The Belle of the Electoral College Ball

Clare Malone

This is part three of the Prospect’s weeklong series on the swing districts that could determine the national outcome on November 6.

Soren Norris is pretty sure he’s just been spouse-blocked.

Norris, a canvasser for Working America, the AFL-CIO’s community affiliate, is walking away from a door that’s been slammed in his face by a rotund man in a polo shirt and khakis at the mention of Ohio’s incumbent Democratic senator, Sherrod Brown. He explains the phenomenon, common enough in this politically divided state to have been given a name by political professionals. “It’s when you want to talk to one, and the other one won’t let you talk to them. She might have been in the back. Who knows?” Norris shrugs off the encounter and is soon off to the next house on his list. He and his team of canvassers need to knock on 3,500 doors in Cuyahoga Falls, a city 45 minutes south of Cleveland, tonight—T-minus 25 days until Election Day in Ohio.

It’s no secret that every four years, in the full flush of autumn glory, this state becomes the prettiest girl at the Electoral College party. Pundits hang on her every anecdotal word, and pollsters won’t stop calling. For both candidates, Ohio’s the closest thing there is to a must-win. Obama for America has spent $54 million on ad buys here, and the Romney campaign has spent $55 million. You can’t turn on the television without seeing Barack Obama’s ears or Mitt Romney’s hair; the radio is awash in spots parodying the candidates to sell cars. For many Ohioans at this point, political ads have become white noise, making grassroots get-out-the vote efforts all the more crucial in the race’s final days.

The state’s decision could turn on efforts in Lake County, situated to the north along the southern shore of Lake Erie. Lake County, with a median household income of $54,896 and a population that’s 93.7 percent white, represents the eastward migration of tight-knit ethnic middle-class workers from Cleveland and contains that city’s outermost eastern exurbs. Historically, it has been home to a decent-size manufacturing base (auto parts and medical products) but also a strong rural base, thanks to the wholesale nurseries that populate its eastern side.

Lake is also famous for being Ohio’s predictive bellwether, and this year it could be Obama’s firewall or Romney’s game-changing coup. In 2004, it went for George W. Bush over John Kerry, 51.1 percent to 48.5 percent. In 2008, it went for Obama over John McCain, 50 percent to 49 percent. The county can lean right—in 2010 it went big for Republican Senator Rob Portman and voted to oust Democratic Governor Ted Strickland. Still, Sherrod Brown won Lake in 2006, and what gives Democrats particular hope this year is the county’s decisive vote against 2011’s Ohio Senate Bill 5 ballot referendum, which would have taken away collective-bargaining rights from public unions.

Drive almost an hour up I-271 from Cuyahoga Falls, through snow-globe-ready scenery of leaves falling from stately trees, and you will reach Mentor, at just over 47,000 residents the most populous city in Lake County. Mentor Avenue is where both the Obama and Romney camps have set up headquarters (or “victory centers,” in Romney campaign parlance) less than a block apart. The road is one long strip of storefronts and cracked sidewalks, no grass to be seen. The manically postered Obama HQ is neighbor to a consignment store; the most notable feature of the mall around the corner isn’t the Dillards or the Sears but a massive parking lot friendly to teenagers learning to drive stick shift. Ohio’s unemployment rate is currently 7.2 percent, under the national average and back down from its 10.5 percent peak. But economic troubles hit early here. By 2003, Cleveland and its surroundings exhibited unhealthy rates of distressed mortgages—and Mentor looks the part of a town that’s been sagging at the seam for years.

There’s a lot of convincing to be done. The president’s re-election campaign has more than 120 offices scattered across Ohio, up from 75 in 2008. Along with a few other key battleground states, Ohio for Obama also boasts a devoted digital department, the better to bombard potential supporters with text and e-mail updates. Twenty-two days out, Frank Hribar, a retired Merchant Marine who lives in Kirtland Hills, a small town at Lake County’s southern edge, is getting ready for an afternoon canvassing run in Mentor-on-the-Lake. The way he sees it, when election time brings out the county’s politically divided nature it’s the areas in the middle, like Mentor, that are ripest ground for undecideds. “If you start looking at the county, you see that the western side is more Democratic and the eastern end is more rural and more Republican,” he says. “Actually, I really think Mentor is what decides how this county is going to go.”

