Politics & Policy

Columbus, Ohio, Is America’s Test Market

Attendees listen to President Donald Trump speak at a rally in Lewis Center, Ohio, August 4, 2018. (Leah Millis/Reuters)
What clues for November will we find in Tuesday’s special election there?

Everyone who’s looking for midterm clues is watching Tuesday’s special election for Congress in Ohio’s twelfth congressional district, which includes part of Columbus. President Trump inserted himself into the race by holding a rally for GOP candidate Troy Balderson on Saturday, so the election will also be viewed as a referendum on him. The latest independent poll by Monmouth University shows Balderson with a razor-thin lead, 44 to 43 percent, over Democrat Dennis O’Connor.

It’s appropriate that Columbus is holding such a bellwether race. The area has long been known as a favorite for companies testing products. Its demographics are almost identical to those of the rest of the country. “It was a microcosm of the U.S., in that what happens here will probably happen elsewhere,” Shashi Matta, at Ohio State’s Fisher College of Business, told Columbus Monthly in 2015.

Small wonder then that Tuesday’s special election there is getting so much attention. Here are some reasons pundits and pollsters will be combing the results to find signs of how the November election will go.

1) Ohio’s twelfth congressional district is a mix of suburban and rural areas that resembles many of the 42 districts the GOP must defend without the advantage of having an incumbent in the race. If Republicans win a clear majority of those open seats, they keep the House. If they don’t, there will be a Democratic speaker elected for the first time since 2009.

2) The twelfth district leans Republican and has elected a GOP House member since John Kasich — now Ohio’s governor — first won it, in 1982. Trump won the seat by eleven points in 2016 even though Kasich had trounced him in every county in the primary earlier that year. Balderson is counting on the fact that both Trump and Kasich have endorsed him, a move that could unite the Trump and Kasich wings of the GOP behind him.

The irony is that President Trump’s policies are actually gaining in popularity, with approval of his handling of the economy now over 50 percent. But his personal ratings continue to languish.

3) The Democrats in the twelfth district are putting on their centrist face, rather than their progressive one, in trying to recapture the seat. Democrat Danny O’Connor, a 31-year-old county official, has avoided endorsing the Bernie Sanders “Medicare for All” bill that would nationalize health care. He’s also eschewed overtly partisan rhetoric and originally vowed he wouldn’t support Nancy Pelosi for House speaker. In recent days, he has taken heat for admitting in an MSNBC interview that he would vote for Pelosi if that’s what it took to elect a Democratic speaker. Will centrist voters in the district pay more attention to O’Connor’s earlier promise or to his suddenly revealed commitment to party loyalty?

4) How much of a price is the GOP likely to pay for what Trump’s critics see as personality flaws and “unpresidential” habits? Political handicapper Charlie Cook says at the Cook Political Report that this fall the GOP will pay a “Trump Penalty,” which he defines as the price Trump and his party are paying for the president’s “modus operandi.”

The irony is that President Trump’s policies are actually gaining in popularity, with approval of his handling of the economy now over 50 percent. But his personal ratings continue to languish in the mid 40s — just about the level of Barack Obama’s and Bill Clinton’s when Democrats suffered historic midterm losses in the first midterm of each of their presidencies.

Trump himself seems to have decided that if he has become the issue for many voters, then he is going to make sure he remains the the center of attention. Politico’s Mike Allen quotes a House Republican as saying that “Trump’s approval ratings are like barbells: bulging favorables and unfavorables on each end, and few in the middle who have no opinion or are persuadable.” For that reason, Trump has decided to do whatever it takes to bring his base to the polls, in the Ohio special election on Tuesday and then nationally in November.

Political experts caution that we should not read too much into the results of any one special election. That’s why they’re called “special.” But they provide more valuable clues than most polls as to the pulse of the people because they represent the views of people who actually turn out rather than those who just tell pollsters they will. That’s why the news out of Columbus on Tuesday is going to be analyzed with as much intensity as any of the test-marketing information that Columbus routinely provides U.S. businesses.

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