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Ohio Issue 2: Let’s not over-react or fall for media templates

Issue 2 in Ohio has failed. Unions poured a gazillion dollars into Ohio and won.  Despite having a sense of this outcome for some time it still stings.  Believe it or not, a great many felt that these reforms were important steps in bring fiscal and structural sanity to government.  The voters clearly did not get that message.

The media is going to try and play this as horse race politics. Governor John Kasich lost and the Democrats won.  And obviously, in some important sense – even if only in the fact the story and perspective being conventional wisdom – this is true. Kasich and Republicans passed this legislation and it has been rejected.  Fair enough.

But I personally believe there is a simpler explanation.  Voters like their local cops, firefighters, nurses and teachers.  In many ways, they idealize these type of positions even if they don’t like the state of education or public safety, etc.  Thus opponents of reform had a very easy and emotionally effective message: Senate Bill 5 is an attack on the “everyday heroes” who protect our communities.  It doesn’t really matter if this was true or not.  In a 30 second ad it is easy to say and makes an emotional connection. This is a huge advantage in a statewide ballot issue.

Combine this with the huge financial advantage the opponents had (unions could take dues from union members regardless of their political beliefs and spend it on this election) and you have an uphill battle for supporters (and of course there is a minority of voters – public sector and labor unions – who are simply voting their self-interest).  All they had to do was blanket the state with pictures of police and firefighters opposed to the issue and the lasting impression is that the bill is an attack on the people we value the most in our communities.

We can debate the wisdom of keeping fire and saftey forces in the bill (and the larger strategy & process) later. But what I want to note tonight is that this is not an ideological victory in my mind.  I don’t believe voters saw this as a smaller or larger government debate. Nor was it about lowering or raising taxes. It was about not attacking public safety. It was about a simple but effective message with overwhelming financial superiority. The nature of modern elections means this was not an upset but par for the course given the nature of popular ballot issues.

Is Kasich unpopular? Sure, the economy sucks and doesn’t look good any time soon. People tend to blame people at the top.  Kasich didn’t have any real political capital left to win on this issue. But that doesn’t mean Kasich is suddenly a defeated governor.  He is going to ultimately be judged on the success of his policies in the medium to long term. He passed a budget that puts Ohio on a path to success. He is fundamentally redefining economic development in this state and he is selling Ohio like mad. If the Ohio economy gets better and the policies he has implemented begin to bear fruit he will be just fine.

And this is not the sign of GOP over-reach either.  If this was such an ideological turning of the tide that how to explain the passage of Issue 3 – a clear repudiation of health care mandates?  If Ohio voters suddenly turned to the left that win seems to make little sense. I think it is much easier to see this as another reflection of message and popular sentiment. People saw health care mandates as threat to their care and likely to raise costs.  They rejected the idea. Exactly how is this going to help Democrats (or the president for example) in Ohio?

If Democrats think the ground has shifted significantly I think they are getting carried away.  Unions felt their backs were up against the wall and they leveraged their financial advantage to great effect. They rallied the troops and used their message, however deceptive, to great effect. This is a big win.  I get that.

But off-year ballot issues of this nature do not mean fundamental change.  As I said on twitter, “If you have an emotionally effective message, and can spend five times as much, you have a good chance of winning ballot issues.” This is not sea change in political philosophy or a rejection of the party in power (neither party are particularly popular when it comes right down to it).

So ignore the union gloating and the media stories about how independents reject extremism and over-reach.  Instead, conservatives need to find ways to better communicate their ideas and continue to build the institutions and organizations that can move their ideas and policies forward.  Fiscal reality is not going to change. The nature of what government can and can’t accomplish given its nature and this fiscal reality isn’t going to magically change because of this vote.

Conservatives took one on the chin, yes, but the larger war is far from clear.  There are even bigger battles that lie ahead. Let’s get ready.

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