Advancing a Free Society

As Ohio Goes, So Goes … California?

Friday, November 4, 2011

Every four years, New Jersey and Virginia act as a political bellwether – their off-year gubernatorial elections seen as a referendum on the robustness of the current presidency.

Election Night 2009, for example, was a bad evening for a freshman Obama Administration, with Democrats losing in both states. In Virginia, Republican Bob McDonnell put a halt to a decade of Democratic gains in that key swing state by campaigning on an anti-tax message. In New Jersey, Republican Chris Christie rode an angry tide of Ta Partiers and other disgruntled Jerseyites that made it possible for a values-conservative to win in a blue state.

Election Night 2011 – coming your way next Tuesday – offers yet another clue as to the political health of President Obama.

The state to watch: Ohio, where two ballot issues offer a run-up to next year’s presidential scrum (actually, there are three topics before Ohio voters, but we’ll skip Issue 1, which would raise the age limit at which a person could be elected or appointed to the bench from 70 to 75).

Issue 3 is a Tea Party-backed measure (the Ohio Liberty Council) aimed at preventing Obamacare from taking effect in Ohio. Supporters say it’s needed to protect Ohioans form being forced into buying insurance. Critics say it’ll adversely impact existing state health programs, and likely spark a legal fight.

As controversial as this may sound, it’s not what’s causing the drama in Ohio these days – even if the Buckeye State is the first to put Obamacare to an actual public vote outside the beltway.

Perhaps that’s because 28 state attorneys general have joined in a Supreme Court challenge to the law. And, should the high court decide the White House’s plan is constitutional, that put the Ohio vote in legal jeopardy.

Whatever the reason, Issue 3 seems headed to an easy victory, with surveys giving it a comfortable double-digit lead.

The same can’t be said of Ohio’s Issue 2, the source of a major dust-up between Big Labor and Ohio’s GOP limited-government crowd. It seems headed for a big defeat on Tuesday, which doesn’t bode well for Republicans in a must-win state for both parties.

“Yes” on Issue 2 is a vote to retain Ohio’s Senate Bill 5, which changed the rules governing the state’s 360,000 public employees (it bans employees from strikes, eliminates binding arbitration for safety forces, and requires public employees to pay at least 15% of their health insurance premiums).

So why is Issue 2 lagging? Some theories:

  1. Information Overload. SB 5 is 302 pages in length and, arguably, politically overambitious in its reach. Surveys show pension reform does well in Ohio on an issue-by-issue basis. Rather than do pension reform on a piecemeal basis, Ohio’s GOP legislators instead went for one big package. As with California’s 2005 special election, when a large package of disparate ideas (teacher tenure, spending caps, redistricting) fed into criticism of political overgorging, it seems Ohio Republicans committed the same tactical mistake.
  2. The Wrong Question. Some Ohio strategists suggest SB 5’s defenders walked into a trap: instead of insisting upon the referendum as a question to be answered by its supporters with a negative (“shall the law be repealed?”), they instead allowed it to require a “yes” (“shall the law be approved?”). Why does this seemingly trivial detail matter? Because voters’ first instinct, referendum experts will tell you, is to vote “no”. Far easier to sell them on a negative, not a positive.
  3. Familiar Tactics. In California’s 2005 vote, then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger wound up on the losing end of a p.r. war with teaches, nurses, firefighters and police officers. In Ohio, it’s unions (We Are Ohio, a $30 million campaign to kill pension reform) once again fighting fire with . . . firefighters – a tv commercial showing a burning house and one fighter telling viewers: “Issue 2 makes it illegal for us to negotiate for enough firefighters to do the job” (here’s the ad).
  4. A Weakened Governor. In 2005, the bloom was off the Schwarzenegger rose – no longer the recall outsider, after two years on the job he was an entrenched (and embattled) incumbent – and not a popular one, at that. Kasich, elected a year ago, suffers from a similar dose of approval anemia, which makes him hardly an optimal choice to be SB 5’s public defender.

Let’s suppose the unions have a big day next Tuesday and Issue 2 suffers a big beat-down. The effect on the political landscape?

  1. Look for similar advertising, on the President’s behalf, a year from now. Senate Democrats aren’t doing the current “jobs-bill” fan dance (infrastructure spending, re-hiring teachers) for the sake of appearing busy. The goal, a year from, is to portray the President and his party on the side of blue-collar America.
  2. Look for similar tactics in California, where pension reform is headed for a November 2012 ballot clash between a compromise version of Gov. Jerry Brown’s 12-point plan and whatever it is reform-loathing Democratic legislators are willing to tolerate vs. one of two measures being floated by Californians for Pension Reform.

The guarantee is, like Ohio, tens of millions of dollars spent on initiative campaigns, plenty of union scare tactics about lost benefits and compromised public services, media pitches that tug on heart-strings rather than appeal to intellect, and a very confused public trying to make sense of what’s staring back at them from the ballot page (or a touch-pad screen).

All of that, plus firefighters hard at work in battleground states – unfortunately, cutting tv ads, not putting out blazes.

(photo credit: Ben Lyon)