Hribar, who has a Paul Bunyan look—burly hardtack build, masses of wavy, graying hair, a “Sportsmen for Obama” pin—has lived here most of his life. He chats amiably at doors, commiserating with one woman whose husband is working a Saturday afternoon shift. When Obama supporters answer the door, Hribar tells them to get to the polls. Much of the Obama effort in Ohio has been to ensure that Democrats vote early. The campaign sued Republican Secretary of State Jon Husted for his attempts to limit early-voting hours in the state, a tactic that smacked of voter suppression to critics. The Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals sided with the Obama campaign, and the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear Husted’s appeal. Ohio politics: Lively as always.

 

“Someone’s going to have to buy me a fruit basket for God’s sake,” Ohio Democratic Party Chair Chris Redfern said by phone in early October. Redfern, elected chair in 2005, has guided the state party’s implementation of the so-called 88 County Strategy, a bid to extend resources and manpower to areas outside the traditional urban Democratic strongholds. The strategy was first rolled out in 2006 and was eventually adopted by the Obama campaign. The mantra “all 88 counties count” is repeated like a broken record by anyone in an official capacity with OFA Ohio.

“You grow up in Ohio politics and you hear over and over that if you win Cuyahoga County by over 100,000 votes and run up the score in a couple other urban counties, you’ll win statewide,” Redfern said.

But thanks to population shifts outside of Cuyahoga, home to Cleveland, and the party’s other traditional city strongholds—basically, suburban and exurban sprawl—Redfern says the state party is trying to use local races to renew relationships with demographic groups ignored a decade ago. Chief among these are what at one time might have been known as Reagan Democrats, a slippery group of white voters that gave the party trouble during Democratic Governor Ted Strickland’s unsuccessful re-election bid in 2010.

Redfern (whose Twitter picture features a skull and crossbones and the tagline “follow along or move along”) points to Lake County politics over the last seven years as an example of the 88 County Strategy at work. The 2010 gubernatorial results in Lake show there’s still work to do. Still, in 2005, the area was represented by two Republican state legislators. The county now has one Democratic representative, along with a Democratic county commissioner.

With a small flip in local elected officials, Redfern said, “You can build an infrastructure around them. A lot of the stuff we did in Lake County or Ashtabula County, Geauga County, Summit and Portage Counties—the ring counties around Cuyahoga County—a lot of things we did and continue to do, you don’t see: building an infrastructure, including the best voter file in the country, ensuring relationships between our federal candidates and our state candidates are as robust as possible so that we can collect all the data.”

The whole-state strategy does more than a little to confound the prevailing Washington political wisdom. The pundits’ sound-bite take on Ohio is that it’s a divided kingdom—rough-and-tumble, Rust Belt ilk to the north in Cleveland, Kentucky-esque Southern-belle types in Cincinnati to the south, 12 media markets, and 5 distinct geographical regions, not to mention battling professional sports franchises in football and baseball at opposite poles of the state.

But on both sides of the aisle, Ohio politics can be boiled down to almost anthemic simplicity. The state is a perpetual battleground because Ohio voters are ruthlessly focused on jobs and the elimination of barriers to incoming business. Even Ohio Democrats are capable of calling “EPA” a dirty word when it comes to regulating industry that could bring in jobs. Ohioans are pragmatic: Women walk unabashedly to work in sneakers and everyone deals with their Seasonal Affective Disorder by installing brighter bulbs in their desk lamp. According to a Quinnipiac University/CBS News/New York Times poll out late this summer, 59 percent of Ohio voters listed “economy” as their No. 1 concern. Social and foreign-policy issues (with the exception of China’s currency manipulation) are things to argue about over Thanksgiving dinner but not always enough to make or break an on-the-fence Ohio voter—especially not in this election cycle, when there’s no major ballot initiative designed to stoke such passions.

