Mysteries of Ohio

TNR’s Nate Cohn has a close-up analysis of where the presidential race stands in Ohio today, and uses as his starting point the last election where the Buckeye State was the ball-game, 2004. In doing so, he makes a point about the Bush-Kerry contest that a lot of folks missed then and since then:

It’s often overlooked just how much Obama gains over Kerry’s performance just by winning an outsized share of African Americans. According to the 2004 exit polls, Bush’s concerted efforts to appeal to African American voters—mainly on cultural issues—held Kerry to just 84 percent of the black vote. African American voters predictably swung decisively toward Obama, offering him 97 percent of the vote on Election Day with an additional point of black turnout.

Bush’s 16% among African-Americans in Ohio was a full five percent above his national showing, according to exit polls. That wasn’t enough to turn the state, but represented probably a third of Bush’s final margin (don’t mean to turn this into Bash Matt Bai Day at PA, but I just read a very long, on-the-ground piece he wrote about the Ohio results in 2004, and he didn’t mention the falloff in Kerry’s share of the black vote).

The CW among the very few analysts who focused on this particular aspect of the 2004 election is that Republicans made gains among Ohio African-Americans by shrewdly scheduling an anti-gay-marriage ballot initiative. It’s never been clear to me if that was supposed to have flipped black voters in the presidential election, or “mobilized” more conservative black voters, or “discouraged” others. You’d probably have to look at county-by-county demographic data to figure it out. Some enterprising grad student looking for a research project might want to take a look at the “faith-based organization” grants going into the Buckeye State in 2004, which were rumored to have focused disproportionately on friendly African-American ministers in key electoral states. And of course, Diebold conspiracy theorists have a ready explanation for such anomalies in Ohio.

In any event, those puzzled by Obama’s relative strength in Ohio should begin by looking at the bonanza Obama obtained in 2008 and should repeat in 2012 by vastly outperforming Kerry among African-Americans. As Cohn notes:

If Obama can maintain elevated black turnout and support, he would transform Kerry’s 118,000 vote deficit into a 92,000 vote lead without persuading a single white Bush voter.

As always, children, a vote is a vote, and all the talk about Coal Country and auto workers should not make us forget that Obama’s historic appeal to African-Americans matters in Ohio, too, if not quite as much as in Virginia or Florida.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.