Blogs > HNN > What's Going On In Ohio?

Nov 21, 2008 11:09 am

What's Going On In Ohio?

As reported by McClatchy Newspapers, a new analysis by Project Vote of exit-polling data suggests that 1.2 million fewer "whites" went to the polls on election day in 2008 than in 2004–this despite predictions and expectations of a record-setting voter turnout, which presumably would have included whites. A whopping 45 percent of this no-show total was in the state of Ohio, where 538,000 fewer whites voted. What is the cause of this decline? The McClatchy story did not raise this question but instead focused on the significance of an opposing trend to Obama's victory: nationwide, 5.8 million more "minorities" voted in 2008 compared to 2004. In Ohio in 2008, 66,000 more African-Americans and 39,000 more Hispanics voted. (The McClatchy story also pointed out that there were 1.8 million more voters aged 18-29 nationally.) Obama won Ohio by 207,000 votes.

The presidential totals in the county in which I live and vote might provide some clues to the mystery of white-voter decline. Butler County borders Hamilton County and the city of Cincinnati to the south, and along with other counties in this southwestern corner of the state, Butler contributed large majorities for H. W. Bush in 2004. The Bush/Cheney ticket received 109,866 votes for 65.87 percent of the total votes cast in the county. Kerry/Edwards received 56,234 for 33.71 percent. In 2008 McCain/Palin received 101,537 votes for 60.90 percent. Obama/Biden received 62,871 for 37.70 percent.

As throughout the state, the turnout of registered voters in Butler County was lower in 2008 than in 2004. Assuming that these voting estimates and counts are accurate and that the 2004 figures were not distorted by Republican padding and suppression in that year, this lower turnout in 2008 seems to have been mostly a Republican phenomenon. The consequence in Butler County was a 14,966 net gain of votes for Obama compared to Kerry–6,637 additional votes for the Democratic ticket and 8,329 fewer Republican votes for the Republican ticket. This net gain was 7.4 percent of Obama's margin of victory over McCain in Ohio in 2008.

Obama's majorities came from the university town of Oxford, where I live, and from the inner-city sections of the mid-sized cities of Hamilton, Middletown, and West Chester. The rural, suburban, and x-urban areas of the county delivered for McCain. In other words, Butler County seems to fit the national pattern of geographical voter distribution (except for the suburban vote). In addition, the lower Republican vote appears to be related to the lower white-voter turnout, which is what the McClatchy story implied. (It is not clear to me from the data whether or not any of the reported white-voter decline was the result of undervoting as opposed to whites not showing up.)

But why? Based on my and others' experience canvassing suburban, rural, and x-urban areas around Oxford and Hamilton, the answer seems to be that a significant number of white voters were unexcited or unhappy with the Republican ticket but were also unwilling to vote for Obama, with "cultural" issues and race being important determinants in their no-show decision. As one 83 year-old rural, pro-Obama, former minister told me, "the 'religious' people around here are unhappy with Bush but will not vote for Obama because he is black and is the anti-Christ." Another prospective voter told me that though she was unhappy with Bush and McCain, she was not tilting toward Obama because "he was unpatriotic."

Still, why were 45 percent of white no-shows nationwide from the state of Ohio? My guess that it is because Ohio is a borderland. Rural and x-urban Ohio–and especially the southern part of the state–have been heavily influenced by Southern Appalachian culture; thus, in part, their larger vote for McCain and their reservations about Obama. On the other hand, there may be a silver lining to the large white no-show phenomenon in Ohio. It might indicate that in this borderland region, where North meets South, old prejudices are eroding. The no-shows were not quite ready to vote for Obama, but at the same time they were not reflexively ready to vote for an unsatisfactory Republican ticket either.

Some other analyses of polling data indicate that in Southern states where Obama campaigned heavily–in other words, where white voters got to know him better–the white vote for him increased. Familiarity bred acceptance. More white voters by a margin of 4 percent voted for Obama than Kerry. Two of these were a retired white labor union couple on Main Street in the Republican bastion of Hamilton, who had voted for George Wallace in 1968 and Bush in 2004 but were now coming back to the Democratic fold because they were unhappy with Bush's policies across the board and thought of Obama as a decent, capable candidate with the right policies. They were willing to "stand in line all day if that's what it took" to register their vote on election day.

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Jeff Vanke - 11/26/2008

Two other factors were at work, one of them Ohio-specific. Ohio was one of the 2004 states with a ballot referendum to ban gay marriage, part of Rove's strategy to get out the evangelical vote.

The other is the anti-Palin factor. I know of voters (not in Ohio) who could bring themselves neither to vote for a ticket with Palin, nor to vote Democratic (and I have no reason to suspect any level of racial prejudice in the case I know best). With a Lieberman or a Fred Thompson (unwilling), McCain would have gotten more of these (white) voters to the polls.