Heading into the 2004 presidential-election season, Ohio Democrats were feeling pretty good about their chances. The economy was struggling and the state’s Republican leadership seemed mired in disagreement and scandal. President Bush would have to run for reelection with a net loss in jobs and a controversial and increasingly messy war in Iraq. The Democrats’ nominee was a Vietnam War hero who could counter the traditional strength of the GOP, and his running mate was a charismatic Southerner who could appeal to distressed workers in Appalachia and beyond. Democrats were unified and excited about the chance to move this important swing state, and its 20 electoral votes, into the Kerry column.
Ohio’s economy continued to struggle over the summer, losing nearly 12,000 jobs in August with the unemployment rate rising to 6.3 percent (and reaching double digits in some hard-hit Appalachian counties) compared to a national average of 5.4 percent. Mark Zandi, chief economist for the Pennsylvania consulting firm Economy.com, called Ohio’s economy the weakest in the nation.
President Bush seemed vulnerable on foreign policy as well. In a Columbus Dispatch poll only 40 percent of respondents said they approved of the way President Bush was handling “the situation in Iraq,” down from 49 percent last year. Similarly, only 40 percent agreed that the war against Iraq was worth the “toll it has taken in American lives and other kinds of costs,” down from 51 percent this time last year.
Despite this favorable landscape, however, Kerry found himself behind in all the major polls and fighting rumors that Ohio was getting away from him. All of the momentum seemed to be on President Bush’s side and a Fox News/Opinion Dynamics poll released September 23 has Bush leading 48-42 in Ohio. Kerry has recently begun to hit the president hard on Iraq and the media mood seems to be swinging in his direction, but he still finds himself fighting an uphill battle in this crucial battleground state. So what happened?
Bush’s success has come from three main strengths: rhetoric, personality, and organization.
The president has managed to stem the political damage from Ohio’s economic woes by setting the negatives in context, by countering economics with cultural values, and by stressing his leadership on the war on terror. His stump speeches focus on what has been overcome and what can still be accomplished. While he admits that the economy is still struggling, he points out that he inherited a struggling economy, which was then hit hard by 9/11 and the corporate scandals that rocked Wall Street. Bush insists that, thanks to the tax cuts he championed, the economy is on the upswing–and he promises to stick with his efforts until everyone who wants to find work can do so. This rhetorical strategy allows Bush to frame a perceived weakness as a roadblock overcome rather than a failure. It also keeps his campaign tone positive and focused on the future.
Another way Bush counters economic bad news is by appealing to the cultural values of those in distressed areas. In media interviews with independent voters one sees again and again that those with doubts about the economy often lean Bush because of cultural issues like faith, abortion, gay marriage, and guns. The recent media focus on the assault-weapons ban is a good example. While Kerry was blasting the president on the issue, Bush was in southern Ohio talking about his strong support for the Second Amendment and campaigning with Zell Miller on his support for family values. In the potential swing region of Appalachia, who do you think wins that battle?
In foreign policy, Bush has positioned himself as a decisive and committed leader in the war on terror, in contrast to the overly nuanced and shifting Kerry. As on cultural issues, Bush tells voters that he is on their side; that only he has the commitment to do what it takes to protect American lives and values. This has proved a decisive edge. On questions of leadership, and on who is better equipped to wage the war on terror, Bush has a devastating lead. In the most recent CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll, Bush led Kerry 87-9 in this area despite being behind on issues like the economy, health care, and even Iraq (35-61, 33-58, and 34-60). Again, Bush’s rhetoric–by hammering home his commitment and Kerry’s shifts–gives him a huge advantage.
This leads to Bush’s second, and related, advantage: personality. Bush is simply a more relaxed and approachable person than Kerry. Bush seems to thrive in the (admittedly friendly) “Ask President Bush” setting where he interacts with voters. A Knight-Ridder MSNBC poll revealed that about 75 percent of Bush supporters back him because they like him personally; only 40 percent of Kerry voters cite this as the reason for their support (in fact, 30 percent of Kerry voters support him simply because they dislike Bush). The president’s rhetoric and personality work together to frame the campaign in his favor and motivate supporters to get out the vote.
This brings up a third and crucial strength Bush has in Ohio: organization. Ohio is dominated statewide by the Republican party and, despite some inter-party rivalry and even scandal at the state level, the party is unified in support of President Bush. Building on this support, the GOP is no longer willing to give the edge to the Democrats in “get out the vote” (GOTV) efforts. The Bush team has mobilized a massive volunteer effort to get out every possible supporter on November 2. They have used web technology and e-mail lists to recruit, encourage, and direct volunteers in everything from donations, voter registration, and phone banks to bumper stickers, yard signs, and a final 72-hour GOTV push. With a volunteer leader in every precinct in the state the GOP is ready to get its people registered and to the polls on Election Day. GOTV used to be a big advantage for the Democrats; Republicans should be their equals this year.
What all this boils down to is that Ohio voters view President Bush more favorably than they view his opponent. Bush has been able to frame the debate on his terms. By stressing his leadership in tough times and by focusing on shared values, Bush has kept voters from focusing on the struggling economy. Despite having the edge on a number of key issues, Senator Kerry has been unable to convince voters that he has what it takes to be president. Given all the above, harsh critiques of the war in Iraq won’t necessarily translate into higher numbers for Kerry on leadership. Unless Kerry can quickly find a way to communicate a vision and strategy that connects his issues platform with the intangibles of personality and leadership, he is destined to lose Ohio and, quite possibly, the election.