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Okay, We Lost Ohio. The Question Is, Why?

By Steve Rosenthal
Sunday, December 5, 2004; Page B03

When it came to getting out the Democratic vote in Ohio during the presidential election, we hit our target numbers. My organization, America Coming Together, along with our 32 America Votes partner organizations, the Democratic National Committee and the Kerry-Edwards campaign not only exceeded our turnout goals for the Buckeye State, but far exceeded anything the Democrats have done in the past.

And we still lost. President Bush won the election by fewer than 130,000 votes out of 5.6 million cast in Ohio, according to the state's latest figures. We added 554,000 votes to our totals, but the Republicans countered with 508,000, enough to keep the state in their column.


Wondering what happened: John Kerry supporters in Dayton, Ohio, watch his concession speech on Nov. 3. (Ty Greenlees -- Dayton Daily News Via AP)

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Since then my colleagues and I have gone back to answer a nagging question: Who were all those Bush voters? Though much has been made of the Republican grass-roots effort in Ohio and elsewhere, we did not see the sort of Republican organization that seems necessary to produce that many new votes. Where did they come from?

We've done a post-election poll of 1,400 rural and exurban voters in Ohio counties that Bush won by an average of 17 percentage points. Their answers, and a closer look at other poll data, explode a few widely held theories about what happened.

The first myth: Many more churchgoing voters flocked to the polls this year, driven by the Bush "moral values" and the gay marriage referendum.

Reality: The 2004 election brought no increase whatsoever in the portion of the voting electorate who attend church on a weekly basis or more often than that, according to exit polls. In Ohio, the share of the electorate represented by frequent churchgoers actually declined from 45 percent in 2000 to 40 percent in 2004. Nationwide, Bush improved his vote among weekly churchgoers by just one point over 2000, while increasing his support among those who don't go to church by four points.

So how could religious voters have been the basis of Bush's victory, at least in Ohio? Answer: They weren't.

Second myth: The Bush campaign won by mobilizing GOP strongholds and suppressing turnout in Democratic areas.

Reality: Turnout in Democratic-leaning counties in Ohio was up 8.7 percent while turnout in Republican-leaning counties was up slightly less, at 6.3 percent. John Kerry bested Bush in Cuyahoga County (home of Cleveland) by 218,000 votes -- an increase of 42,497 over Gore's 2000 effort. In Stark County (Canton) -- a bellwether lost by Gore -- Kerry won by 4,354.

Third myth: A wave of newly registered Republican voters in fast-growing rural and exurban areas carried Bush to victory.

Reality: Among Ohio's rural and exurban voters, Bush beat Kerry by just five points among newly registered voters and by a mere two points among infrequent voters (those who did not vote in 2000).

Fourth myth: Republicans ran a superior, volunteer-driven mobilization effort.

Reality: When we asked new voters in rural and exurban areas who contacted them during this campaign, we learned that they were just as likely to hear from the Kerry campaign and its allies as from the Bush side. (In contrast, regular voters reported more contact from the GOP.)

Then perhaps it was conservative religious groups or pro-life organizations or the National Rifle Association that reached these new Republican voters? No, according to our post-election polling; only 20 percent of exurban and rural Ohio voters reported that they had been contacted by someone from their church, and only slightly higher percentages were contacted by conservative organizations. In contrast, these same voters in the least unionized regions of Ohio were more likely to have been contacted by a labor union.


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