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Strickland Versus Kasich in Ohio -- the Ultimate Test Market for 2012

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COLUMBUS, Ohio – "I've never told anybody this. I've never even told my wife this." Ted Strickland -- Ohio's Democratic governor whose re-election campaign provides a case study in the politics of hard times -- paused and looked down as he apparently wrestled with the limits of candor. Finally, he said, "There was a relatively brief time, some time around the last two weeks in August, when I wondered if winning would be possible."
The Ohio governor, an ordained Methodist minister, was confronting the existential question that gnaws at the souls of many incumbent Democrats in this fear-and-trembling campaign year: Am I irretrievably doomed to fall into the abyss because of the Great Recession?
Strickland, a 69-year-old former congressman elected governor by nearly 1 million votes in 2006, admitted being daunted by late August polls showing him trailing Republican John Kasich by double-digit margins. "But as soon as we started fighting back around Labor Day," the soft-spoken Strickland said, referring to a barrage of attack ads, "I regained my confidence, so to speak. And I haven't really had a concern since then."
Earlier during our 40-minute conversation Monday afternoon, conducted in a small borrowed room at campaign headquarters, Strickland said, "This will be a close race. There's no doubt about that." But even that article of oft-repeated faith (Diane Feldman, Strickland's pollster, shows the race as essentially even) has been undermined by some recent public surveys.
A Quinnipiac University poll released Tuesday showed Kasich with a 51-to-41 percent lead and a Fox News survey put Kasich's edge at a more plausible 6 percentage points, which is about where Ohio Republicans say their own internal surveys portray the contest. A CNN/Time/Opinion Research poll released Wednesday had Strickland actually leading Kasich by 48 percent to 47 percent.
Ted Strickland is the elected Democratic governor of the largest state in the union who is a seeking a second term this year. That is why -- perhaps more than any race in the country -- the battle in Ohio offers the closest approximation to the challenges that Barack Obama will face in 2012 if he is still saddled with a job-loss economy. Strickland himself alluded to the coming presidential election when he introduced Obama Sunday night at a campaign rally at Ohio State. And Kasich's own commercials ("Under Ted Strickland, Ohio has lost nearly 400,000 jobs"), augmented by a heavy ad buy from the Republican Governors Association, all make it seem as if Strickland has personally signed each of the layoff notices in the state.
Those ads may be working with Republican-leaning independents. Waiting to see Kasich Tuesday afternoon in Bellefontaine (pronounced locally as "Bell-fountain"), I talked with Dave Zellers, a 54-year-old county health officer, who had voted for Strickland in 2006. "Personally, I like Strickland," Zellers said. "He's a good guy. But you can't lose 400,000 or 500,000 jobs without paying a price." As a political reporter, I am chary of drawing sweeping conclusions from voter interviews at candidate rallies. But it is also an occupational hazard that a good quote trumps everything -- and Zellers' words capture the dilemma facing the governor.
For his part, and this sentiment is not entirely self-serving, Strickland believes that the dominant issue in this campaign is the larger economic malaise afflicting Ohio and the nation. "It's the more generalized feelings of anxiety and concern regarding the economic future of people and their families," Strickland said. "I guess from a media point of view by trying to capitalize on that by emphasizing 400,000 jobs being lost is probably smart on [the Republicans] part. But in the end, it won't determine who is the winner in this race."

