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U.S. Department of State

Diplomacy in Action

The Ohio Primary Election

Paul A. Beck, Professor of Political Science, Ohio State University
New York, NY
March 6, 2012

10:30 A.M., EST



MODERATOR: Good morning, everyone. Thank you for participating in this Super Tuesday conference call with Ohio State professor, Paul Beck. Professor Beck teaches in the political science department, and I had the privilege of meeting him during our Foreign Press Center tour in Columbus last week. He offered a lot of insight into the region and will be discussing the specifics of Ohio, which is arguably the most influential state of today’s elections.

So Professor Beck, if you’ll open with a few minutes of comments about the particulars of Ohio, and then we’ll open it up to the call for questions.

MR. BECK: Okay. Thank you, Melissa. It’s good to be with all of you, with some of you I’ve talked to before. Obviously, today is Super Tuesday. This is the most important day of the nomination process, certainly in the Republican Party this year in 2012. It’s important in several ways. Today we will be selecting a third of the delegates nationwide that would be needed for the nomination on the Republican side, the presidential nomination. We’re selecting more delegates today than have been selected in the total of all the primaries and caucuses that have come before us. Still Super Tuesday 2012 is not as important as Super Tuesday was in 2008. There are many fewer delegates at stake than was true four years ago, and Super Tuesday is about a month later than it was four years ago.

One way to think about what’s going on today and in the process more generally is that there are basically two games that are going on, two games that are being played. One is a long-term game, and that’s the game to accumulate enough delegates to win the nomination at the Republican National Convention in Tampa in August. There are still a lot of delegates to be selected, and so that game will continue after today.

There also is a short-term game, and the short-term game is to win any particular contest or at least be perceived and announced as the winner, and the reason for that, because of the sequencing of primaries and caucuses, how a candidate does in a caucus or a primary on a particular day has some impact on how they’re going to do later on. And this is because Republican voters are looking for somebody who is likely to be a viable candidate for the nomination and the winner in the fall. And the best way to demonstrate that is by winning in the here and now, and voters will take that into account as they go forward.

So there are a lot of delegates at stake today. There also is momentum at stake today. I think Santorum in particular needs to do well today if he’s going to be able to continue his candidacy and be successful as a candidate. Romney, on the other hand, has been kind of steadily plodding along, accumulating delegates, and so today will be another step in that process.

Now let’s look at Ohio specifically. What is at stake in Ohio? We have 66 delegates who will go to the National Republican Nominating Convention; 63 of them will be selected today, 48 in winner-take-all contests in our 16 congressional districts – so it’s three delegates per congressional district – and then 15 will go to the statewide winner if the statewide winner wins a majority of the votes statewide. If nobody wins a majority, they would be divided up proportionally with what’s called a 20 percent threshold; you have to get at least 20 percent of the statewide vote to get any of those statewide delegates.

Of those 63 delegates that are at stake today, 18 have already been lost to Santorum. And the reason is that candidates have to file slates with delegates. The election really is for those delegate slates, not necessarily directly for the candidate for president himself. And Santorum failed to file slates in three of the congressional districts, which means he can’t contest for their nine delegates. And then he failed to file a – or his campaign failed to file full slates of delegates in a bunch of other congressional districts, which means they can’t win all three in those districts. Maybe that wouldn’t happen anyway, but we know that 18 delegates already are off the table; they cannot be won by Santorum in Ohio.

Now, I think Ohio, of all the contests today, all ten contests, is the most important one, not because of the number of delegates – we are second to Georgia in terms of the number of delegates – but rather because Ohio really among all of these states is the one that is the most contested, the most up for grabs right now, the one that the polls are showing is too close to call.. So Ohio gains special significance for that.

And it also is a very heterogeneous state. Ohio looks a lot like the national electorate. Every conceivable voter group except maybe for Latinos is well represented in Ohio. So if a candidate does well in Ohio, chances are they’re going to do fairly well at least among Republican voters when it comes to the contest in November.

