The Ohio gubernatorial race has had more ups and downs than the famed roller coasters at Cedar Point in Sandusky.
In that race, Ted Strickland, the first Democratic governor Ohio has elected since 1991, is fighting to keep his job in the face of a challenge from former congressman John Kasich. Although it seems like forever ago, it was only in 2008 that Strickland was a rising star in the Democratic Party who was rumored to be in the running as Barack Obama's vice presidential pick. But with unemployment at 10.1 percent and the Buckeye State's economy still on the mat, his fortunes have suffered, with polls showing him with a double-digit deficit to Kasich as early as January.
But he's bounced back before. In June, the liberal Web site Talking Points Memo said he was "holding his own." In mid-September, though, Quinnipiac had him down 17 points. Now the latest numbers from a CBS/New York Times poll have him just one point back, with 42 percent of the vote to Kasich's 43 percent. That's within the margin of error, and—with neither candidate above 50 percent—leaves plenty of maneuvering room. So what's driving the wild swings, and does Strickland have a chance?
"My view all along was that it was going to be a close race," says John Green, distinguished professor of political science and director of the Bliss Institute of Applied Politics at the University of Akron. "It may be that a couple of the polls we saw earlier were outliers. When the big increases occurred, a lot of people doubted them. I talked to Republican and Democratic operatives, and all of them said, this isn’t a 17-point race—this is more like 8."
But that doesn't mean it isn't getting tighter. Democrats have tried to make much of the fact that Kasich was a managing director at Lehman Brothers, the collapsed investment bank; although Kasich served in the House of Representatives for 18 years, he didn't have a significant statewide profile, so Strickland's campaign hoped to link him with the toxic bank. And indeed, a voter quoted in the Times's story on poll results expressed concern about it, saying, “I like what Kasich has to say, but unless he addresses the Lehman Brothers fiasco for me, I feel that he has something to hide.”
Overall, however, the attack doesn't appear to have stuck, since Kasich is running well. But Green says that since a Sept. 14 debate in which Strickland went after Kasich hard on the Wall Street connection, the Democrat has gone more positive, which could have helped close the gap (though he hasn't given up the Lehman line). But he's still got an uphill battle, since the economy isn't going to magically improve soon. Another potential disadvantage: Ohio's early-voting program. Polls opened Sept. 28, so both candidates are running out of time to make their cases.
It's been a quick reversal of fortune for Democrats, who swept into power in 2006 amid a raft of scandals plaguing Columbus Republicans but have been bedeviled by the economy. The GOP, meanwhile, came back with a fresh slate of candidates untainted by those scandals. "The Republican organizations were not damaged as badly as Republican candidates," Green says. "The Republican Party in Ohio has a long record of organizational success, so they had a lot to work with despite big losses in 2006 and 2008."
A close Strickland loss wouldn't be a complete disaster for Dems: a tight race would mean high turnout that might save other Democrats farther down the ticket. A runaway Kasich victory would be bleaker. And if Republicans are victorious, they could wake up to a nasty hangover on Nov. 3: they'll face a state with high unemployment and struggling industry, but be boxed in by a pledge not to raise taxes (Strickland, if he pulls it out, will face all the same problems—including a pledge to not raise taxes).
For the next few weeks, Strickland will be pleading with Ohioans to look at his record of balancing the state budget and telling voters it's the wrong time to change leaders, Green says. Kasich, meanwhile, is likely to keep hammering the governor on the budget. And look for Strickland to pull major Democratic figures to Ohio to campaign for him (President Obama visited Sept. 8). The governor has argued that it's crucial to have a Democrat who's a strong supporter of Obama in place in the swing state ahead of the 2012 presidential contest.
Even as Strickland attempts a zombielike return from the dead, there are other signs of the crumbling of Ohio's Democratic revolution. Back in 2009, when Sen. George Voinovich announced he'd be retiring at the end of his term in 2011, it was widely seen as a blow to Republicans. But that race isn't even close: the GOP's Rob Portman leads Democratic Lt. Gov. Lee Fisher by a whopping 11 points.