Monday, May 21, 2012

The Ohio Presidential Connection

Below is an essay I published in the Winter 2008 edition of Northeast Ohio Municipal Leader Magazine. Although it is four years old, it is still very relevant today.

The Ohio Presidential Connection

“There’s nothing like an early morning rally in the great state of Ohio. I can’t think of a better place to kick off the last day of this campaign.”

--President George W. Bush, November 1, 2004, in Wilmington, Ohio.

Ohio has always played an important role in the presidential election system since achieving statehood in 1803. Because of its size and diversity, both in terms of geography and population, Ohio has been, and will continue to be, a microcosm of the rest of the country. In recent elections, Ohio has been a key electoral battlefield—a must win state for those seeking the presidential office. It’s possible to win the presidency without winning Ohio’s electoral votes; it’s just not likely. Since 1964, no individual seeking the presidency has won the office without winning the Buckeye State and only twice since 1896 has that happened. In fact, no Republican has ever become president without winning Ohio. It is also no accident that eight presidents can trace part of their lineage to Ohio.

The Buckeye Eight

Ohio has a long rich history of playing a vital role in American presidential elections. This is most keenly embodied in the number of presidents and presidential contenders who have had connections to the Buckeye State, earning Ohio the moniker, “mother of presidents.” In 1836, William Henry Harrison became the first Ohioan to win electoral votes in a presidential election and in 1840 was elected as the nation’s first Whig president. Though born in Virginia, Harrison had served in the Ohio State Legislature as well as represented Ohio in both the U.S. House and Senate. Harrison also became the first president to die in office, expiring after only 30 days from pneumonia, likely the result of giving the longest inauguration speech in history without a hat or overcoat during inclement weather.

Union Civil War General Ulysses S. Grant was born in Point Pleasant, Ohio, in 1822. He was elected president in 1868, and reelected four years later, beginning a succession of Gilded Age Republican presidents with Ohio ties. Fremont’s Rutherford B. Hayes and Mentor’s James A. Garfield followed in 1876 and 1880 respectively. Hayes, winner of perhaps the most controversial election in American history, became president despite losing the popular vote to Democrat Samuel J. Tilden of New York. A corrupt Electoral Commission reversed the contested electoral votes of three Southern states (Florida, Louisiana, and South Carolina), thus handing the election to Hayes with an electoral vote margin of one. Hayes pledged to serve only one term—a term most notable for his ending Reconstruction of the South and ushering in a new era of discrimination that would last well into the latter part of the Twentieth Century. James Garfield, only 49 years old, became the second American president felled by an assassin’s bullet when he was shot by a frustrated office-seeker just shy of four months after his inauguration. Garfield’s murder cut short a promising presidency—the former president of Hiram College, Union General, and U.S. Representative was perhaps the most prepared and most intelligent of all the individuals elected in the Gilded Age. After a four-year respite, North Bend-born Benjamin Harrison, the grandson of William Henry Harrison, defeated incumbent President Grover Cleveland in an exceedingly close election. Harrison lost the popular vote by 90,000 votes but won the electoral vote. In 1892, Cleveland exacted his revenge on Harrison by defeating him in a rematch, becoming the first and only president to serve two non-consecutive terms.

In 1896, William McKinley of Canton became the sixth president with Ohio connections, and four years later became only the second Ohioan to win a second term. McKinley continued the streak of bad-luck for Ohio presidents becoming the third U.S. president to be assassinated, this time by an anarchist in Buffalo at the Pan-American Exposition in 1901. Eight years later, Cincinnati’s William Howard Taft succeeded the iconic Theodore Roosevelt only to have his predecessor challenge him in 1912, thus ensuring his defeat. Warren G. Harding of Marion was elected eight years later and during his term appointed his Republican predecessor, Taft, as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. Ohioans couldn’t lose in 1920—Ohio Governor James M. Cox was the Democratic nominee who lost to Harding that year. Harding became another Ohio president who failed to survive his entire elected term, serving just over two years before his death from an embolism while in San Francisco.

Not all of the eight presidents with Ohio connections were the best and the brightest. In fact, some such as the intellectually-challenged Harding were much less than that. However, they all had one thing in common—a lineage traced to electoral vote-rich, yet often up-for-grabs Ohio. In the pre-modern era of brokered conventions and backroom deals, sacrifices were made regarding the qualifications of individuals—instead, strategic considerations based on geography ruled the day.

Though U.S. Senator Robert A. Taft, the son of the 27th president and another in the long line of Ohio Tafts, nearly wrested the GOP nomination away from General Dwight Eisenhower in 1952, Ohio’s grip on the White House ended with Harding’s death. A large reason for this is that as the era of the post-1968 primary system was ushered in by both major parties, Ohio’s power during the nomination stage decreased dramatically. This is due to the fact that Ohio’s primary usually occurs later on the calendar when the results are all but official, at least in the recent era of rampant frontloading. Thus in the primary season, Ohio is largely ignored by the campaigns in favor of states such as Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina that are much less representative of the nation as a whole, but are important simply because they are at the head of the line.

This situation is particularly exacerbated in 2008 as the Iowa Caucus will occur January 3, and a scant five days later the New Hampshire primary will take place, both contests occurring far earlier than at any point in history. Ohio lawmakers have not given into temptation and followed the great rush by other states to move Ohio’s primary date to the beginning of the calendar. Because of this, Ohio’s March 4 primary will hold little interest as both party nominees will have likely been chosen long before. However, both campaigns will have all but taken up residence in the Buckeye State as the general election phase will have begun, and few states will equal the attention Ohio will garner.

The Presidential Connection and 2008: An Ohioan as VP?

The 2008 election has brought rampant speculation as to whether or not Ohio’s popular Governor, Ted Strickland, will be chosen as a runningmate by the eventual Democratic nominee. Strickland’s endorsement in November 2007 of Senator Hillary Clinton, the Democratic Party favorite, has fanned the flames of speculation. The choice of Strickland as a runningmate makes all kinds of tactical sense. The Lucasville-born Strickland is exceedingly popular with the Ohio electorate with approval ratings consistently hovering between 60% and 70% in his first year. As a moderate Democrat and Methodist minister whose base is Southern Ohio, Strickland appeals more to crucial border and Southern states than any potential Democratic nominee. Strickland has cross-over appeal as evidenced by the support of large numbers of Republicans and independents in his 2006 gubernatorial election, as well as in his easy reelection victories as a U.S. Representative from the 6th Congressional district in Southeast, Ohio. Strickland’s support of Second Amendment rights and his good working relationship with the NRA, who endorsed him in 2006, further increases his across-the-aisle appeal.

And let’s not forget Ohio’s electoral vote bonanza of 20—a total sure to bring victory to any Democrat able to capture it. And this more than anything means Strickland is at or near the top of any short list of potential runningmates. Strickland may well turn down a future offer for the VP slot and has publicly and repeatedly stated that he is “not interested.” However, that won’t quell the speculation. No serious Democratic Party nominee could fail to consider the popular Ohio Governor as a vice presidential runningmate.

Perhaps no election demonstrates the importance of Ohio in the electoral milieu as does 2004. No state was visited more by the major candidates in the nine months leading up to the election. An immense amount of money was spent by both campaigns in Ohio as well as their surrogates. Ohio voters were repeatedly inundated with political advertising, including the infamous Swift Boat ads, throughout 2004. The 2008 election will be no different. In a state carried by President George W. Bush by only 119,000 votes, a mere 2% of the popular vote total, Strickland’s name as part of the Democratic ticket could be just the elixir to make Ohio a blue state for the first time since 1996.

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