Today’s Political Test Market

Columbus has a long and storied history as a test market for new products.  Soft drinks, fast-food offerings, and other consumer goods are often introduced here because central Ohio is a fair microcosm of the country as a whole, with a spread of income levels, races, ethnicities, and urban, suburban, and rural settings in a small geographic area.

12th_congressionalToday, the Columbus area will serve as a test market of a different sort.  The product being evaluated is politics.  There’s a special election to fill the congressional seat in the 12th District, which is one of three districts in the central Ohio area, and all indications are that the race is neck and neck.  The national political gurus are focused on the race as a potential advance indicator of the country’s mood when Election Day rolls around in November.

Republicans are worried because the 12th District has long been a GOP seat, but when long-time Congressman Pat Tiberi retired in January the seat went up for grabs.  The Democrats nominated Danny O’Connor, who has campaigned as a centrist and raised a lot of money.  In a bid to appeal to a middle of the road electorate, O’Connor originally vowed not to support Nancy Pelosi for Speaker of the House if he was elected, although he recently retreated from that pledge.  The Republican candidate is Troy Balderson, a state Senator who has been endorsed by both Ohio Governor John Kasich, who once represented the 12th District, and President Donald Trump, who has been here recently to campaign for Balderson.  The most recent polls show the race is effectively tied.

Which way will the test market go?  There’s a reason the polls are close.  The economy is going strong in central Ohio, and the 12th District, which in Richland Country, follows I-71 south to touch down in the northern suburbs of Columbus, then sweeps east to Newark and Zanesville, includes some of the fastest growing areas of the state and areas that, until recently, were in a prolonged slump.  But central Ohioans are notoriously, well, centrist in their politics, and for many people President Trump’s bare-knuckled, name-calling style of politics hasn’t been well received.

Interestingly, although the race has drawn national attention, there hasn’t been a lot of chatter about it in our town, outside of Democratic and Republican circles.  I think many voters are keeping their cards close to their vests and are still making up their minds, and I wouldn’t even venture a guess on which way the race will go.

Many Democrats are hoping for a Blue Wave come November that will turn control of the House and Senate over to the Democrats and allow them to block President Trump’s initiatives.  If the Democrats can win the 12th District today, the Blue Wave may well have started rolling just north and east of Columbus.

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“Special” Elections (Part II)

Columbus Issue 1 went down to a ringing defeat yesterday, but the big story in my book remains the turnout, the cost of the special election, and the potential for manipulation.  According to the Columbus Dispatch, 49,009 Columbus residents voted in the election, a pathetic turnout of about 9 percent — which, amazingly, is nevertheless higher than many elected officials, and the Franklin County Board of Elections, expected.

The special election cost about $1 million.  That means we spent about $20 to get each of those 49,009 votes — money that could have gone to other civic improvements.

I thought Issue 1 was a bad idea and voted against it, but I think putting important topics like charter amendments on the ballot in special elections where turnout is forecast to be less than 10 percent of voters is ridiculous.  If an issue is important enough to be put on the ballot, put it on the ballot on the customary voting day, when a reasonable turnout is expected — and we don’t have to incur a special expenditure of  a million dollars of tax revenues to boot.

“Special” Elections And Manipulation

Today is August 2.  In central Ohio, we’re in the midst of the dog days of summer, when the temperatures hit the 90s, the air is heavy and moist, and walking outside leaves you sodden and sapped of energy.  It’s not the time of year you associate with elections.  But today we’ve got a “special election,” anyway.

voting-machine“Special” might not be the right word.  In Columbus, we’re being asked to vote on precisely one thing:  Issue 1, a proposed amendment to the Columbus city charter that would change the configuration and methods for electing members of Columbus city council.  There won’t be any federal or state offices, or down ballot judicial races, or school levies, or anything else on the ballot.  It will be the quickest exercise in voting, ever.

I’ll be going to the polls, because I’m against Issue 1 and because I think voting is an important civic duty.  Still, I can’t help but wonder why I’m being asked to disrupt my normal schedule and go to my precinct to vote in a special election on a weird date like August 2.  There’s nothing about Issue 1 that is an emergency — indeed, the precincts that would be created if Issue 1 were to pass haven’t even been drawn yet — and in just three months we’ll be going to the polls to vote for President.  Presidential elections traditionally get the highest turnout; the election today will likely attract only a tiny fraction of the voters who will go to the polls in November.  And, according to the Columbus Dispatch, holding a special election to vote on just this one issue will cost the city about $1 million.  So why not save the $1 million, add Issue 1 to the November ballot, and have an important initiative voted on by a larger percentage of Columbus voters?

I’m not sure precisely why City Council set this special election and decided to use money from city coffers to pay for it, but whenever “special elections” are held on odd dates I always wonder whether somebody is gaming the system.  If you can get your pet issue on the ballot for an election held on an unusual date, when people aren’t expecting to vote and turnout will be ridiculously low, and you’ve got a solid core of people who feel very strongly about the issue and will cast their ballots come hell or high water, you’ve substantially increased your chances of reaching the result you’re hoping for.

So today I’ll go to the polls, sign in, press one button to exercise my franchise, get my “I voted today” sticker, and hit the road.  I’ll be glad to cast my vote against Issue 1 — but I can’t help but feel that I’ve been manipulated somehow.

Reading The Special Election Tea Leaves

Political reporters love special elections for congressional seats. Because the elections are one-off affairs held at odd times, they command far more attention than normal congressional races do. And the question always is: is there a lesson to be learned from the results that tells us how the national political winds are blowing?

Yesterday one of those special elections was held in Florida’s 13th House district. Democrat Alex Sink and Republican David Jolly were vying to replace a longtime Republican incumbent who died of cancer in October. Both sides poured money into the race, with Sink and her allies slightly outspending the Republican side.

The Republicans tried to make the race a referendum on Obamacare. Jolly favors outright repeal; Sink says the law should be “fixed” without saying much about how, precisely, to do that. Her position is the one that Democrats are being urged to voice in November, on the theory that voters are pragmatic and would rather see repair than repeal.

Jolly won by a 2% margin. Does that tell us that Obamacare will be political poison for Democrats nationally in November, or does it just mean that, on this occasion in one district in Florida, voters narrowly opted for one candidate over another? Already Democrats are noting that Sink got a larger percentage of the vote than had Democratic challengers to the longtime Republican incumbent — which seems like pretty meaningless spin to me.

I’m not inclined to read too much into the results, because I think many voters vote on the basis of candidates rather than issues. I also think, however, that Democrats need to sharpen their message and give voters some details on what, precisely, they propose to do with this law that has affected so many people. There are a lot of credibility issues swirling around Obamacare, and in that atmosphere vague promises of future fixes aren’t going to have much resonance with voters.