What Happened in Ohio: Ohio’s Primary Foreshadowed Problems (Part 1)

By Matt A. Mayer

The first issue starts at the very beginning of the process in Ohio. Now, it is always tricky to extrapolate primary data to general-election data, but I believe two data points, discussed below, from Ohio’s primary foreshadowed problems for Republicans and in the base with Governor Mitt Romney.

First, in the 2008 fully contested Democratic primary between Senator Hillary Clinton and Senator Barack Obama, 2,386,945 Ohioans cast ballots. Remember, Ohio has open primaries where voters select either a Democratic or a Republican ballot and vote in the primary race they select. Fast-forward four years to the fully contested 2012 Republican primary between Senator Rick Santorum and Governor Romney (and a few others whose names remained on the ballot). In that contest, 1,213,879 Ohioans voted. As a point of comparison, in 2000, 1,397,528 Ohioans voted in the Republican primary won by Texas governor George W. Bush. That is, nearly 200,000 more votes were cast twelve years earlier.

Comparing the 2008 Democratic-primary vote count with the 2012 Republican-primary vote count shows that roughly 1,173,066 more Ohioans voted in the Democratic primary four years ago than in the Republican primary this year. Think about that for a moment: Nearly 1.1 million more Ohioans voted for Democrats in 2008 than for Republicans in 2012. Presumably many of those Ohioans who voted for Obama in the 2008 primary voted for him in the general election, helping him win Ohio by a comfortable margin, and helped him win again in 2012, when he won about 300,000 fewer votes across the state, where turnout was down by more than 400,000 votes from what it was in 2008.

The second data point involves looking at the results from the Republican primaries in Ohio in 2008 and 2012. In 2012, Senator Santorum lost the primary but won 69 of Ohio’s 88 counties. The 69 counties he won are the most conservative in Ohio — the voters there are the Republican base. That Senator Santorum won so many of them indicated that Governor Romney had an issue with the conservative base.

Dig a little deeper and the problem becomes far bigger. In 40 out of the 69 base counties that Senator Santorum won, Governor Romney received fewer votes than former Governor Mike Huckabee received in 2008 in a largely uncontested primary. (Senator John McCain had sown up the nomination by then.) That corroborates for me that the Republican base was not enthusiastic about Governor Romney. Many people believed that Governor Romney’s selection of Congressman Paul Ryan as his running mate ameliorated some of that problem, but the results from last night don’t support that narrative.

Specifically, despite what we were told was the most sophisticated and successful ground game by a Republican in the history of the world, the turnout in Ohio declined 2.05 percent and in all but nine counties. In a year far better for the Republican presidential candidate than 2008, Governor Romney received 93,200 fewer votes in Ohio than Senator McCain did four years earlier. As it stands today, President Obama won Ohio in 2012 by 107,241 votes, only 14,000 votes more than the margin by which Governor Romney lost to Senator McCain.

No matter how you look at it, it seems clear that the base in Ohio did not show up as it needed to do for Governor Romney to win Ohio.