Ohio also will be a battleground state in November. It’s a state that historically, and certainly in 2012, is one that presidential candidates from either party really need to win to be able to continue or to be a successful candidate for president, and it’s sort of significant in that respect as well.

Well, let me at that point stop and turn to any questions you might have about the contest in Ohio or beyond Ohio.

MODERATOR: Sure, Professor Beck. Could you speak on why Ohio tends to be a swing state and goes back and forth generally through previous elections?

MR. BECK: Yeah. I think the reason is that the Democrats and Republicans are pretty well balanced in Ohio in terms of their numbers. There also are a lot of independent voters in Ohio who swing back and forth from election to election. The partisans – the Democrats and Republicans – in Ohio and nationwide will vote quite faithfully for the nominee of their party, and so the real challenge for a candidate running in November is to be able to get the vote of the independents. It’s a vote that Obama won in 2008. It’s a vote that the Republicans won in 2010. It’s a vote that is very much up for grabs as we go into the general election in 2012. And Ohio, I think, is much better balanced between the parties than is true of most states. There probably will be in the fall maybe 18 to 20 states that will be the focus of both campaigns that are the real swings states in that election. And the candidates really have to win Ohio to be able to win the presidency in November.

MODERATOR: Great. Very good.

Operator, would you go over call-in instructions one more time for questioners?

OPERATOR: Yes. Thank you. If you would like to ask a question, press *1. To withdraw your request, press *2.

MODERATOR: And this time is opened up for questioners, and we will wait until we see who has a question.

OPERATOR: The first question comes from Katherine Harbin. Your line is open.

QUESTION: Yes. Hello. Thank you for your time. I was just wondering if you could please speak a little to the effect that Super PACs have had on this race so far, particularly when it comes to the Georgia primary today and the possibility of Newt Gingrich winning that and if he will continue to get funding from his billionaire backer in Nevada. I was wondering if you could speak to the effect of Super PACs, please. Thank you.

MR. BECK: Yes. The subject of Super PACs is a really interesting one this year. Super PACs have become more important in elections. They were a little bit important in 2012, but they’ve become really important in – or I mean, 2010, or they become really important in 2012.

Super PACs basically are political action committees that are supporting a candidate for president, at least in the presidential contest, but are not coordinating their activities with that candidate. Because they have a special status under the law, they can receive donations in any amount. In some cases, they do not have to disclose who the particular donor is, although most of them have done that. And they are able to spend money in unlimited ways and have, in the case certainly of the Romney Super PAC and the Gingrich Super PAC and even the Santorum Super PAC, have accumulated or gathered or raised more money than the candidate campaigns have themselves.

Super PACs tend to be more negative in the advertising that they are funding, and the reason is that the candidate doesn’t have to endorse those particular ads and can say look, I’m not really connected with that Super PAC, it’s an arms-length relationship, it’s an independent relationship, even though the people running the Super PACs indeed are people who often have come from the candidate’s campaign.

In the case of Georgia and the case of Speaker Gingrich, there is one individual, a billionaire who lives in Las Vegas who is the one who’s contributed the most money – in fact, most of the money – to the Gingrich Super PAC. He is very strongly committed to Gingrich. He also would be committed to other Republican candidates if Gingrich were not in the running this time around. But he really has been, in the American term, the “sugar daddy” – quote, end quote – of the Gingrich campaign. And the amount of money that he’s put in, I think it’s now probably reaching $15 million – I mean, he has deep pockets; he can put much more money in, has really sustained the Gingrich campaign, that it wouldn’t be where it is, wouldn’t be able to spend the kind of money that it’s spent, without that kind of donation.

QUESTION: Thank you.

OPERATOR: The next question comes from Ben Dalton. Your line is open.

QUESTION: Good morning, sir. I’d like to ask a little bit more about the specifics of this campaign in Ohio and what matters are pretty central to Ohioan voters right at this time. There has been an uptick in the economy that has supported a sort of renaissance in manufacturing, and I’m wondering how that has affected things.

