Targeting Ohio's Reddest Counties

Obama campaign hopes to win the swing state by chipping away at Republican strongholds in Butler, Clermont and Warren counties

Oct 22, 2008 at 2:06 pm

With just a few hours to go before last week’s final presidential debate, Sen. Barack Obama’s supporters at Smokey Bones BBQ & Grill in West Chester were furiously busy. These Democratic volunteers, seated at tables and booths in a set-aside area with their cell phones out, were calling Butler County voters classified from previous research as “undecided” or “persuadable.”

They were making calls as quickly and politely as possible before the debate began. Paula Dolloff, a teacher and West Chester resident, already had made 70 before taking a short break. She’d kept a running tally: Five said they’d earlyvoted for Obama, two for Republican candidate Sen. John McCain, four favored McCain and one Obama.

“This evening, most people didn’t want to share who they were voting for, and I respected that,” Dolloff said. “Those who were undecided I encouraged to watch the debate.”

One of the most enthusiastic volunteers, Linda Brock of Liberty Township, was eager to explain why she’s supporting Obama now after voting Republican in every presidential election since 1964.

“I changed to Democrat in the primary to vote for Obama,” she said. “I don’t like the Iraq War, think our foreign policy’s been wrong for years and we’re hated all over the world. And I’m disgusted with the Republican Party’s right-wing philosophy. So I decided if they (the Democrats) are worth my vote they’re worth working for.”

She’s happy to share that perspective with those she calls.

Meanwhile, servers happy for the business were busily working the section, bringing nachos, sandwiches, beer and iced tea upon request. A largescreen TV was tuned to MSNBC. “Obama/Biden” and “Change We Need” posters were taped to the lodge-like wooden walls below the restaurant’s usual Bengals and OSU paraphernalia.

The gathering’s organizer, Elgin Card — an assistant principal at Lakota West High School, where Dolloff also works — offered encouragement to his callers. Wearing an Obama T-shirt with an Obama button on it, his natural ebullience made him a center of attention.

“I think with Barack’s background as a community organizer, he knows how important it is for people to get involved,” Card said.

This is a typical Democratic grassroots scene in many places around the country — phone banks are a crucial part of any political campaign. But in Butler County? This is a Republican stronghold, home of House Minority Leader John Boehner. Why bother?

Actually, Democrats are making a concerted, intense effort to cut down McCain’s plurality in Butler, Warren and Clermont counties. As the largest of those three counties, with 357,276 residents — up 25,000 just since 2000 — Butler is the most important.

The Ohio Democratic Party even has a name for the statewide plan that includes challenging Republicans on this turf: Perfect Storm. It borrows its theme from the Democratic National Committee’s socalled “50 State Strategy” of competing everywhere.

‘Show up and work hard’
A case can be made that Butler, Warren and Clermont — which have seen explosive population growth north and east of Hamilton County — bear responsibility for re-electing President Bush in 2004. They’ve all seen an influx of so-called “exurbanites” — defined by American Heritage Dictionary as residents of a region lying beyond the suburbs of a city, especially one inhabited principally by wealthy people.

Such people traditionally are Republican, especially in suburban Cincinnati.

Bush took Ohio in 2004 — and thus a majority of the Electoral College vote — by a mere 118,601 votes out of 5.6 million cast. Statewide, Sen. John Kerry, the Democratic standard-bearer, barely lost the state with 49 percent of the vote.

But Bush’s plurality over Kerry in Butler, Warren and Clermont was 132,684; he carried Butler by 53,600 votes, Warren by almost 42,000 and Clermont by 37,000. In only two of the other Ohio counties that Bush won was his plurality more than 20,000: Delaware, an exurban area near Columbus, and Hamilton.

As Greater Cincinnati residents have moved into burgeoning townships like Butler’s West Chester, Warren’s Landen and Clermont’s Miami, Hamilton County itself has been trending more Democratic. Obama strategists think the county could go for them this year.

The GOP sees the three outlying counties as so red that McCain and running mate Sarah Palin chose Lebanon in Warren, outside the Golden Lamb, for one of their first joint appearances. And last week Palin returned to West Chester, not far from Smokey Bones, for an outdoor appearance that drew about 15,000 people.

Historically, Republicans have to carry Ohio to win the presidency. And these exurban counties are where they count on
winning the state.

Ohio again is extremely close, according to polls. Conventional wisdom says the Democrats’ statewide efforts this time should be targeted toward the big cities, a traditional base, and the poorer and more rural Appalachian areas in southeastern Ohio. The Dems are fighting aggressively there, but they’re not giving up anywhere.

