A week after the election, conservative pundits are still pondering what went wrong in Ohio, a key state without which no Republican has ever won the presidency. Mitt Romney’s defeat in Buckeye State served as a microcosm of the GOP candidate’s national loss.
The defeat was especially disappointing for Ohio conservatives who had invested so much sweat into campaigns there. In the weeks leading up to Election Day, evangelical activists had crisscrossed the state in a bright blue RV, visiting 2,000 churches in all 88 Ohio counties as part of a grassroots initiative called Awake 88. They dropped off free get-out-the-vote literature for pastors—many of whom were thankful and seemed enthusiastic about getting their churches to the polls.
Ohio’s evangelicals did get to the polls, in proportions similar to 2008, although overall voter turnout was down.
“There was a strong evangelical presence. It just wasn’t enough,” said Tim Throckmorton, who pastors Crossroads Church in Circleville and was a co-founder of Awake 88. “I think what happened… is many people assumed college students and minorities wouldn’t turn out in the numbers they did.”
Indeed, African-Americans—who voted overwhelmingly for Barack Obama—made up 15 percent of Ohio voters on Nov. 6, although they make up only 12 percent of the state’s population. Their influence at Ohio polls increased from four years ago, when just 11 percent of Election Day voters identified as African-American. The increase in black voters correlates with a drop in white voters: White conservatives were apparently less excited about Gov. Romney than they were about Sen. John McCain, who received nearly 95,000 more votes for president in Ohio in 2008 than Romney did this year.
Young voters—ages 18 to 29—also gave Obama an edge in Ohio, as elsewhere in the nation, backing the president by nearly a 2-to-1 ratio. Throckmorton said it may be time for evangelicals to reconsider how to engage the younger generation: “How do we connect with them in regard to biblical values or moral issues and be convincing?”
Identically to 2008, Obama won Hamilton County, which contains Cincinnati, by about 20,000 votes, even though it’s a traditional conservative stronghold where Republicans campaigned aggressively, making tens of thousands of house visits. Charles Lenny Kleiner, a 66-year-old private bus driver for Sisters of Charity of Cincinnati, served as a Republican volunteer, making phone calls from a campaign office. “I can’t believe it,” he told me after the election, sounding deflated. “I thought we’d do good around here.”
Kleiner, a Catholic opposed to mandatory insurance coverage for contraceptives, had never worked on a presidential campaign before this year. He blamed the Democratic victory on voters who just want to “get something for free.”
Whether or not Ohio voters viewed the auto bailout as a freebie, 59 percent said they supported the federal measure, creating a hurdle for Romney. After the 2008 election Romney wrote an op-ed for The New York Times titled “Let Detroit go bankrupt,” explaining his opposition to a bailout and his support for a “managed bankruptcy.” That idea apparently didn’t impress Ohio’s many auto-manufacturing industry workers. Among union households, nearly two-out-of-three voters supported Obama.
“I’m going to join the Tea Party,” concluded Kleiner, who said a fellow Romney campaign volunteer had given him contact info for the movement’s Cincinnati branch. “If we get the Tea Party strong enough maybe we can win people over. I don’t know.”
Cincinnati resident Will Riddle, 34, helped distribute voter’s guides at 60 churches the Friday night before the election, then served as a poll watcher on Election Day. He said Cincinnati’s vote was largely split between the white, historically Catholic community and the African-American community—two groups representing polarized political perspectives.
“I think that some of the pundits are right in saying this reflects a need for a fundamental shift in the way the Republicans, and evangelicals, engage the electorate,” Riddle said, adding that it meant abandoning a white-centered approach to political engagement and partnering with minorities wherever possible.
Riddle is trying to take his own advice in the context of the parachurch organization he leads, The Go Network, which is currently offering support to a Hispanic church plant.