MR. BECK: Okay, the question is: What is at stake here in Ohio, what are the major – what is the major focus of the campaign? I would say a couple of things here. One is that whenever you have a contest that is going to be settled by voters basically in the same party – and I think 85 to 90 percent of the participants in the Ohio primary will be Republicans. Republicans – any partisans – have difficulty choosing among candidates within the same party. Many of these candidates – really all four of them are quite similar in many ways. Certainly Santorum and Romney, who are the leaders in Ohio, are similar on a whole series of issues.

And so the question is: How do you split hairs to differentiate among them? Well, there are two issues that I think – or two bundles of issues that have become dominant in the Ohio campaign, as has been the case in the previous states as well. One of them obviously is the economy, which is going to be the major issue in the fall campaign. The problem on the economy is that Santorum and Romney really aren’t all that different in terms of what they propose to do about the economy. They would take a very different tack than President Obama has, largely through lowering taxes and trying to stimulate the economy in that way.

Now, the economy’s gotten better. And in fact, Ohio has a lower unemployment rate than the national average, and so the economy in Ohio is demonstrably better than it was just a few months ago. That’s very helpful to Obama. It’s something that doesn’t really help the Republican candidate all that much, although I think many Ohioans still are worried about the economy, feel that it’s fragile, are going to take into account the state of the economy and particularly the future as they project the economy going forward. And so it’s still an important issue and I think will remain an important issue.

The other issue that has come on to the agenda in the last month or so has to do with a bundle of issues connected with social conservatism, or Christian conservatism. That’s been Santorum’s strong suit. It’s not that he and Romney differ a lot in terms of their own social conservatism, but they probably differ in how aggressively they would pursue those kinds of social conservative issues if they were elected as president. Santorum, I think, has lost some of the momentum on those issues, mainly because he has appeared to be more extreme than maybe even most Republican voters are on those issues. I just read yesterday that in one of the more recent polls, it looked like Santorum was not even going to win the Catholic vote in Ohio among Republicans. And so that, I think, is significant as well.

OPERATOR: The next question comes from Janet Silver. Your line is open.

QUESTION: Hi, sir. What I’m wondering is what really is at stake tonight if – if Romney doesn’t do as well as expected, what does that mean for him? And in terms of Santorum, is this kind of his last stand? Thank you.

MR. BECK: Well, let me take the Santorum issue first. I think it will not be his last stand. He would, of course, like to do well in Ohio, which means winning Ohio in terms of the popular vote and taking a good share of delegates away from Ohio. But the next contests in the primary season take place in Alabama and Mississippi, which are states that ought to be favorable towards Santorum. He ought to do well in those states. Maybe his major competition there will be Newt Gingrich rather than Mitt Romney, although Romney will do well there as well, but probably not as well as Santorum or Gingrich in those states.

And Santorum doesn’t necessarily need Ohio, but he needs the momentum that Ohio can give him. And of course, he is well behind in the delegate count and will probably fall even more behind as a result of the Super Tuesday primaries. So a win for Santorum in Ohio is a big deal, and this would be very important to him.

Romney, on the other hand, is steadily growing his delegate base. He’d like to have Ohio. I think Ohio is important for him. If he doesn’t come in first in Ohio, it means that he’s going to struggle going forward. He’s not going to do well probably in the rest of March if he doesn’t do well in Ohio, and so the April primaries really become important primaries and caucuses really become important for Romney. I think he has more staying power over the long course of the campaign season than does Santorum. I find it hard to believe that in the end the Republicans won’t nominate Mitt Romney as their candidate for president. On the other hand, the battle will be prolonged if Romney doesn’t do well in the Ohio primary.

OPERATOR: Are there any more questions from the group? If so, press *1. And the next question comes from Christina Bergmann. Your line is open.

QUESTION: Yeah, thank you for doing this. My question is you just talked about this prolonged nomination process. So what is your opinion – does it hurt the eventual nominee in the Republican Party and what does it say about the sort of the state of the Republican Party? And as a sort of third aspect, what influence does the Tea Party still have in this whole process? Thank you.