“It’s not good enough to do well in cities alone — you have to really compete strongly in the counties that buffer a city,” said Doug Kelly, who in April 2007 became executive director of the Ohio Democratic Party after Chris Redfern became the new chairman. Kelly developed the Perfect Storm plan. “Our goal is a very simple one: Do incredibly well in cities, compete strongly in southeast Ohio and in the exurban areas do well. Maybe not win them all, but show up and work hard.

“If you don’t lose them by 70-30 percent but cut the margins to 60-40 or 55-45, that’s a gigantic increase. That’s like not letting your opponent score 50 points in the first quarter.”

‘Cut the plurality’
The Ohio Democratic Party, working closely with the Obama campaign, has more than 50 offices throughout the state. Party staff had already increased from five when Redfern took office to approximately
45 during 2007.

Right now, counting Obama’s campaign, there are more than 400 paid staffers in Ohio and some 10,000 volunteers across the state, Kelly said. The party also spent nearly $400,000 to better understand Ohio
voters through polling, computer modeling and “micro-targeting” via consumer and demographic data.

“In a county that’s traditionally Republican, it allows you to identify someone who doesn’t have a party affiliation but who is a lot like someone who voted Democratic,” Kelly said. “Then you do your calling in a very cost-effective way.

“We hired a very large political staff who were recruiting volunteer canvassers to go door-to-door and talk to people about our candidates. In politics today, the way you move persuadable voters is door to door. And you can’t do it with out-of-state folks, you have to do it with people they trust, their neighbors.”

There have been tremendous voter-registration efforts in Ohio, resulting in more than 600,000 new voters this year. Interest in this year’s election — both Obama’s candidacy and, earlier, Hillary Clinton’s — has
raised Democrat registration in the three suburban counties to surprisingly high levels.

As of mid-October, registered Democrats actually out-numbered registered Republicans in Butler 55,475 to 54,129. Prior to the March primary, Republicans outnumbered Democrats 45,711 to 21,640.

Clermont has seen its registered Democrats leap to approximately 31,000 from 14,500 and Warren to 32,000 from 12,000. In all three counties, the majority of voters remain independents.

One argument Republicans have made is that this growth is false — that many loyal Republicans intentionally registered as Democrats for the March primary in order to vote for Clinton against Obama and thus prolong a costly and divisive Democratic primary race.

That could yet prove to be the case, but numbers don’t support the argument. In Butler, some 28,000 people switched from “no party” to Democrat for the primary; only 5,511 switched from Republican to Democrat.

“A lot of independents became Democrat,” said Tippi Slaughter, administrative assistant to the director of Butler’s Board of Elections. “The voters might want change.”

One role model for 2008 is the statewide victory of two Democrats, Gov. Ted Strickland and Sen. Sherrod Brown, in 2006. Strickland, running against the legacy of a scandal-plagued Republican administration, got between 40 percent and 45 percent of the vote in all three of these Republican counties, even though
Republican opponent Ken Blackwell was a Cincinnatian. Strickland’s ongoing popularity later helped Clinton, whom he endorsed, carry 83 of 88 Ohio counties in the March primary, including Butler, Warren and Clermont.

So hope is up. As Jocelyn Bucaro, a coordinator of Obama volunteers, bluntly put it at Smokey Bones, “The goal is to cut the plurality.”

Active in the Clinton White House and having worked for the Democrats in Tennessee in 2000 and Hamilton County in 2004, she’s particularly impressed with the Butler effort.

“I’ve never seen a field organization like this one, organized by neighborhoods,” Bucaro said.

The Butler operation is centered in Middletown, where professional field director Christen Linke Young is in charge of a region that includes Butler, Warren, Clinton and Preble counties. Reporting to her are eight field organizers, one of whom — Pat Morrell — focuses on Butler’s eastern communities of West Chester, Liberty Township/Monroe and Trenton. In each of those sections there are phone-bank, canvassing, data and volunteer coordinators. (West Chester is actually divided into three separate neighborhoods, each with its own coordinating team.)

The Liberty Township/Monroe group has been meeting this night at the restaurant — cell phones allow people to use it as an office. The volunteers are a mix of ages and races. It starts off small, maybe a dozen people, and grows steadily to about 40 by the time the debate begins.

While these Obama supporters target exurbanites, Butler County has other groups that are potential Obama supporters. For instance, between 2004 and now, workers at Middletown’s AK Steel endured a 13-month lockout with the company in a battle partly over retiree health benefits. During Bush’s second term, they also voted to align with the International Association of Machinists, which has endorsed Obama. (They had been in an independent labor union.)

“The last eight years have convinced our people to go Democrat,” said D. Scott Rich, president of the union’s Middletown local lodge, which represents 1,650 workers at Armco and another 50 at Clark Steel in Monroe.

In the past, he said, some workers tended to vote Republican over social issues like gun use for hunters. But concerns over job security, healthcare and free trade have lined them up solidly for Obama, Rich said.

