By all the conventional yardsticks of Ohio presidential politics, Sen. John F. Kerry was a smashing success. He turned out droves of supporters, many of them first-time voters, and won more votes on Tuesday than any Democrat in state history — and more than George W. Bush did in 2000 when he took the state from Al Gore.
Yet if Kerry's campaign operation performed admirably in this complex and critical battleground state, President Bush's volunteer army of 85,000 gave more than equal effort. By early Wednesday, Kerry was forced to confront the stark math from the Buckeye State: Bush had stormed to such an overwhelming advantage in rural and exurban counties that his victory was secure, even if Kerry were to insist on a protracted audit of uncounted provisional ballots.
City vs. country
As a political tale, Ohio '04 can be simplified into a story of city vs. country. Kerry's strategists have been hoping for months that urban voters, including such loyally Democratic blocs as organized labor and blacks, would push Kerry to an unbeatable margin, offsetting Bush's strength far beyond the cities.
It almost worked.
People living in and around Ohio's six biggest cities — Cincinnati, Cleveland, Toledo, Columbus, Akron and Dayton — flooded polling stations to vote the Democratic ticket. Kerry won Cuyahoga County, part of the Cleveland area, with nearly 51,000 more votes than Gore won it by four years ago (his campaign says it exceeded its goal for black votes in Cuyahoga by 25 percent). His margin in Columbus's Franklin County was 10 times that of Gore's.
But it was not enough. Bush matched his 2000 performance in Ohio's urban areas, but his campaign more decisively brought out waves of voters in his rural base. Compared with 2000, his vote totals and margins of victory soared all across Ohio's Appalachian southeast and its southern and western farm belt. He even won over Ohio's Amish, capturing Holmes County in the heart of Amish country with 76 percent of the total.
"We knew the emphasis was going to be on turnout," said Bob Paduchik, the Ohio manager for Bush's campaign. "That's why our plan emphasized the grass roots and the ground game. We were always thinking about personal contact. What we did in Ohio, I think, changed the face of politics."
Social issues key
Campaign operatives and analysts point to the same motivating factor: Bush's conservative positions on social issues, particularly his opposition to abortion and his advocacy of a constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage. The president developed a national strategy based on those issues during a year when many voters put morality-based themes at the top of their own agendas, exit polling showed.
It all came together perfectly in Ohio where Issue 1, a proposal to amend the state constitution to define marriage as only the union of a man and a woman, passed overwhelmingly on Tuesday.
"The evangelicals turned out, and clearly that issue [same-sex marriage] seems to have driven it," said Paul Tipps, a former state Democratic Party chairman and an informal adviser to Kerry. "I'm tending to believe that the moral values issues did trump" the war in Iraq and the economy for many Bush supporters. Tipps called that a fundamental shift in Ohio politics. "I am stunned," he said. "I didn't see it. This is a state that has historically voted the pocketbook."
The Bush campaign officially stayed out of the same-sex marriage initiative, but Secretary of State J. Kenneth Blackwell (R) said in a letter to supporters that the Bush campaign had asked that he advocate the initiative. Blackwell did radio spots and taped a message that was played in 3 million phone calls to voters. Supporters also mailed out 2.5 million church bulletin inserts.
Indeed, even close observers of Ohio politics might have missed the Bush campaign's emphasis on social values because much of its outreach efforts occurred away from the mass media. While the two campaigns slugged it out on big-city TV stations with commercials about the war and the economy, Bush's Ohio campaign used targeted mailings, phone calls and doorstep visits to talk about values, said John C. Green, a University of Akron professor who studies religion and politics. Green described one piece of mail from the Bush campaign that featured a beautiful church and a traditional nuclear family. It was headlined, "George W. Bush shares your values. Marriage. Life. Faith."
"It could not have been clearer if it had quoted from the Bible," Green said.
Markedly different field operations
What's more, although both campaigns had large numbers of field workers in Ohio, the nature of Bush's operation differed greatly from Kerry's.
Bush's organization may have been the more cohesive and coordinated. It included 85,000 volunteers — nearly four times the number in 2000 — that concentrated on what Paduchik called "volunteer to voter" contact. Among other efforts, Bush volunteers held thousands of "parties for the president," in which people were invited by their neighbors to hear about Bush's record and policies.
Kerry's effort was large but balkanized. It included the Democratic Party's own campaign workers, plus labor union members and other nominally independent groups called 527s (named for the portion of the federal tax code they are organized under). One of the largest of these groups was America Coming Together, which organized thousands of paid workers to register voters and knock on doors. ACT, which was started with seed money from billionaire George Soros, spent more money in Ohio than any other state, according to campaign finance records.
Steve Rosenthal, ACT's chief executive, said his organization exceeded its vote goals in every county in Ohio. As such, he was still having trouble believing that Kerry lost in the state. "I believe it was the most organized and best get-out-the-vote effort Democrats have ever had in Ohio." He added: " 'What happened?' is a good question."
Rosenthal said that he gives his opponents credit and that values and security issues might have driven votes to Bush. He said ACT will convene focus groups and conduct polls to analyze how Kerry lost and apply lessons to the fledgling group's future efforts. Asked what he could have done differently, Rosenthal chuckled slightly and said, "I firmly believe we ran as tight a program and as strong a program we possibly could run. I can't imagine we could have done anything differently."