The Strickland campaign -- which some leading Ohio Democrats privately worry is too negative -- has been built around portraying Kasich, the former chairman of the House Budget Committee, as out of touch with the plight of middle-class Ohioans. After Congress and a brief flirtation with seeking the 2000 GOP presidential nomination, Kasich went to work in Columbus for (wait for it) Lehman Brothers, the investment banking house whose September 2008 collapse triggered the financial meltdown. Few Democratic campaign consultants could resist the obvious populist attack line that Strickland has been using in his 30-second spots: "Kasich says that his Wall Street experience should make him governor. Haven't we had enough of Wall Street and John Kasich?"
As he tours Ohio's Republican exurban and rural heartland, the still boyish 58-year-old Kasich is playing economic Pied Piper promising (as he did in Bellefontaine), "I think we can have great progress in Ohio within one year. I absolutely believe that we can begin to turn this around." Kasich's predictable elixir of tax cuts (despite a state budget shortfall that could hit $8 billion) and a reduction in government regulation seem to be weak medicine with which to treat the economic forces of global recession.
Neither Kasich nor Strickland win good-government plaudits for their honesty in explaining how they are going to balance Ohio's budget without devastating cuts in state services. Kasich, wearing a windbreaker over an open-necked shirt, went so far as to tell a crowd of about 50 supporters in Bellefontaine, "What you have to understand is that the budget is not the issue. The issue is that we're not creating jobs in this state."
Strickland, whose family lived in a converted chicken coop for part of his hard-scrabble childhood in eastern Ohio, tries to transform the budget debate into another battle with Kasich (the son of a postman) over populist values. During our interview, Strickland said, "I think my obligation is not to present a line-by-line budget. But I think my obligation is to let people know what my values are and what my priorities are."
There are moments when Kasich gives vent to I-read-the-polls self-confidence. In Bellefontaine (northwest of Columbus for those who care about Ohio geography), Kasich blurted out, "I'm on the verge of being the governor."
Yet I remain tempted to resist a headlong rush to judgment in Ohio, even with Kasich consistently leading in the polls with less than two weeks until the election. As Paul Beck, a political scientist at Ohio State, puts it, "If you can couple a slight under-representation of the Democratic vote in the polls with the Democrats presumed greater ability to mobilize voters, then you may have a gubernatorial election that's a tossup."
Granted, it takes a lot of if-clauses to get Ted Strickland to toss-up status. But I also have been spending election-year Octobers in Ohio since the late 1990s -- and I have never heard prominent Democrats in off-the-record conversations sound so baffled by the horse race surveys. It is almost as if they are asking -- to repurpose an old joke -- "Do you believe the polls or your own eyes?"

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18 Comments

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kwooring

This administration stating Kasich is for WallStreet, and therefore is bad – is the same as Clinton saying cheating on your spouse is wrong – Obama, this administration and Goldman Sachs are symbiotic – Chief of Staff Rham Emanuel was a chief proponent of the $700 billion Wall Street bailout in 2008 – GS and JP Morgan have given millions to Obama and Emanuel. Emanuel received more money from the securities and investment industry - $600,500 as of Sep. 30, 2008 - than did any other member of the US House, and it was more than either presidential candidate received. In the 2008 election cycle, over 70% of campaign contributions from Goldman Sachs, related PACs, and people who listed Goldman Sachs as their employer went to Democrats. http://fundrace.huffingtonpost.com/neighbors.php?type=emp&employer=Goldman+Sachs&search=Search

October 26 2010 at 11:49 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Jim

This election seems quite simple. Make a list of Strickland's accomplishments and then decide if he earned your vote. If so, then vote for him. If not, then vote for Kasich. Did he fulfill his campaign promises? Did he bring jobs to Ohio? Did he improve the school system in Ohio? Did he present a balanced budget for Ohio or are we fudging numbers? Did he provide a means to attract businesses to Ohio? Was he effective in lowering the cost of college in Ohio? Did the cost of Ohio government increase during his time in office? Did he reduce the number of individuals dependent on social support programs? Did he work to solve our prison issues? Did he help reduce crime in Ohio? Did he reduce taxes for all Ohio citizens? Did he help the citizens who need assistance by increasing support and program funding? Did he fulfill the administrative functions of adequate review of Ohio government functions?

October 20 2010 at 8:27 PM Report abuse +2 rate up rate down Reply
cpadmitchell

Did it occur that the jobs lost were still the result of the decisions in Washington between 2001 and 2008?

October 20 2010 at 4:20 PM Report abuse -6 rate up rate down Reply
merothhaar

Thot' this might be interesting if you have not already read. Sorry for the delay in return response. Have been wrapped up in all kind of old folks stuff !

