Video: Obama seeks to end anti-patriotism rumors

By NBC Reporter
updated 7/1/2008 8:20:18 AM ET 2008-07-01T12:20:18

In the early morning hours of November 3rd, 2004, Democrats looked on in disbelief as Ohio’s twenty electoral votes clanged into George W. Bush’s column, effectively ending John Kerry’s run for the presidency.

Today, under the early summer skies of the Buckeye State, supporters of Democrat Barack Obama are building a strategy designed to ensure that it doesn’t happen again in 2008.

To do so, Obama’s team has the benefit of two different playbooks from past statewide campaigns. On the one hand, they can pore over John Kerry’s 2004 plan to swell urban turnout to unprecedented levels; on the other, they can trace the county-by-county vote totals of the state’s popular Democats – like Governor Ted Strickland and freshman senator Sherrod Brown – who courted the support of Ohioans in rural and exurban areas.

The maps couldn’t be more different.

Records from the 2006 landslide that swept Appalachia native son Ted Strickland into the governor’s office show the upside-down pentagon of the Buckeye state awash in dark blue. Strickland carried all but sixteen of Ohio’s 88 counties, drawing heavy support from the state’s sparsely populated southeastern swath.

But where Strickland’s map – and to a lesser extent, Senator Sherrod Brown’s 2006 victory – shows a continuous blanket of Democratic support across the state, Kerry’s strongholds were small, highly concentrated urban patches against the red fabric of rural Ohio.

Not enough this time?
Two years ago, Strickland and Brown enjoyed broad success in an election cycle marked by scandal-ridden state Republican officials and unprecedented disapproval of the national status quo. Despite the uniqueness of the election year, the two candidates’ appeal to exurban and rural voters was not totally unique to 2006.

Video: Bill Clinton and Obama talk One-time Akron congressman Sherrod Brown’s winning county-by-county chart, for example, was almost a mirror image of the one constructed by Bill Clinton in 1996 – the last time a Democratic presidential candidate won the state. Clinton, whose down-South populist appeal helped him eek out an Ohio win by less than 2 points in 1992, deepened his support in rural regions four years later. Senator Brown’s map in 2006 was even bluer.

But since Clinton’s reelection in the mid 1990s, Democratic presidential candidates have allowed red patches to bleed back into the picture, losing mid-population swing counties – even those comfortably won by Clinton – by double digits.

Reliance on urban communities nearly succeeded – twice. In 2004, John Kerry lost the state by less than 120,000 votes despite winning only sixteen Ohio counties; only one of those had a population under 50,000, Bush’s margin of victory there in 2000 was comparable to his wins in Missouri and Tennessee, Al Gore’s home state. 

But Democrats in the state say that, this year, that model just won’t cut it.

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David Wilhelm, Bill Clinton’s 1992 campaign manager and an Ohio native now serving as an informal advisor to the Obama campaign, says that only those candidates who can harness the state’s diversity can be successful.

Election A to Z“The main thing to understand about Ohio is that it is a patchwork,” he says of the state’s wide assortment of economic, historical, and cultural pockets. “No one patch is big enough. In order to succeed, you need to be willing and able and capable to determine to campaign in each patch.”

Wilhelm believes that Obama has to expand beyond past presidential candidates’ reliance on the state’s three most populous counties – those home to Cleveland, Columbus, and Cincinnati – where Kerry garnered over 30% of his total votes. “You can’t squeeze more votes out of those three counties than John Kerry did,” he says. "Barack Obama has got to make up the difference elsewhere.”

Local Democrats say that the Kerry campaign’s mistake was failing to invest time physically campaigning in swing counties. “They really didn’t work this area as hard as you have to work it,” says Steve Madru, the Democratic Party chairman in Ross County, where Kerry lost by 10 points but Brown and Strickland both won by double digits. "You can’t just get on TV and say ‘I’m going to help rural America’ and then not show up. You have to physically be here.”

A matter of message
The maps make it look easy. If you show up, so to speak, the voters will come.

But aides to Brown, Clinton, and Kerry’s campaigns note that the failure of the Massachusetts senator to resonate with Ohio’s swing voters may have had less to do with presence than message.  Despite a heavy focus on large cities, Kerry did visit some non-traditional areas of the state for Democratic candidates, emulating Clinton’s well-remembered bus tour and engineering a camo-clad goose hunt photo-op with Strickland twelve days before the election.