“The phrase I’ve heard this year is, ‘Vote your job and then lobby your hobbies,’ ” he said.

Leave no undecided behind
After 18 years in the U.S. Congress from Oregon, followed by a second career as a professor at Southern Oregon University and now a third as an Oregon-based writer on Western issues, Les AuCoin seems a
long way from home attending the Warren County Democratic Party’s annual dinner on a recent Friday night.

It is, plain and simple, a place not remotely related to Oregon — even if the fried chicken and mixed vegetables dinner is held at the faux-Western Great Wolf Lodge at Kings Island.

Even assuming that AuCoin, as a loyal Democrat, wanted to help Obama’s presidential campaign in Ohio, it would seem a waste of his (and the campaign’s) time to visit suburbanized, conservative Warren County. Kerry pulled a meager 27 percent of the vote here in 2004.

But AuCoin, as a volunteer, was sent to speak by Ohio Campaign for Change for a specific reason: He’s a good role model. Back in 1975, he was the first Democrat ever elected to Oregon’s 1st Congressional District. It has stayed Democrat ever since. (He retired in 1993 after challenging but losing to the state’s incumbent Republican senator.)

“I know what it’s like to be surrounded by lots of Republicans,” AuCoin boldly told the 100 or so seated at the dinner tables. “Your responsibility here isn’t to carry Warren County, it’s to get every registered Democrat to vote so Ohio can go indigo blue. Can we do it? Yes, we can!”

He was greeted with applause.

Like Butler County, Warren also received a bounty of newly registered Democrats. According to the county’s Board of Elections, the number of Democrats jumped to 31,735 from 11,866 before the March primary. Republicans also grew slightly, to 44,244 from 39,494. Independents fell to 63,517 from 77,724.
Overall, the county picked up almost 10,000 new voters.

“Our analysis shows there’s one major factor, one candidacy driving the phenomenon,” said Jeffrey Leis, chair of Warren’s Democratic Party. “Warren County has been growing so quickly, especially in our southern areas, many people have never had an opportunity to vote in a primary and make a declaration. And the growth was in the precincts Obama won, which also were the areas of greatest growth.”

The goal this time, Leis said, is to get Obama to 30-35 percent, and his group is working closely with Obama’s organization to get out a Democratic vote.

In Clermont County, meanwhile, Democratic Party Chair Dave Lane is hoping for a “trickle up” effect this year to help Obama.

Clermont is so Republican that Democrats hold no countywide offices. But this year the party fielded candidates for both County Commission seats as well as the Clerk of Courts and County Recorder offices. It also has candidates vying for one Ohio Senate seat and two judgeships on the Court of Appeals.

The Democrats were moved to make their challenge because of a series of controversies involving Republican officeholders under investigation by special prosecutors or the Ohio Ethics Commission for improper use of funds.

“We honestly believe it’s going to benefit our candidates,” Lane said. “If that’s the case, hopefully it will have a trickle-up affect and benefit the Obama-Biden ticket.”

Obama’s campaign shares space with the party in its Batavia office and has a regional field director splitting time between Clermont and eastern Hamilton County, plus two full time staffers.

Additionally standing to help Obama, Lane believes, is a fierce rematch for the 2nd Congressional District seat, which encompasses all of Clermont, southern Warren and eastern Hamilton counties and several rural counties to the east. Although the Republican incumbent, Jean Schmidt, is a Clermont resident, she got only 56 percent of her home county’s vote against Democrat challenger (and Hamilton County resident) Victoria Wulsin in 2006. Wulsin is after her again, as is an independent, David Krikorian.

Kerry received just 28 percent of the vote in Clermont in 2004, but Strickland’s 2006 gubernatorial campaign improved that to 41 percent. And Clermont has also seen a surge in registered Democrats —
roughly 31,000 from 14,500 — as a result of the primary. Republicans, by comparison, rose to 39,500 from approximately 37,000.

“We’re within striking distance,” Lane said.

Lane knows his job is to get Obama “to lose a little better” than Kerry — he’s been told that by Redfern. But he wonders if he can’t aim even higher.

Noting that Obama’s recent bus tour of southern Ohio stopped in a restaurant in Georgetown — in adjacent but more rural Brown County — on its way from Cincinnati to Portsmouth, he’d like to see Obama come back and campaign in Clermont.

“I’ve been talking to Obama’s regional people for several weeks, encouraging them to send Obama and Biden to Clermont and stop and see these voters,” he said. “Let them see him and kick his tires and do whatever they need to get comfortable with him.

“I think there’s a perception that this is so red here it’s hopeless. But you only have to look at the last election to realize there are swing voters here, and they will swing if you give them a reason to. You can win in Clermont County with 40 percent of the vote, if the rest of the state does its share.”