GOP ought to worry at poor Ohio turnout

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What does Tuesday's special election in the 2nd District of Ohio mean? The election was held to replace former Rep. Rob Portman, now U.S. special trade representative. The 2nd District is heavily Republican: It voted 63 percent for George W. Bush in 2000 and 64 percent in 2004. Yet Republican nominee Jean Schmidt beat Democrat Paul Hackett by only 52 to 48 percent (PDF).

Democrats naturally are claiming a moral victory. Hackett is an Iraq war veteran who campaigned against the Bush administration's conduct of the war. His near-victory, Democrats plausibly argue, shows the unpopularity of the war. Hackett ran 12 points ahead of John Kerry's 2004 percentage. If every Democratic candidate in 2006 runs that far ahead of Kerry, Democrats will win a large majority in the House.

But the Democrats' shrewdest political strategists know that partisan swings in special elections are not usually replicated in the next general election. Special elections usually run against the party that holds the presidential office, for structural reasons. Voters in special elections know that their vote will not change party control of the House. Republican-leaning voters who are discontented with their party's leadership for any reason can vote for a Democratic candidate serene in the knowledge that Republicans will still have a majority in the House. Shrewd opposition party candidates will try to aggregate discontented voters and will sometimes win. That seems to be what Paul Hackett did in the 2nd District.

Consider another special election in a similar district, the 4th District of Ohio, in 1981, Ronald Reagan's first year in the presidency. The Republican incumbent died, and Democrat Dale Locker won 49.8 percent of the vote to Republican Mike Oxley's 50.2 percent in a district in which Reagan had won 64 percent of the vote. But this was not a harbinger of the 1982 results. In that year Republicans did lose 26 seats, but most of those losses, by my calculations, were the result of redistricting, and Republicans lost no districts as heavily Republican as the Ohio 4th. Oxley has been re-elected by wide margins and is currently serving his third and, because of Republican term limits, probably his final term as chairman of the Financial Services Committee. So the Ohio 2nd result probably is not a harbinger of a Republican bloodbath in 2006.

But it is bad news for Republicans nonetheless. The reason is that in the present state of polarization of politics, turnout is the key to winning elections. Turnout in 2004 was up 16 percent over 2000—a historic rise. John Kerry got 16 percent more votes than Al Gore, but George W. Bush got 23 percent more votes in 2004 than he did in 2000. That's why the Republican percentage for president rose from 48 to 51 and the Democratic percentage dropped slightly.

The results in the Ohio 2nd go the other way. According to the latest results I have before me, 112,375 people voted in the special election. That's just 34 percent of the 331,104 who voted in the district in 2004. Republican Jean Schmidt's vote total was only 27 percent of Bush's. Democrat Paul Hackett's vote total was 46 percent of Kerry's. Democrats did a better job of turning out their vote.

By way of comparison, in the Ohio 4th contest in 1981, Republican Oxley's vote total was 33 percent of Reagan's the year before, while Democrat Locker's vote total was 70 percent of Jimmy Carter's (and 60 percent of the combined Carter–John Anderson vote).

In this week's election, Democrats apparently were able to motivate their Bush-hating core to go to the polls. Republicans, who demonstrated such prowess at turning out their voters in November 2004, did not do nearly as well in motivating their base. Turnout will be much higher in November 2006. But this result will give heart to the Democrats who argue that all they need to do is to turn out Bush-haters. And it should give pause to Republicans and raise the question as to whether the Republican base—much larger in this district than the Democratic base—will turn out in record numbers in November 2006 as it did in November 2004. The conservatives at are speculating that Democrats will be misled in pursuing a turn-out-the-base strategy that proved a loser in 2004. Maybe so; indeed, I'm still inclined to agree. But if I were Karl Rove or Republican National Chairman Ken Mehlman, I would be thinking hard about how to motivate the Republican base.