mead cohen berger shevtsova garfinkle michta grygiel blankenhorn
The Ohio Dynamic: Weak Candidates, Strong Parties

The world’s eyes are firmly fixed on Ohio this week, and well they should be. It is mathematically possible that a candidate could lose Ohio and win an electoral majority, it is deeply unlikely.

The close race in Ohio is partly a reflection of the tightness of the national race, but it also reflects a truth about the two candidates: neither one is a good fit for voters in the Buckeye State. Ohio is a bastion of the plain and the ordinary: it is deeply Midwestern in that way. There is of course a lot of diversity in the state and there are many different points of view in Ohio, but taken as a whole and in a general way Ohio isn’t into fads; it doesn’t thrill to the abstractions of Harvard intellectuals—and it doesn’t particularly like non-mainstream faiths. It’s more about IHOP than endive, more tuna casserole than salmon tartare.

It also really, really doesn’t like deindustrialization and while it doesn’t love pollution it doesn’t want to sacrifice its manufacturing future to strike a blow against the tyranny of fossil fuels. Ohio suspects that neither candidate is really serious in their vows to stop outsourcing jobs to China; slick pols from the coasts have been lying to Ohioans about this for a very long time.

A contest between a Mormon investment banker whose firm participated in restructuring and outsourcing and a Harvard Law School trained constitutional lawyer who likes gay marriage more than he supports guns isn’t calculated to thrill the good folk of Ohio. The fancy pants Harvard Law Review scholar with the alarmingly big ideas or the hard nosed banker with a bunch of weird holy books? This is not a choice Ohio wants to make, and I would not be surprised if the state sits on the fence until election day.

But despite the weak appeal of the candidates, turnout will likely be high. The intense global focus on Ohio contributes, but so too does an important, little appreciated reality about Ohio. In an age of weak party organizations, Ohio remains a place where retail politics and the ground game matters. In Ohio this time, the candidates may be relatively weak, but the parties are strong.

Many trends have been undermining the importance of local politics and party organization in much of the United States. In state after state today party organizations are fading away; the political parties serve more as flags of convenience for ambitious politicians mounting campaigns than as organizational powerhouses that decide elections and shape governance.

But in Ohio, the two party structures still retain a lot of their traditional strength.  Because Ohio is such an evenly divided state, both the Republican and Democratic parties are in better shape here than in much of the country. More than that, both party organizations in the state still have deep roots.

Ohio Democrats benefit from strong ties to a vibrant labor movement as well as from deep roots in urban and ethnic politics going back to the 19th century. Nobody should underestimate what this party can do when the stakes are high.

But Ohio Republicans may if anything be more formidable yet. It is not for nothing that no Republican president has ever been elected without carrying Ohio. The Buckeye GOP has deep roots going back to the 1850s, and for the half century after the Civil War it was the keystone in the Republican arch. Generation after generation of GOP heroes have come out of this state, and the GOP organization in this state still has more ability than most to run a campaign and turn out the vote.

Nationally, the race may be dominated by television advertising and image projection; in Ohio it is also a grudge match between two of the strongest and most effective party organizations around. When candidates matter less, party matters more, and 2012 is looking like a classic contest between two strong and proud party organizations in what, for the moment, looks like the most important state in the Republic.

Features Icon
© The American Interest LLC 2005-2016 About Us Masthead Submissions Advertise Customer Service