Will the Ohio governor's race be competitive? Answer: Nobody really knows

May 18, 2014

Should supporters of Ohio’s Republican governor, John Kasich, be dancing in the streets over an independent poll released last week, that had Kasich with a 15 percentage point lead over Democratic challenger Ed FitzGerald.

Or should they, as Ohio Democrats believe, hold off on their “happy dance,” with over five months left before election day?

It depends on how seriously you take polls in election campaigns. It depends on how much you believe in the power of money in politics.

The independent Quinnipiac University poll was, on the face of it, full of bad news for FitzGerald, the Cuyahoga County Executive who is taking on Kasich in this fall’s election.

It had Kasich with 50 percent support and 35 percent for FitzGerald – quite a jump from the five percentage point lead Kasich held in the February Quinnipiac poll.

The poll, which has a margin of error of plus or minus 2.9 percent, also had Kasich with a job approval rating of 56 percent – his highest mark since he became governor in Jan. 2011.

And perhaps the worst news of all for the Democrat is that, despite having campaigned for governor for the past year and a half, 63 percent of those Ohio voters polled said they don’t know enough about FitzGerald to form an opinion of him, one way or the other.

Friday, the Ohio Democratic Party came out with a poll from its pollster, Public Policy Polling, showing Kasich with a four percentage point lead – 47 percent to 43 percent.

Kyle Kondik, communications director of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics, whose roots are in Ohio politics, thinks the truth about where the Ohio governor’s race stands now is somewhere in between.

“Fifteen percentage points seems a little generous to me,’’ said Kondik, who, with the Center’s director, Larry J. Sabato, puts out the weekly Sabato’s Crystal Ball, a closely watched look at races around the country.

“If you told me it was a Kasich lead of somewhere between seven and 10 percent, I would think that would be more accurate,’’ Kondik said.

Sabato’s Crystal Ball has ranked the Ohio governor’s race as “likely Republican” for some time now; and Kondik said nothing has happened to make them change their minds.

“This is not a tied race,’’ Kondik said. “This is a race where the incumbent has the advantage.”

Perhaps the biggest advantage for Kasich lies not in the polls, but in his campaign bank account.

The latest campaign finance reports showed Kasich’s campaign with $8.5 million in the bank, compared to $1.5 million for FitzGerald.

Four years ago, when Kasich ended up defeating incumbent Democrat governor Ted Strickland, Strickland had $7.1 million in the bank while Kasich had $5.2 million.

But, in that race, the Republican Governors Association (RGA) poured millions of dollars into Ohio for ads tearing down Strickland and boosting Kasich. It may well have made the difference in what ended up as a very close race – only a two percentage point win for Kasich.

“The most prominent outside money in a governor’s race comes from the Republican Governors Association and the Democratic Governors Association (DGA),’’ Kondik said. “And the RGA has more money to spend than the Democrats.”

The RGA has already spent money in Ohio touting Kasich’s re-election campaign. How much more they might spend, Kondik said, depends on whether or not the RGA – headed by Kasich’s pal, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie – decides that Kasich needs the help.

“If the polling shows Kasich in good shape, the outside Republican money will go to other governor’s races,’’ Kondik said.

Democratic groups outside of Ohio, like the DGA, will only spend money on FitzGerald if they think he has a reasonable chance of winning.

FitzGerald, Kondik said, “is going to have to move those poll numbers between now and Labor Day. If he doesn’t, he’s not going to get the money.”

And what moves poll numbers in Ohio elections? Usually, it is jobs and the economy. And Kasich had some good news dropped on him Friday on that front.

The Ohio job numbers for April came out; and unemployment in the state dropped sharply from 6.1 percent in March to 5.7 percent in April – the lowest jobless rate in Ohio since 2008.

The FitzGerald campaign and its allies in the Ohio Democratic Party argued that the drop was in part due to the fact that tens of thousands of out-of-work Ohioans have simply given up trying to find jobs. And, they said, having some 328,000 Ohioans still unemployed is unacceptable.

There is no telling what will happen with those jobless numbers between now and the November election, but FitzGerald will have to make the case that Ohio can do better in order to tighten the race.

The conundrum for FitzGerald though is that to raise poll numbers takes money. And the money usually doesn’t come unless the poll numbers rise.

It’s a chicken-or-the-egg thing. Tough spot to be in.