Can Obama drag local Democrats across the finish line?

Sep 23, 2012

Some say the fate of the nation may hang in the balance when voters in Hamilton County, Ohio, go to the polls to cast their ballots in the presidential election.

A swing county in a swing state; a county that Barack Obama won four years ago, in a state that Mitt Romney needs to wrest back from Obama, who won Ohio with 51.5 percent of the vote in 2008.

“Fate of the nation” is one thing. A pretty big thing, actually.

But what about the fate of Wayne Coates, Hamilton County’s Democratic recorder?  Or a host of other down-ticket Democrats fighting tooth-and-nail to win races that go almost unnoticed in the thunderous din of a presidential candidate?

They – and their Republican counter-parts – must feel like they are shouting to be heard in the middle of a runway at CVG.

Four years ago, Barack Obama had coattails in Hamilton County.

His candidacy generated an enthusiasm level unheard of in Hamilton County politics, turning out tens of thousands of new voters – African-Americans, young people, and others – inspired by his message and pushed to the polls by an awe-inspiring grassroots organization that ended up swamping the campaign of GOP nominee John McCain and the local Republican organization.

The city of Cincinnati is solidly Democratic, but the outlying townships and suburban villages are chock full of Republicans who, in a normal election, turn out in a much higher percentage than the urban Democrats.

2008 was the exception to the rule.

Obama ended up winning Hamilton County by 29,683 votes out of 425,086 cast in the presidential election – 53 percent, compared to the 52.5 percent win by incumbent Republican George W. Bush four years before.

The rush of Obama voters to the polls – nearly a fourth of whom voted early – helped drag some down-ticket Democratic candidates over the finish line; and nearly got a few others elected.

It was seen at the time as the principal reason that, in the 1stCongressional District, Democrat Steve Driehaus defeated Republican incumbent Steve Chabot, who had held the seat since 1994. Chabot, of course, came back two years later when there was no Obama on the ballot and won back his seat.

Then there was Coates.

Coates eked out a narrow victory over Republican incumbent  Rebecca Prem Groppe for the county recorder’s office – with 50.35 percent of the vote to Groppe’s 49.65 percent.

Again, the Obama factor at work.

In the 28thOhio House District, the Obama factor probably helped Democrat Connie Pillich vault over Sharonville Mayor Virgil Lovitt; and it darn near made Martha Good a winner in her race against then-clerk of courts Patricia Clancy – Good came up with 49.5 percent of the vote.

Then there was Democrat Jerry Metz, up against Republican Fred Nelson for a common pleas court judgeship. Metz pulled off a win; and, again, the Obama surge was given the credit.

Now, in 2012, the question is this: Can the Obama campaign replicate what it did in Hamilton County four years ago?

The Republicans, not surprisingly, say no.

“Four years ago, the enthusiasm was on their side,’’ said Alex Triantafilou, chairman of the Hamilton County Republican Party. “This year, it’s swung to our side.”

Triantafilou’s Exhibit A is the campaign rally President Obama held last Monday at Eden Park’s Seasongood Pavilion, which drew a crowd estimated at  4,500. Four years ago, when candidate Obama held a similar rally in Ault Park, the crowd was estimated at about 15,000.

Triantafilou’s counterpart in the Hamilton County Democratic Party, Tim Burke, is convinced that Obama will once again win Hamilton County, but he won’t venture a guess as to the margin of victory.

“Right now, I would say, yes, President Obama wins Hamilton County,’’ Burke said. “They have a massive ground organization in this county. The Obama campaign is going to reach every voter who came out four years ago and then some.”

But what if Obama’s margin of victory in Hamilton County is substantially less than it was in 2008? What if he loses the county to Romney outright?

The problem for the Wayne Coates of the world then becomes the fact that, historically, there is a drop-off among Democrats when it comes to down-ticket races – many of them tend to vote for the hottest races at the top and skip the bottom-of-the-ballot contests.

Hard-core Republican voters have historically been more likely to vote the entire ticket.  

Look at 2008:

In Hamilton County, 99 percent of those who cast ballots voted in the presidential contest (which makes one wonder what was going through the minds of that one percent who didn’t vote for president). That was 425,086 voters.

In the Coates-Groppe race, 86.67 percent – or 372,023 voters – cast ballots. In the Metz-Nelson contest, only 65 percent cast ballots.

This creates a problem for the Democrats.

That, Burke said, is why the Democratic party here is going out of its way to get the message out to its voters – don’t stop voting after you cast your ballot for Obama, keep going, all the way down the line.

“People may come out because they want to re-elect the president, but they have to vote the entire ticket,’’ Burke said.

The fate of Wayne Coates hangs in the balance.