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Don't Read Too Much Into the Ohio Referenda

By Sean Trende - November 16, 2011

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Other advertisements include one implying that Issue 2 would make it illegal for police officers to negotiate to have partners on the beat with them, an “omnibus” ad decrying cuts for all “everyday heroes,” and an advertisement featuring iconic former Democratic Sen. John Glenn speaking in favor of repeal.

The yard signs and bumper stickers floating around central Ohio echoed these themes. They rarely mentioned union affiliations, and instead urged voters to “stand with firefighters.” Likewise, the official arguments for and against Issue 2 exclude any reference to unions or collective bargaining rights. While these arguments do sound some of the anti-corporate themes the conventional wisdom suggests were prevalent, the arguments are clearly of subordinate importance to the safety issues that dominated the campaign.

Overall, the “final argument” carefully avoided any reference to labor unions. Only one advertisement released during this time even used the term “collective bargaining.” The rest opted instead for the more neutral term “negotiation.” A low-information voter -- and most voters are this sort, to an extent that pundits have difficulty appreciating -- wouldn’t necessarily know that they were voting on a pro-union measure. Instead, they would see themselves voting to fund firefighters, police officers and paramedics, something that even a libertarian like Ron Paul would support. The only advertisement during this time that really hit squarely on anti-corporate themes (aside from a few lines in the “Zoey” ad) was this one, which plainly fits the bill. But again, it’s only one of nine ads that were released in October/November, when people were paying the most attention.

Also remember that this election has to be evaluated in a broader context. Wisconsin is probably two or three points more Democratic than Ohio. Yet Wisconsin Republicans have repulsed two attacks on that state’s collective bargaining law. The clearest victory came in the narrow re-election of Supreme Court Justice David Prosser over liberal candidate Joanne Kloppenburg. But the Republicans’ ability to hold onto the state Senate, losing only a Republican in a heavily Democratic district, and (by a narrow margin) a Republican who had been living outside of his district with his 26-year-old girlfriend, also suggests that Republicans can win on these issues. Moreover, polling now shows that the Wisconsin public is less-than-enthusiastic about recalling Gov. Scott Walker. The critical difference between Wisconsin and Ohio? The former’s collective bargaining law exempted police and firefighters, suggesting that removing the “public safety” line of attack from labor’s arsenal helps Republicans a great deal. And, as one reporter noted, the Ohio electorate wasn’t in an especially generous mood on other issues, as a majority of school levies failed across the state.

Of course, similar criticisms can be leveled against Republican claims that “Ohioans rejected Obamacare” when they voted to reject an individual mandate by a 66 percent to 34 percent margin. That ballot initiative never mentioned the federal law, either in the text or in the official arguments for and against the bill. Many low-information voters were probably unaware that they were voting to reject a portion of the president’s health care plan. And just because voters rejected one part of the president’s bill doesn’t mean that they would reject the legislation as whole. After all, some voters might balk at the individual mandate, but wish to enjoy the subsidies, or being able to buy insurance even with a pre-existing condition. While Obamacare is likely unpopular in Ohio, it wouldn’t be surprising for it to have greater than 34 percent support.

At the end of the day, prognosticators should always focus more on the forest than any one particular tree, especially if the tree is a complex ballot issue. And this particular tree looks pretty out of place when viewed against the wider woodland. 

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Sean Trende is senior elections analyst for RealClearPolitics. He is a co-author of the 2014 Almanac of American Politics and author of The Lost Majority. He can be reached at strende@realclearpolitics.com. Follow him on Twitter @SeanTrende.

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