When the Democrats picked Charlotte over Cleveland and St. Louis as the site for their 2012 convention, there was a clear downside: it would infuriate organized labor, given that North Carolina is one of the least unionized states and that the convention itself would be relying on nonunion labor. One union official called the choice a "calculated affront." But the party picked Charlotte anyway for a simple reason: Barack Obama's team was thrilled about snatching North Carolina and Virginia out of the Republican column in 2008 and thought that the path to reelection lay as much, if not more, in holding those two states and Colorado than in holding Ohio, a swing state where Democrats have been competitive, if not always victorious, for years. The theory was that the three newly purple states, with their large numbers of minority voters, young voters and well-educated professionals, were more suited to Obama than Ohio, with its large share of the working-class white voters who have shown resistance to him and who have good reason to be particularly frustrated about the lousy economy that Obama has presided over.
Well, how's that decision looking now?
Ohio voters delivered an overwhelming rebuke to the state's new Republican governor, voting down Senate Bill 5, the sweeping anti-union law, by a 61-39 percent margin. Independents, who broke for Kasich by 18 points last year, voted against SB 5 by 14 points, according to exit polls. Unions and progressive groups in the state are fired up going into next year. Ohio conservatives are demoralized, not least by Mitt Romney's bizarre flip-flop on whether he supported the new law even as he visited a Republican phone bank that was making calls on behalf of the law. And the ferment around the referendum appears to be rubbing off on Obama, who leads Romney 50-41 in a new PPP poll in Ohio. As I noted yesterday, for all of Obama's problems with the Rust Belt working class, other polling suggests that Romney, as a quarter-billionaire private equity titan, is not exactly ideally suited for the Ohio working class demographic either.
"Kasich awoke a sleeping giant," University of Akron political scientist Stephen Brooks told me. "This demonstrates that if the Ohio Democratic Party and the Obama campaign are able to keep this group together and invigorated, it would be very useful for next year and Ohio would be within reach...The victory gave Democrats a strategic advantage in the sense that one of the major reasons they lost in Ohio in 2010 was that their base was very quiet and didn’t show up. This gave them an opportunity to develop a strong campaign base, not just because it was about the unions, but because any time you put an initiative on the ballot and you don't use paid signers, you use volunteers to go out and talk to neighbors about signing it and you have an automatic campaign machine in place."
The resounding rejection of Senate Bill 5 stands in contrast to Democrats' far less encouraging result in Virginia, where it looks as if Republicans may have picked up the two state Senate seats needed to gain a tie and effective majority in that chamber. The differing fortunes in the two states would seem to back up the argument that Bill Galston made yesterday and that Dan Balz seemed to find plausible: that Obama would be better off taking the traditional route through Ohio than trying to hold onto his frontier territory from 2008.
And yet...there are also good arguments for not jumping too far in the other direction. Democrats have to be disconcerted by the result of another question on the Ohio ballot, in which the individual insurance mandate in the new health care law was rejected by an even bigger margin than Kasich's union law. When I asked AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka about this just now, he noted that that result is not going to have any actual impact on the implementation of the health care law in Ohio, and also that the question was worded in a slanted way. He also noted that many fewer people voted on the health care question than on the SB 5 one. Still, it suggests that the rejection of SB 5 may have been rooted more in voter upset against that particular overreach by Kasich than in an upwelling of support for the broader Democratic agenda.
Similarly, the results in Virginia may not be as dire for the Democrats as they seem at first glance. Gov. Bob McDonnell and other Republicans were predicting gains of at least five seats; instead, they picked up two, and maybe not even that if recounts in the one razor-thin district swing it the other way. Del. David Englin, an Alexandria Democrat, also noted to me that the electorate in an "off-off-year" election like this is far different than the electorate that will turn out next year. "If anything what last night suggests is that the president still has a lot of potential in Virginia," he said. "McDonnell promised a blow out and it didn't happen. Part of the strategy for that blowout was tying every candidate to President Obama, and even in areas where you thought that might have been effective, our candidates fared better than expected. Sure, any Democrat running statewide in Virginia starts at a disadvantage, because it's a naturally slightly right of center state. But the ill feeling toward President Obama may be subsiding a little bit."
Englin also noted that regardless of whether Virginia or Ohio emerges as the biggest presidential battleground next year, Virginia will be very much on the map thanks to being home to what will be one of the marquee Senate races: comeback kid George Allen versus Tim Kaine. "I don’t think Virginia is in competition with Ohio for national attention," he said. "Virginia is going to be high stakes in its own right."