Tuesday, October 30, 2012

The number of Ohioans who vote in this election will mean next to nothing.

Fighting for the votes of Central Ohio: Brent Larkin

Published: Sunday, October 28, 2012, 12:01
By Brent Larkin, The Plain Dealer The Plain Dealer

The presidential election of 1860 saved the nation.

Views of the zealots on both sides notwithstanding, the stakes won't be that high a week from Tuesday when voters in Ohio and a handful of other states choose a president.

But the 1860 vote in Ohio between Republican nominee Abraham Lincoln and Democrat Stephen A. Douglas is still the barometer by which, for Republicans, all other presidential campaigns are measured.

That's not because Lincoln defeated Douglas in Ohio -- 231,809 votes to 187,421.

It's because anyone who cares about the history of presidential elections knows that no Republican has won the presidency without carrying Ohio.

And that 152-year-old truism is unlikely to change Nov. 6 when voters choose between President Barack Obama and his Republican opponent, Mitt Romney.

That explains why rarely has a day gone by in the last two months of this campaign when The New York Times didn't have a story focused all or in part on the vote here.

In fact, back in September, the newspaper published a large graphic detailing 11 complicated scenarios where Romney could prevail in the election without winning Ohio.

Obviously, Romney can lose Ohio and still win the presidency.

Just as obviously, you can stop at a nearby convenience store today and spend $1 on a ticket that wins Tuesday's Mega Millions lottery drawing.

Without Ohio, Romney's odds would be only slightly better than yours.

Ohio has changed a great deal since 1860. But what hasn't changed is its economic, political and cultural diversity.

What makes it a bellwether in the 21st century are the same factors that made it one in the 19th.

In this year's presidential election, Obama will win left-leaning Northeast Ohio. The more conservative Romney will win the state's southwest. Central Ohio will determine the winner and, most likely, the next president.

The party labels are different, but the geographical voting trends of 2012 were strikingly similar in 1860. For example, Lincoln won a gigantic victory in Greater Cleveland. In fact, his margins of victory here were among the biggest in the nation.

Even though two lesser-known presidential candidates siphoned off a total of 5 percent of the vote, Lincoln captured at least 60 percent in every Northeast Ohio county. In the contiguous counties of Lake, Geauga and Ashtabula, he won about 80 percent of the vote.

Lincoln's Cuyahoga County final vote margin was 62.45 percent. He outpolled Douglas in nine of Cleveland's 11 wards and won in every city and township. The only community where the vote was close was Independence, won by Lincoln 158 to 150.

To truly understand why the politics of Ohio have always been defined by geography, it is essential to understand how the state was settled.

Northeast Ohio's roots are in New England, notably the Connecticut Land Co., which in 1795 bought 3 million acres in what was known as the Western Reserve. The land company's investors were from New England, as were most of its settlers.

New Englanders were generally fierce abolitionists who abhorred slavery, which helps explain the result of the 1860 vote in Northeast Ohio. Although over time European immigrants and the migration of blacks from the South changed the region's demographics, its voting habits have changed very little.

Southwest Ohio's proximity to Kentucky has always influenced the politics there. More importantly, much of downstate was settled by the Ohio Company. Investors in that venture were primarily land speculators from Virginia whose views were obviously more conservative than those of New Englanders.

Despite the historical consistency of Ohio's politics and its geographic voting patterns, one area that's changed significantly is voter turnout.

Neither Lincoln nor Douglas campaigned in Ohio. As an unofficial candidate, Lincoln gave four speeches in the state during the fall of 1859 -- none north of Columbus. Nevertheless, the turnout of eligible voters in that election was about 87 percent, believed to be the highest ever in the state.

In this year's election, some argue statewide turnout will determine the winner, using Obama's historic election four years ago as evidence.

But that's not exactly true.

It wasn't statewide turnout that propelled Obama to victory in Ohio. In fact, more than 125,000 fewer Ohioans voted in the 2008 election than in 2004.

The number of Ohioans who vote in this election will mean next to nothing.

Where in Ohio those voters live will mean almost everything.

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