Clare Malone

Soren Norris, the Northeast Ohio field director for Working America, knows as much. He steers clear of social issues as a rule, pushing the organization’s economic message instead. Dressed in a bright blue ski hat, fleece jacket, and shoes meant for walking, Norris and his crew knock on doors five nights a week, all year round. Working America focuses on working-class neighborhoods with potentially sympathetic or persuadable voters identified from information in the public record. Parallel with the Democrats, it wants to build support for local pro-union candidates, then send them up the political food chain. The group is tiny compared to Obama’s grassroots, but its canvassers are relentless data-refining professionals. Each carries an iPad and completes a form on the voter’s leanings following at-the-door interactions. Every time Working America returns to a neighborhood to canvass, it gains a new layer of demographic sophistication.

While many nights his canvassing targets include the presidential race, tonight Norris is focusing on a local state House race and the Brown-Mandel Senate contest, and he’s pushing for a yes vote on Issue 2, the ballot initiative that would empower a citizen panel to take congressional redistricting out of the hands of partisan operatives.

Working America canvassers are effective persuaders. A study done last year based on data from Working America’s campaign against Ohio’s Senate Bill 5 showed that the group yielded an at-the-door contact rate 7 percent higher than other paid canvassing groups working on the same issue. Once face-to-face with voters, Working America had a 14.7 percent persuasive effect in getting people to vote against SB5.

Norris, mild-mannered in sidewalk conversation, with a charming Queens lilt, becomes forceful—though always polite—when he’s at the door.

“It’s about overcoming rejections, being persuasive, using confident language, eye contact,” he says of his job. It’s also about standing your ground before an onslaught of dogs, which charges at him from one house with scalloped gingerbread eaves and a fall display of mums and pumpkins.

A tall woman dressed in tip-to-toe workout gear answers the door, and Norris launches into his spiel. Within 30 seconds, he has sussed out that she doesn’t know anything about either candidate for the state House race in her district—a common phenomenon. But she plans to vote for Josh Mandel for U.S. Senate.

Sensing potential, Norris pushes on the state house race, in which Working America is backing Democrat Paul Colavecchio. He asks the woman what she does. She works in oil and gas, and he deftly pivots to Republican candidate Anthony Devitis’s stance against Hire Ohio, a program that promises to give 60 percent of jobs in the fracking industry to state residents. He talks up the auto bailout. Then he goes over her plan for voting on Election Day. (If voters visualize it, Norris says, they’re more likely to get to the polls.)

At the end of the interaction, which lasts no longer than two or three minutes, the woman says she will probably vote for Colavecchio. It’s this kind of face time on behalf of candidates at the local level—trickle-up politics—that Ohio’s Democratic Party faithful are hoping will pay off for the president this November. You might not trust the national candidate in a crisp Brooks Brothers suit, but if that county commissioner who went to school with your dad says he’s not a bad guy, maybe you ought to give him a chance.  

 

It’s late on a Thursday afternoon and no one seems to be in the Mentor Avenue Obama campaign office. A pretty older woman with frosted hair and pink lipstick who gives her name only as Nancy is disappointed. She just got $9 back from the consignment store next door, and she wants to buy a little dinner for the office volunteers.

A lifelong Lake County resident, Nancy used to own a cleaning business, and her husband worked for Reliance Electric. Now they’re retired and living month to month on Social Security. She came from a union family but her grown children are all Republicans. Things have changed. “We lost all that manufacturing,” Nancy says. “All the manufacturing left and there were no jobs anymore. We thought our children would go to car factories and all that.”

She votes either party these days, but in this election she’s for President Obama. “I just want the better person and to me, Obama is the better person,” Nancy says. “I think if he hadn’t helped our manufacturing, our cars, there would have been millions of people out of jobs. I think that he’s done the best he could do. I think he really tries. I don’t think he’ll mess up the average income people.”

Nancy decides she’ll come back later—“I’d better go do dinner, honey,” she says—and with a squeeze of the arm, gets into her tan Chevy and drives away into the Ohio sunset.

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