MR. BECK: Well, let me start with the Tea Party. The people who are supporters of the Tea Party probably will comprise about half of the voters today in Ohio. In some other states it’ll be more than half, and in Ohio it’ll be about half of the voters. In the general election campaign coming up this fall, they probably will comprise maybe 10 to 20 percent of all Republican voters, so the Tea Party has a disproportionate influence on what happens in Ohio and in the Republican primary. This is also true of Christian conservatives. They’re about half of the primary electorate on the Republican side; they will be roughly 15 to 20 percent of people who would be expected to vote Republican in the fall.

So that’s one thing to bear in mind. The primaries really are the places where activists, people who are more strongly committed ideologically have a disproportionate weight in comparison to the weight they would have even in the voting from one party in the general election campaign.

I think back on the question of the prolonged process, and it has been a prolonged process – this is likely to continue that way – I think this has done damage to the Republican brand, if you want to think of it in that way. It’s been a very contentious process. It’s been a process where there’s been a lot of negative campaigning, negative campaigning that has been designed to diminish the standing of the candidates who are running for the Republican nomination. I think that has an effect. It in part has an effect on Republican voters themselves. They’re not all that satisfied with the field of candidates, and part of the reason for that is that the candidates have been beating up on each other and criticizing each other during the campaign. And it also has an impact on the swing voters in the general election, and that is independent voters who are pretty negative about this set of candidates. And I think that is going to have an effect on the fall election campaign as well.

As long as the battling continues, you have, I think, increasing problems for whoever emerges as the Republican nominee, both within his own party in terms of people loyally voting for him in the fall, but more importantly, among independent voters, who are going to take a look at this and basically express some dissatisfaction with any of the people that the Republicans may nominate.

One other factor, by the way, to bear in mind here – and it does relate in some ways to your question – and that is that if Romney ends up being the person who is the frontrunner after the dust has settled with the primaries and caucuses but still doesn’t attract much enthusiasm within his party, and maybe doesn’t have a majority of the delegates in his pocket, there is always the possibility that the convention could do what conventions do, and that is select the nominee themselves. And it could be from among candidates or possibilities who haven’t contested these primaries or caucuses.

That would be an interesting development. I think the odds are that it will not happen. It creates all kinds of difficulties for the party going forward in the fall campaign because they have to try to justify a candidate who didn’t actually go through the vetting process in the nomination process itself, and they have to get a majority of the delegates who come to Tampa committed to somebody else to commit to and vote for, probably on the second or beyond the second ballot, for somebody who has not tossed his hat into the ring up until that point.

OPERATOR: The next question comes from Betty Lin. Your line is open.

QUESTION: Hi. Thank you. How does President Obama do in Ohio, and what does he need to do?

MR. BECK: Well, Obama needs to win Ohio to win the presidency. Ohio will be a very critical swing state for him. I think his standing in Ohio a month or two ago was not as high as his standing is right now. Part of the reason for that is that the Republican candidates have done damage to themselves in this process, as we just discussed. Also the economy has been getting better. It’s been getting better in Ohio more dramatically than in the rest of the country on average. And this also is favorable to Obama.

The unemployment rate now is lower than the unemployment rate as a national average. Ohio is a state where the economy really appears to be turning around in manufacturing and in other sectors as well. Even though there have been cuts in public employees, in all the other sectors, things seem to be going better. And that is indeed favorable to Obama. He won Ohio four years ago. He won Ohio with a substantial percentage of the electorate. A majority of the electorate voted for Obama in 2008.

As I said, I think he needs to win Ohio again. He’s not going to have quite the support maybe that he had in 2008, but depending upon who the Republicans nominate – let’s say it’s Mitt Romney – it’ll be a hotly contested election, but I think right now he appears to be having the edge in Ohio. But of course, the campaign has many more months to run and things could change between now and November.

QUESTION: Thank you.

MODERATOR: We’ll leave this line open for another minute or so for any other questions.

MR. BECK: Let me add one thing, if I may.


