How to Read the Buckeye Vote?

Barack Obama did well with white working-class voters in Wisconsin and Virginia, but not in Ohio. (By Win Mcnamee -- Getty Images)
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By Alec MacGillis
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 6, 2008

CLEVELAND, March 5 -- Sen. Barack Obama had a simple answer for those who doubted he could expand his support beyond upper-income voters and African Americans: The more people saw of him, the better they would like him.

But that argument fell flat Tuesday in Ohio. The senator from Illinois spent a week in Ohio and blanketed the state with ads, but he fared poorly with white working-class voters, a crucial demographic in which he had been consistently gaining ground elsewhere.

As Obama heads toward his next big showdown with Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, in Pennsylvania -- and as his party contemplates whether he would be a strong general-election candidate in November -- Obama aides are being forced to confront the question of whether Ohio is an outlier or whether he has a serious problem with a key constituency.

In Ohio, for all of Obama's efforts there, many voters felt as though they did not know enough about the rookie senator with an exotic name -- or thought they knew things about him that were simply not true. Teri Harris, a laid-off school bus driver and single mother from the Cleveland suburb of Madison, said during canvassing on behalf of Clinton that she was bothered that Obama "turns his back during the Pledge of Allegiance," repeating a false rumor propagated on the Internet. "Does he believe in our country? I'm a little leery of that," said Harris, 48. Youngstown State University student Patrick Smith, 22, cited the same false rumor in rejecting Obama. "How can you be president if you don't say the Pledge of Allegiance?" he asked.

The Clinton campaign seized on her 10-percentage-point win not only as a turnaround moment but also as a centerpiece for her claim to the nomination even should she fail to prevail in the race for pledged delegates. In winning Ohio, her aides argued, Clinton showed strength in a state that is broadly representative of the country. At her Youngstown office on Tuesday, supporter Harry Meshel, a former Ohio state senator and state Democratic chairman, agreed with a colleague that Ohio is "truly the heartland," saying, "If you don't win Ohio, you're going to lose."

But some political experts in Ohio dispute part of this. While Ohio will be a key battleground in November, they say, it is no longer a true national cross section and bellwether. Ohio's economic decline, they say, has set it apart, with higher unemployment, fewer immigrants and fewer residents with a college education than the national norm. This is particularly true of the industrial belt across its northern tier, from Toledo to Youngstown, and in the state's Appalachian southeast.

"The long-standing cliche that Ohio is representative of everything is just that, a cliche," said Ohio State University historian Kevin Boyle. "We're representative of one part of the American political and economic system, but not of the nation as a whole."

According to exit polls, Obama lost white voters in Ohio by 30 points, voters with less than a college education (of all races) by 18 points, voters with family incomes under $50,000 (all races) by 14 points, and white voters over age 60 by 48 points. By contrast, in Virginia and Wisconsin last month, he won the white vote, and won or broke even among voters with lower income and education levels.

John Russo, co-director of Youngstown State's Center for Working-Class Studies, was blunt. "Race and class still matter in Ohio," he said.

Experts point to ethnic makeup and decades of political tradition to help explain why Obama was not able to match his performance in Wisconsin, another Midwestern state with a soft economy. While Wisconsin has a strong reform ethos dating to the Lutheran Germans and Scandinavians who once dominated it, Ohio's ethnic mix leans to Roman Catholics -- largely Eastern European and Italian -- and Scotch-Irish, while its politics are more top-down and party- and union-oriented.

Obama had a strong ground organization, said Stephen Brooks, a University of Akron political scientist, but could not overcome the edge Clinton received from Gov. Ted Strickland, who told voters in TV ads that Clinton is better suited to address their problems.

Charles Tranum, 62, a retired Airborne Infantry officer and FedEx worker in Youngstown, accepted that argument. "She's got more on the ball. Obama's too cool, too slick, too charismatic," he said. "She's got contacts around the world, and Bill would be a good asset in the White House, though he's a double-edged sword."

Clinton's lead with working-class voters was striking given her husband's role in passing the North American Free Trade Agreement, something Obama hammered away at on the trail, saying he had opposed the deal and would change it if elected. That effort was undermined by last-minute reports, denied by Obama, that his economic adviser had assured Canadian officials that Obama's trade talk was just political -- reports that Clinton supporter Gerald McEntee, president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, predicted Wednesday would continue to dog Obama. "I don't think it's clear in people's minds where he stands or what happened in this situation," he said. "It hurt him in Ohio, and unless it's cleared up it's going to affect him in Pennsylvania as well."

But Russo said Obama's criticism of NAFTA had little impact apart from the Canada flap, because many Ohioans are so aggrieved that they blame all politicians roughly equally. "Every candidate has come through and said if we were president, none of this would have happened," he said.

The outcome leaves Obama looking for another way to connect with working-class voters in Pennsylvania, which has demographics similar to Ohio's, although with slightly higher levels of education. He will have help: Big unions that endorsed him last month, such as the Teamsters and Service Employees International, will have more time to work for him than they did in Ohio, where they narrowed his gap among union voters to 10 percent behind Clinton.

In the Cleveland suburb of Parma, union retirees Bob and Maryann Norman said that while their son in law, a Teamsters warehouse worker, had followed his union's lead on Obama, they went with Clinton. Bob Norman, who worked for an awning manufacturer, said he thought Obama has gotten too little scrutiny because he is black. His wife, who worked at a grocery store, agreed. "Obama came out of nowhere," she said. "I don't know anything about him."

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