- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 4, 2004

In a state where only 29 percent believe their family’s finances have improved in the past four years and nearly 60 percent rate the local economy as “not so good” or “poor,” the obvious question is: How did President Bush manage to win Ohio, the Democrats’ top red- state target?

Poring over the Ohio exit polling data — which, for obvious reasons, must be taken with heaping grains of salt — almost every standard indicator would suggest doom for the incumbent.

The overwhelming majority of late-deciders broke for John Kerry (contrary to much of the rest of the country), moderates split for the Democrat decisively, 59 percent to 41 percent, and polling leading up to the election asking the famous “right direction/wrong direction” question found folks answering roughly 35 percent to 65 percent.

This in a state that Al Gore essentially conceded — and then only lost by 3.6 percent . Throw in a slumping local economy, and Mr. Bush’s goose should have been cooked.

Though identifying what put a candidate in a close contest “over the top” is sort of like crediting the final basket scored with winning the basketball game, it appears that a ballot initiative, known as Issue 1, banning gay “marriage” provided Mr. Bush with the winning margin in Ohio — and thus, the electoral college.

In the state’s three largest counties — Cuyahoga (home to Cleveland), Franklin (Columbus) and Hamilton (Cincinnati) — Mr. Gore scored a 130,000-vote margin out of 1.36 million cast. Mr. Gore won big in Cuyahoga (169,000), and pulled a surprise upset in once-Republican Franklin (5,000). Mr. Bush was saved by Hamilton, where he won by 43,000.

With the Democratic National Committee and George Soros-funded Moveon.org and America Coming Together focused on getting Kerry supporters to the polls in those three counties (and a handful of others), Mr. Kerry improved on Mr. Gore’s showing dramatically.

Mr. Kerry cleaned Mr. Bush’s clock in Cuyahoga by a stunning 218,000 and shocked almost everyone with a 31,000-vote victory in Franklin. Compounding matters, Mr. Bush barely carried Hamilton, with a net gain of less than 25,000. All told, Mr. Kerry beat Mr. Bush in those three counties by 225,000 votes.

In almost any other election, such big margins in the three biggest counties would mean certain victory.

Turnout in rural, exurban and outlying areas tells the real tale in Ohio. Mr. Bush blunted Mr. Kerry’s gains in traditionally Democratic, culturally conservative counties (think Reagan Democrats), and racked up huge numbers in rural and exurban counties.

With the energies of both the Democratic and GOP machinery focused on Ohio, many more voters turned up at the polls. According to Secretary of State Ken Blackwell’s office, there have been nearly 900,000 new registrations this year — and the number of ballots cast was up over 2000 by almost the same amount.

But while the national media cared only about the Bush-Kerry horse race, hundreds of thousands of Ohioans were most passionate about Issue 1. Some 550,000 signed the petition to get it on the ballot, and 62 percent of voters supported the ban on gay “marriages.”

Although Mr. Bush famously backed a proposed sonstitutional amendment to ban gay “marriage,” most of the Ohio Republican establishment (including the governor and both senators) opposed Issue 1, largely because it would also ban civil unions. Without help from the party, the Ohio Campaign to Protect Marriage executed an impressive get-out-the-vote effort.

More than 17,000 churches participated in the effort to pass Issue 1, and more than 850,000 calls were made. National groups, such as Focus on the Family, the Family Research Council and American Family Association, e-mailed their entire lists in Ohio, which, combined, reached well north of half a million potential voters.

The turnout numbers in many counties are eye-popping. Vote totals in the three largest counties increased roughly 15 percent, less than the statewide figure of 16.5 percent. In many of the Republican strongholds, however, the increase was more than 20 percent .

In the three counties surrounding in the southwest corner of the state (Cincinnati’s exurbs), Mr. Bush rolled. In Butler County, turnout was up 18 percent, and Mr. Bush’s 40,000-vote margin there in 2000 swelled to 52,000. Clermont County counted a 28 percent surge in ballots cast, and Warren County doubled the statewide increase, with 34 percent more voters than in 2000.

The most remarkable figures are in Delaware County. Turnout was up over 40 percent — a staggering figure for a county that already had an above-average portion of registered voters come to the polls in 2000. There were so many new voters in the county that the number of ballots cast was almost as high as the number who were registered four years ago.

The net result: Mr. Bush got almost as many votes (52,237) as he and Mr. Gore got combined (53,773), doubling the number of ballots cast for Mr. Kerry.

Ohio-based Republican strategists contacted by this columnist all agree that Issue 1 turned out large numbers of Bush backers across Ohio — many of them first-time voters. And all agree that Issue 1 never would have been on the ballot had the Massachusetts Supreme Court not legalized gay “marriage.”

In other words, the irony is that four justices from Mr. Kerry’s home state may have cost him Ohio — and with that, his ticket to the White House.

Joel Mowbray writes occasionally for The Washington Times.

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