Storm warnings for Bush in Ohio

The John Kerry campaign offices may still be dark in this key battleground state, but an invisible tidal wave is growing here against the president.

Tim Russo
June 5, 2004 3:04AM (UTC)

The road-rage Republicans are out early this year in Ohio.

It's only June, but already the John Kerry bumper sticker on my car gets me cut off on I-71 by obese white males in their pickups and Camaros who upon seeing my Kerry sticker, roar past, swerve into my lane, and flip me the bird out their window.


Such folks form the backbone of the George W. Bush "Amway"-model campaign detailed recently in the New York Times Sunday Magazine. Prospecting the prefab suburban wilderness for votes, the Bush machine's efforts in Ohio raise the obvious question: What are Democrats doing in response?

A Democrat looking for solace in the obvious places will find little encouragement. Walking into a Democratic Party office anywhere in this key presidential battleground state is like walking into a morgue. The Cleveland party office, the epicenter of the most important region of the state for Democrats, is a deserted storefront that until last week didn't have a single Kerry for President sign. Locked doors greet potential volunteers who peer into the emptiness inside.

Dying of dry rot for more than 10 years, the Ohio Democratic operation's only significant victory since Bill Clinton won Ohio in 1992 was when Bill Clinton won the state again in 1996. That's it. Taking full advantage of this political vacuum, Republicans have established one-party rule at the state level, a legislative cabal so right wing they are known as the "caveman caucus."


Like a desperate and bedraggled street-corner supplicant, the state Democratic Party has been begging talk-show host Jerry Springer for divine deliverance for more than two years. Springer probably can't believe his luck; his sights set on the governor's mansion in 2006, he has stumbled on the biggest bargain fixer-upper political party in the United States Sprinkling his pennies from heaven all over the state gained Springer the "Ohio Democrat of the Year Award" this May, as well as an at-large delegate appointment to the party's presidential convention in Boston, despite having lived out of state for almost 20 years.

Doesn't look good for Kerry in Ohio, does it?

Not so fast.


During primary season, I dragged my apolitical friend Lori from Meetup to Meetup all over Cleveland, the two of us shopping around for a new president on snowy winter nights that would keep normal people huddled indoors. The Meetup groups we encountered were nonpolitical types from various economic, racial, and educational backgrounds whose average was 40-ish. People who looked way outside their comfort zone at a political meeting. People like Lori herself, who was unimpressed with the turnouts, which totaled 20 to 30 people as a rule. "Seems pretty low," she kept saying. "What do you think?"

Having grown up in Ohio politics, working with every presidential election in the state since 1988, and acutely aware of the cobwebs, crickets and tumbleweed of the Ohio Democratic Party, I had a very different perspective.


"Are you kidding me?" I shot back. "I've never seen anything like this in my life."

Wesley Clark's Cleveland Meetup the night before Super Tuesday was particularly eye-opening. The organizers were prepared with lists of phone numbers in Oklahoma, which had a primary the next day. Ten attendees used their cellphones to call Oklahoma for an hour.

Do the math. If each of those 10 people talked to 10 others, that's 100 contacts from the downtown Cleveland Meetup. There were 10 Meetups in Cleveland that night, adding up to 1,000 contacts from Cleveland. There are 10 major counties in Ohio. If each had made 1,000 contacts, that's 10,000 cross-state voter contacts made the night before Oklahoma's election -- which Clark won, in his only victory of the primary season, by less than 1,500 votes.


Imagine this grass-roots effort pumped up and targeted at George W. Bush in the fall, and things start to look a little better for Kerry in Ohio.

There's more. All winter, there were fliers at every Meetup that read, "ACT Ohio Hiring; $8 an hour. Make a Difference." America Coming Together (ACT), the George Soros-funded anti-Bush organization, has been paying canvassers (many of them recently laid-off steelworkers) in Ohio to knock on doors, register voters, identify their preference, and get them out to vote in November. This isn't big news; it's happening in swing states all over the country.

The news is that it's been going on in Ohio for more than a year, which itself is staggering. Such get-out-the-vote efforts in Ohio have at best been sporadic, unscientific and short-lived in the past. The earliest I've ever observed any such effort to get out Democratic votes in a presidential year in Ohio, with paid staff or unpaid volunteers, was August, two months before the election.


The hundreds of large, mostly urban precincts in Ohio where Democrats get more than 90 percent of the vote, but where the turnout is less than 20 percent, have been a particularly hard nut to crack. Increasing their turnout by mere percentage points would lead to a landslide victory for a Democrat, and it is in those precincts that ACT is most heavily focused.

ACT renders quaint the Bush "Amway" model. Haphazardly targeting garages with golf clubs in them while passing on union halls (note to Karl Rove: Democrats do golf; union members do vote Republican), Bush's minions seek out friends in places like Delaware County, the rarest of Ohio birds -- a county with people actually moving into it from out of state, rather than fleeing it like a burning building.

Ohio's many solidly Republican counties are numerous but low in population. Their Bush votes could be quickly swamped if ACT succeeds in getting out the vote in populous, Democratic-rich counties.

And then there's my mom.


My mother is known among my friends as "the zeitgeist of the American electorate." She's a typical ethnic, blue-collar, middle-class west-side Clevelander. She barely engages in politics, and yet her political behavior is almost exactly predictive. She is the Ohio voter.

Mom voted twice for Ronald Reagan. Dismissed Michael Dukakis in 1988 and voted for George H.W. Bush. In 1992, after flirting with Ross Perot, she voted for Bill Clinton. Clinton again in 1996. In 2000, she went back and forth for months and ended up voting for George W. Bush. She never loses.

This year she took the Democratic primary ballot for the first time in her life and voted for John Edwards.

This thing is over.


Analysts in presidential years tend to look in the obvious places for the ups and downs of the election, at the pathetically empty Democratic Party offices in Cleveland, or the oh-so-cute Bush volunteer pyramid directed by Karl Rove like the Wizard of Oz from behind a curtain.

But out in the real world, something much bigger is happening. Like an invisible earthquake thousands of miles away at the bottom of the sea that produces a tsunami, a growing wave of voter discontent is taking shape in Ohio, as the electorate sours on Bush's handling of the war, the economy and perhaps even the man himself. Recent Ohio polling shows the race has gone from a dead heat to a healthy seven- to nine-point margin for Kerry in the state, reflecting the movement of first-time Meetup attendees and people like my mother into the "Anybody but Bush" crowd.

At the same time, Ohio is experiencing a level of organic political activity in 2004 that I've never seen in my entire career in Ohio politics. It's happening earlier, with more intensity, and it involves more new people than ever. It's both planned and spontaneous. It is everywhere.

And every ounce of its energy is directed against George W. Bush.


A perfect storm is brewing in Ohio. The Bush road-rage bird-flippers know it's coming.

But it's worse than they think.

Mr. Rove, feel free to flip us off as you drive your U-Haul through Ohio on your way back to Texas in November.

Tim Russo

Tim Russo is a Cleveland freelance writer who has worked with numerous Democratic campaigns in the state. In 2002 he was a general consultant for Tim Ryan, the youngest Democrat in Congress, who took the place of Jim Traficant.


Related Topics ------------------------------------------

2004 Elections George W. Bush John F. Kerry

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