MR. BECK: There’s another contest going on in Ohio that’s not going to get much attention from the national media and maybe even from the state media, and that’s the contest for the State Central Committee of the Republican Party. And it’s hotly contested. Republican leaders in Ohio are at odds with one another. The governor would like to control the State Central Committee; he doesn’t now control it. He would like to be able to depose the person who is the Republican state chairman of the Republican Party, and so that contest is going on. It’ll be settled in the primaries today.

And why that matters is that if you have a divided Republican organization going into the general election campaign, that organization is not going to be able to be the advantage it has been in the past for the Republican nominee for president. It could well be that it will be divided going forward, that there’ll still be the infighting going into the fall campaign that you’ve had in the last few months for control of that State Central Committee. Ohio, by the way, has always had a very powerful Republican organization, and it’s been a very important asset for its candidate for president. And there is a risk, I think, with this battle within the Republican circles right now that that kind of organization will not be in place in the fall campaign in 2012.

MODERATOR: Professor Beck, do you have time for two more questions? I know you have another --

MR. BECK: Sure I do.

MODERATOR: -- this morning. Okay, great. We can continue, then.

OPERATOR: Thank you. The next question comes from Vanya Bellinger. Your line is open.

QUESTION: Hi. Thanks for doing this. My question is: It seems that the Super Tuesday once produced the Republican nominee. So which state, in your opinion, is the next battleground, next big battleground?

MR. BECK: Yeah. I think the next big battleground probably is not going to come until the Illinois contest in a couple of weeks. And the reason it’s an important battleground is that it probably is going to be a hotly contested contest. None of the candidates right now have a large lead there, as far as I can see. Illinois will be important in a way that Alabama and Mississippi, which I said before were probably much more country that is favorable towards either Santorum or Gingrich, depending upon who emerges out of Super Tuesday, as in good shape.

So you’ve got Illinois later in the month, and then you really go into April and you have a series of big state contests in April that are probably contests in which Romney has the advantage. They are northern states, northeastern states. The only one where Santorum might have an advantage is his home state of Pennsylvania. So you really have to go into April before you have some hotly contested primaries. At the same time, there are bunch of caucuses in March. Caucuses will steadily accumulate delegates for the candidates. Probably Romney is better positioned to do well in these caucuses. And so in the long-term game, Romney will steadily be adding delegates to his total in a way that I think Santorum probably, given the weak organization that he has, is not going to be able to do.

QUESTION: Thank you.

OPERATOR: The next question comes from Louise With. Your line is open.

QUESTION: Hello. Thank you for your time. I have a question about the blue collar vote. How big are they in Ohio, and are they still as important as they used to be? Called the Reagan Democrats or the angry white men, or --

MR. BECK: Okay. The blue collar vote is probably more concentrated among independents and Democrats. And yet still, there are a substantial number of blue collar Republicans, people who have been pulled into the Republican Party maybe because of distaste for the Obama presidency. It may go back to the Reagan years and the years since then in terms of social conservative issues and the like.

Santorum has done better than Romney has done in the polls among blue collar, working class, and kind of lower middle class Republicans. Part of the reason is that I think they feel more comfortable with him. Part of the reason is, of course, that Mitt Romney made his reputation in business as somebody who was a corporate raider in some senses, closed down companies. And that’s not something that has played particularly well among blue collar Republicans, though it’s kind of interesting that among Catholics, Romney appears to be doing better in the polls than Santorum has been doing in Ohio. And so that suggests that it’s – just a lot of blue collar workers are indeed Catholics, that Santorum’s social conservatism hasn’t necessarily had the appeal that one might think it would have among Catholic Republicans.

MODERATOR: Well, I think at that question, we will wrap up this call. Professor Beck, I just want to thank you again so much for your time, meeting with many of us in person and on this telephone conference.

MR. BECK: Well, thank you. It’s been a pleasure to talk with all of you.

MODERATOR: Yeah. We look forward to the results this evening.

MR. BECK: So do I.

MODERATOR: Yeah, very good. Okay. Thank you all for participating in today’s call, and we will have a transcript available as soon as it’s complete. Thank you so much.