Why the Ohio Special Election Backfired for the GOP
And what it means for 2024.
“AS I THOUGHT ABOUT THIS VOTE more and more, what they were trying to do and the way they were trying to do it was just kind of creepy.”
Outside a polling place in Cleveland on Tuesday, a thirtysomething art teacher was explaining to me her “no” vote on the ballot issue that, if approved, would have changed the way citizen-led constitutional amendments work in the state. Future amendments to the Ohio constitution could have been enacted only after receiving 60 percent of the vote in a statewide election, as opposed to the current simple majority.
The GOP-backed measure that would have instituted that change, “Issue 1,” went down in flames by 57 to 43 percent, in a vote with a very high turnout that was largely unexpected. Media attention has focused almost entirely on what the measure had to do with abortion. As I explained here last month, Issue 1 was put forth largely at the behest of conservatives who wanted to find a way to derail an abortion-rights constitutional amendment that was going to be on the ballot in November.
Clearly, it was a huge mistake by the Republican party to put Issue 1 on the ballot—the kind of mistake that raises questions about who is minding the GOP store these days nationally and in Ohio, and about what repercussions this vote might have in the 2024 presidential election.
But back to that art teacher. She acknowledged she was concerned about the abortion factor in all this, but made it quite clear that abortion wasn’t the major reason she was voting no. Rather, she was mad about what she called Republicans “overstepping their bounds,” about their having “no respect for anything or anybody” and being willing to stomp on the rights of others “to get what they want.”
“It’s not that I expect them to act all nice and friendly while they are attempting to stab people in the back,” she told me. “But in this case, the feeling I am getting is that they thought most people were too dumb to figure out anything and that they could just walk all over all of us as if that is just how this world of politics works.”
I heard similar messages from the thirty-odd people I had conversations with at polling places in conservative outer-ring suburb Strongsville and liberal inner-ring suburb Shaker Heights, and at the rec center/polling place in inner-city Cleveland where 12-year-old Tamir Rice got killed in 2014 for holding a toy gun.
Hardly anyone said they were mainly there to vote because of abortion rights or being anti-Trump. Almost all indicated they felt that Issue 1 was an overreach of the highest order. One guy told me that “this is one of the lowest below-the-belt actions I’ve seen in politics ever.”
That feeling is why this vote has more relevance than some think. This wasn’t a vote on some arcane constitutional procedure; it was a don’t-fuck-with-me-like-this vote.
Robert Alexander, a political scientist at Ohio Northern University and the director of its Institute for Civics and Public Policy agreed that the Issue 1 results are an indicator that the GOP is badly misreading the public in Ohio.
“The abortion issue is huge, and since the Supreme Court ruling [it] will be front and center in so many political ways,” he said. “The progressive left sees it as catnip for their voters.”
Meanwhile, “the way the GOP went about this, a really shortsighted approach to dealing with the public, they got Democrats energized, and they made Republicans stay home,” Alexander continued. “It’s hard to do both of those at once.”
“What the voters said to the Republican party in this election—and I’m talking about voters who voted both for Biden and Trump—is ‘Don’t try to treat us like fools.’”
WHAT DO THE ISSUE 1 RESULTS portend for the 2024 election? To be sure, it is too early to say anything definitive; the political pendulum can swing back and forth a number of times between now and November of next year.
But it would be fair to say that the Issue 1 vote highlighted several problem areas for the GOP—and that Trump is at the center of them all: misreading the electorate in lazy ways, having no party leadership in place that can tell certain factions of the coalition to go sit in the corner for a while, and confusion about how abortion will affect the GOP’s women vote.
First, the Ohio GOP gave this issue the status of an August special election, even though they had said earlier in the year that they wouldn’t permit such elections anymore. Then they started claiming that “outside interests” were hurting all Ohio voters, and that passing Issue 1 would save everyone’s political souls. And no, Republicans claimed, Issue 1 wasn’t really about the future abortion amendment vote, even though they had previously said it was.
Guess what? All this idiocy brought out voters in droves. There are about 8 million registered voters in Ohio, and about 3 million voted in this election, a turnout of 37.5 percent. Based on previous special elections in late summer in recent years, the Ohio GOP had expected turnout to be only about 10 percent. They were wrong by about 2.2 million voters.
Looking at the patterns of where people voted, two things caught my eye. First, the counties with the “Three Cs” (Cleveland, Columbus, and Cincinnati) voted this issue down by a total of 417,000 votes. The issue lost statewide by about 429,000 votes.
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Second, if you want to look at one county that flipped, look at Lake County, a suburban area east of Cleveland long recognized as a national “bellwether” county. Lake County has a population of about 230,000, with 90 percent white, consisting of a large group of older suburban retirees. In other words, this is Trump suburbia through and through, the kind of place that had multiple Trump boat parades launched from Lake County marinas during the 2020 presidential campaign.
Trump beat Biden in Lake County by a 56-42 percent margin in 2020. The GOP-backed Issue 1 got voted down in Lake County this week by a 59-41 percent margin. A 32 percent flip in a strong Trump county does have some “bellwether” implications.
Ohio has turned into a fairly comfortable red state; Trump won the state by about 8 percent in both of the last two cycles. So someone in the GOP leadership should have realized that there would be too many problems by putting Issue 1 on the ballot in this way, and besides, don’t poke the sleeping bear (urban/suburban voters). Instead, they decided poking the sleeping bear would be just fine. They now have reason to rue that decision; they will soon have more.
THERE IS NO DOUBT that Democrats in other states watched what happened in Ohio on Tuesday. The Supreme Court’s Dobbs ruling has shifted our politics: Women vote in higher numbers than men, and they see abortion as a right, by about 60 percent to 40 percent. Those are the kinds of numbers that Democrats will find ways to make use of.
What this all means is that when Biden and Trump square off in 2024, it is all but certain that Biden will bring up the fact that Trump put on the Supreme Court the justices who overturned Roe v. Wade. And in Ohio and elsewhere, Biden can add that Trump is part of the party that tried to pull strongman politics in Ohio that would have taken away women’s healthcare if you lived there.
Daniel McGraw is a freelance writer and author in Lakewood, Ohio. Twitter: @danmcgraw1.