October 20 2010 at 2:53 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Tom

If Ohio thinks it has money/budget/employment problems now they ain't seen nothin' yet compared to what they will endure if they elect Kasich! How many hundreds of millions did the shut down of the federal government when he was on the House Budget Comm. cost the U. S.?? Ohio, he'll do the same to you!

October 20 2010 at 2:12 PM Report abuse -7 rate up rate down Reply
markwest2174

I'M from the same area as Ted Strickland.All we heard was how we needed someone "from our area" to represent us, to get this part of Ohio some help. What a joke. He has done NOTHING for southern Ohio.He show's up when a project looks good, takes some photos so he will be in the news, and then bails.You don't hear from him going to bat for us when projects stall or get canceled. VOTE HIM OUT.

October 20 2010 at 12:12 PM Report abuse +5 rate up rate down Reply
rox66

I gotta say if anyone votes GOP because they think it will be better, think again. Think about 2000-2006. Its what got us in this mess in the first place. If you think the GOP cares about the middle class, think again. Think tax breaks for the richest 1 percent helps then why hasn't it helped the economy and the jobs situation? If you think the time for reducing the deficit is now where were you when the Dems were talking about it in 2004 when we could have done something about it. You don't make things worse with an austerity plan now. Think!

October 20 2010 at 11:41 AM Report abuse -12 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to rox66's comment
sasha

It is also amazing that most of the deficit from 1980 to 2008 was rung up under the GOP. Also, that the conservative wing of the Republcian Party, most commonly referred to as the tea party, has some grand plan that they apparently didn't just a few short years ago. They will pick up seats and all those newly elected will be put on the back burner by their party leaders and essentially forgotten. Anger is great for elections, but for leadership it gets you nowhere.

October 20 2010 at 6:55 PM Report abuse -2 rate up rate down Reply
BVPatriot

"If you can couple a slight under-representation of the Democratic vote in the polls with the Democrats presumed greater ability to mobilize voters, then you may have a gubernatorial election that's a tossup." "Mobilization" will be much more for Democrats this year because ACORN is gone (or is it?) Without ACORN or questionable union tactics, Strickland does not have a chance in Ohio this election.

October 20 2010 at 10:36 AM Report abuse +10 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to BVPatriot's comment
nbk4real

Your accusations are absurd and reflect a terrible case of misinformation. Ted Strickland is a good man that has done a fine job. I guess you would rather have a wall street bankster as Gov. than a good ol country boy with an A rating with the NRA. I can bet the farm that Ted Strickland doesnt know people he can call for a million the way Kasich has and used it. All this out of state, out of country money to smear, lie and misinform about Strickland, its a shame that Ohio would even consider a return to the very kind of people that have destroyed the state and Kasich is one of them. He, Portman and Boehner, all the same.

October 20 2010 at 11:24 AM Report abuse -6 rate up rate down Reply
danceshorses

As an Ohio Republican and T E A Party member I am still independent in my personal beleifs. In consideration of each candidates stand on the second amendment I had not totally made up my mind in this race. Ted Stricland however made fun of the T E A party and that has convinced me that he is not the one to be governor. It would appear that the only Democrat that I will vote for this Year is Richard Cordray for Attorney General as I totally detest mike dewine.

October 20 2010 at 9:54 AM Report abuse +7 rate up rate down Reply
nawassa38

It will be nice to have leadership in Ohio from someone who has business experience, something that is lacking in Washington. Sure, Strickland is a nice guy, and I voted for him, but he lacks the credentials to be a governor, especially in these hard times. He would be great if the country was not in trouble and our free market society was not in danger. But now we need a strong business leader who has experience in pulling companies out of trouble, as I think Kasich will pull Ohio out of trouble. John Kasich seems to know how to do it. Why anyone would try to make a negative out of his experience on Wall Street is beyond me.

October 20 2010 at 9:20 AM Report abuse +6 rate up rate down Reply

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