Video: Kerry endorses Obama for president But with the worst of the state’s economic woes yet to hit exurban counties, Kerry’s less localized and more gloomy message did not hit home there. “Ohio has sort of a stubborn optimism. They want to hear hope,” says Greg Haas, a longtime consultant to Ohio Democrats who served as Clinton’s state coordinator in 1992. “The Kerry campaign was anti-Bush. The Bill Clinton campaign was pro-hope.”

So, say observers, were Brown and Strickland, who successfully championed Average Joes and touted economic populism with cross-party appeal. Their victories might provide Obama with the quickest means to cut through the diverse patches of Ohio’s voting blocs. Now, in comparison to 2004, Ohio’s political scene is crowded with more Democratic state and local elected officials to serve as surrogates for the Illinois senator. 

In particular, Governor Strickland, whose early endorsement of Hillary Clinton is widely credited with facilitating her success in the state’s primary, can provide skeptical independents with a reason to reconsider someone viewed as an outsider.

“There is no more important validator in the state of Ohio,” says Wilhelm of Strickland’s recent thumbs-up to the newly minted nominee. (Another indication that Team Obama holds the Strickland map close to the vest: the campaign’s communications director, Issac Baker, and state director Aaron Pickrell, both served as aides to the governor during his 2006 campaign.)

The elephant in the room
Still, although the importance of Ohio’s Democratic stars cannot be overstated, the parallels between their success and Obama’s potential battle plans are not perfect matches.

Strickland, a son of Appalachia with an A-rating from the NRA, was poised for success in the Southeastern region he represented in the U.S. House for a decade. Clinton’s Southern roots and aw-shucks golden touch lowered the hurdles for success in what Haas calls “the Southernmost Northern state or the Northernmost Southern state, depending on how you look at it.” 

But could a biracial candidate who hails from Hawaii and Hyde Park – and carries one of the Senate’s most liberal voting records – succeed in Strickland country? Some experts who say ‘yes’ point to a race decades before Bill Clinton’s meteoric rise.

In 1976, Ohioans elected Howard Metzenbaum, a Jewish liberal born to a wealthy Cleveland family. Metzenbaum, who served for nearly two decades as Ohio’s U.S. Senator, did not win the same rural swathes as his later Democratic successors, but he consistently tamped down Republican margins in low-population counties and outperformed GOP opponents in Ohio’s small cities.  In a state with a Jewish population of well under two percent, Metzenbaum was “in some ways as unlikely a candidate in Southeastern Ohio as Barack Obama,” notes Wilhelm.

It was Metzenbaum’s fierce defense of the underdog that propelled him to two successful reelection campaigns. His championing of economic populism allowed him to transcend skepticism about his faith, says Dale Butland, who worked for both Metzenbaum and Ohio senator John Glenn. A similar message could catapult Obama over the hurdle of race. 

“If you can make people believe that you’re on their side, that you’ll fight for them, that you’re going to stand up to these big impersonal forces that are screwing them,” says Butland, “then that has the ability to overcome what might otherwise become religious prejudice, or racial prejudice, in Obama’s case.”

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High hurdles
Still, despite the threads of possible success sewn into Ohio’s political history, Obama faces a fierce battle in the state that dealt his presidential predecessor a fatal blow. His damaging loss to Hillary Clinton in the state’s March primary provides a roadmap for the McCain campaign, which has already opened Victory offices and tapped state GOP leaders to mobilize its grassroots effort. Republican party officials cite the Obama campaign’s series of theoretical electoral maps – not all of which rely on an Ohio win – as evidence of internal pessimism about Obama's chances there.

And the taste of Kerry’s candidacy still lingers in the mouths of many Ohioans. Republican strategist Mark Weaver recalls the 2004 nominee’s much-panned goose hunting expedition with a chuckle. “Most rural voters in Ohio saw that for what it was, which was a charade,” says Weaver. “Barack Obama is somebody who was similarly raised in an environment that is urban and elite.” 

But Obama backers are optimistic that their nominee, with the aid of strong local surrogates and coffers full enough to deploy a characteristic flood of ground troops, will make the necessary inroads into the patches pierced by the likes of Strickland, Brown, and Clinton.

“At the end of the day,” says Wilhelm, “Barack Obama doesn’t have to win in rural Ohio. He just has to do better than Senator Kerry. I think he can. I think he will.”

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