) Not only is the tax burden affecting Ohio’s job picture, it appears to be chasing away the future. From 2000 to 2003, the Census Bureau shows that the number of people ages 25 to 34 in Ohio has declined by more than 54,000.
Staley attributes the Ohio GOP’s penchant for tax increases to myopia. “We have focused so much on balancing the state budget,” he says, “we’ve lost sight of the bigger picture–rising overall state and local tax burdens. If we are a high-cost state, we can’t compete with North Carolina, Florida, Texas, or Arizona.”
Others see a somewhat more nefarious reason. Economics Professor Richard Vedder of the University of Ohio complains, “We have one-party rule that is tired and corrupt. The special interests have inordinate control, and the legislature does its best to cater to them.” As an example, he notes that the nursing-home industry succeeded in having passed a law that reimburses them by the bed, whether full or not. This sort of payola is reflected in Ohio’s budget. From 1990-2001, per-capita general-fund spending in Ohio rose faster than in all other states save Montana. With such explosive growth in expenditures, it is little wonder that the GOP establishment has felt the pressure to raise taxes.
Unfortunately, Ohio’s GOP is not the sort to put up much resistance to such pressure. As Grover Norquist of Americans for Tax Reform says, “There is strip of states running from Long Island to Illinois in which the GOP never quite got the memo that there was a Reagan Revolution in the Republican party. Unless the party is built on Reaganism, it’s just about getting your children summer jobs.” The result, as in Ohio, can be tax burdens that stifle economic growth, and the consequences can go beyond state politics. “Right now, people in Ohio mad at having their taxes raised have only one person to lash out against on the ballot,” says Norquist. “And that’s not Taft, it’s Bush.”
Yet geography is not destiny. In the early 1990s, pundits often noted that no candidate had won the White House without first winning the New Hampshire primary. Then Clinton did it in 1992 and Bush did it in 2000. This time around, Bush seems to be surging in Iowa, Minnesota, and Wisconsin, states he didn’t win last time that have more than enough electoral votes to offset Ohio.
Furthermore, there is an initiative outlawing gay marriage on the Ohio ballot, which will bring out the social conservatives in droves. Showing his true RINO instincts, Governor Taft opposes the initiative, saying that it would hurt the state’s wobbly economy. This may be a blessing in disguise, as Taft’s job-approval numbers in Ohio are so low that his opposition might actually increase support for the ban.
Nevertheless, the tight race in Ohio puts Bush’s reelection in some doubt. And if Bush doesn’t win the Buckeye state, there is little question as to who is to blame. “If Bush loses Ohio,” warns Vedder, “Ohio Republicans are largely responsible.”