Atlas Analysis: What Happened in Ohio

Publish:  Nov 09, 2011


By The Atlas Project & ISSI

Ohio is a swing state, as evidenced by the last decade’s election results. In 2006 and 2008, Democrats ended ten years of Republican dominance by winning the governorship, a U.S. Senate seat, four U.S. House seats and Ohio’s 20 electoral votes. In 2010, the political pendulum swung back and Democrats lost almost all  they had gained.

On Election Night 2011 Democrats won a major victory in Ohio: repealing Republican-sponsored anti-union legislation (SB5). The results indicate that Republicans, who were elected by large margins in 2010 because of voter anxiety about the economy and jobs, overreached with their legislative agenda. Republican-controlled state governments in Ohio, Wisconsin, and Maine focused much of their energy in 2011 on passing legislation designed to reshape the political landscape to favor Republican interests. Voters made their voices heard tonight as they struck down legislation that had weakened organized labor and increased obstacles to voting.

It remains to be seen whether Democrats can continue to tap into populist sentiment heading into the 2012 presidential election. Given that nearly 30% of the vote in Ohio will come from union households in 2012, the enormous energy coming off of this win provides reason for optimism to progressives.

What Was on the Ballot

Issue 2: Citizen Veto of SB5

In the spring of 2011, the Ohio legislature passed a measure (SB5) that curbed the rights of public employee unions under the guise of reigning in spending.[1]  In response, a coalition of labor unions and other progressive allies gathered over 1.3 million signatures to place a repeal of the bill on the November 2011 ballot as “Issue 2.”[2]

On the heels of the Wisconsin recalls, the Ohio campaign drew national attention and resources. The progressive organization We Are Ohio coordinated and raised more than $24 million, largely from labor unions.[3]  Building a Better Ohio, the largest conservative group fighting to keep the new law in place, raised only $7.6 million, but garnered significant support from national conservative groups like Americans for Prosperity and Freedom Works.

Polling consistently showed Issue 2 heading towards defeat. The most recent polling from Quinnipiac University on October 23 showed that voters opposed Issue 2 by a margin of 57-32, up from 51-38 percent for repeal on September 27.[4]

Public Polling – Issue 2 (SB5 Repeal)

Issue 3 – Ohio Conservative’s Health Care Freedom Amendment

The state Republican Party and its supporters collected 426,998 valid signatures (385,245 were required) to put an initiative on the ballot that would nullify the national healthcare insurance mandate.[5]  This measure was deceptively worded and was passed by a large margin tonight. The measure is not expected to have any practical effect.

The Ground Game, The Air War

The effort to repeal SB5 demonstrated the power of progressive field and turnout operations. The Republican attacks mobilized progressive voters and helped organizations build broad support throughout Ohio. Labor and progressive allies invested tremendous resources in the ground game, with reports of:

  • 4.1 million worksite fliers distributed
  • Over 3,000 worksites leafletted
  • 1,101,751 doors knocked
  • 825,000 pieces of local union literature mailed
  • 409,318 tele-town hall participants recruited[2]
Both sides spent heavily in the fight over SB5, with over $12 million invested in broadcast television between September 1st and the November election, according to CMAG data. Most progressive spending was consolidated through We Are Ohio, which constituted a full 62% of all broadcast advertising. In total, progressives spent over $7.5 million, compared to the $4.5 million spent by four conservative organizations including Building a Better Ohio and Make Ohio Great.Progressive messaging was focused on the negative effect SB5 would have on police, firefighters, teachers and nurses. We Are Ohio flooded the airwaves with this messaging across all media markets in the state. The repeal of SB5 shows the benefits of coordinated messaging and aggressive media spending.
Issue 2 Broadcast Spending by Market (CMAG)
Issue 2 Broadcast Spending by Organization (CMAG)

The Results: Turnout Analysis

Turnout in Ohio for the 2011 election radically exceeded turnout for any previous off-year referendum election in the state. The turnout tonight approached 2006 levels and actually exceeded 2002 turnout. The exception to this trend was in urban areas, most notably Cleveland and Toledo where turnout lagged 2002 and 2006 levels significantly.In 2010, Democrats experienced large drop-off among key demographic groups and in historically high performing areas. Preliminary turnout numbers from the 2011 election appear to show a higher level of engagement among these voters than in 2010.

The Results: Performance Analysis

The margin by which SB5 was repealed approached, or in some counties exceeded, the margins by which former Democratic Governor Ted Strickland won his landslide victory in 2006. The results achieved by progressive organizations tonight appear comparable to Strickland’s previous Democratic high-water mark. At the time of writing, results indicate Issue 2 was defeated in all but six counties in the state – all heavily Republican and either rural or exurban. Support for repealing SB5 was strongest in the urban centers and in southeastern Ohio, home to significant numbers of active and retired union members.

2011 “No On Issue 2” Performance
Looking at the results across county-types for the past four elections again shows the similarities between Strickland performance in 2006 and the path followed by progressive groups in 2011. The only significant discrepancy between the two performances can be seen in urban areas. More detailed analysis should be conducted once vote history data is made available.

The following map illustrates the similar pattern between “No on Issue 2” and Strickland 2006 performance at the county level. “No on Issue 2” outperformed Strickland in southwestern Ohio, home to Strickland’s 2006 opponent Ken Blackwell. This map also shows a performance deficit in Cleveland, mirroring Strickland’s underperformance there in his 2010 re-election bid.

Issue 2 Results vs. Strickland 2006 Results

Implications for 2012

Tonight’s numbers suggest that the coalition of voters  that delivered Democratic victories in 2006 and 2008 can still be coalesced and mobilized around a core Democratic issue. Although many of these same voters also symbolically rejected President Obama’s most commonly recognized legislative achievement by voting for Issue 3, voters delivered a strong rebuke to Republicans tonight. The overwhelming response to a focused message and unified effort by progressives around Issue 2 is certainly a reason for greater optimism going into 2012.

Updated as of 2pm 11/9/11.


[1]Ben Geier, “426,998 Valid Signatures Add health-care issue to ballot,” The Columbus Dispatch, July 27, 2011
[2] Greg Sargent, “Labor bets it all on Ohio,” Washingtonpost.com, November 8th 2011.

[3] “Ohio Senate Bill 5 passes, restricting unions,” Associated Press, March 2, 2011.

[4]“Group Cleared to Continue Fight of Ohio Union Law,” Associated Press, April 15, 2011.
[5] Marc Kovac, “Groups rake in more than $30M in statewide fight over Senate Bill 5,” Youngstown Vindicator, October 28, 2011.
[6]Darrel Rowland, “Poll: Issue 2 sinking,” The Columbus Dispatch, October 26, 2011.