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U.S. Department of State

Diplomacy in Action

The Day Before the Vote: The Perspective from Ohio

New York, NY
November 5, 2012

3:30 P.M. EST


MODERATOR: Good afternoon and welcome to the Foreign Press Center’s election 2012 day-before-the-vote teleconference on the perspective from Ohio. We’re happy to have with us today Dr. Paul Beck, political scientist at Ohio State University and specialist in voting behavior, political parties, and political communication. Dr. Beck will discuss the state of the race on the ground in Ohio. As many of you know, it’s a swing state that several commentators believe could be the deciding state in tomorrow’s presidential election.

We’ll begin the call with remarks from Dr. Beck, and then open the lines for questions. Please note that Dr. Beck’s comments are his own and do not represent the views of the U.S. Government.

And with that, I’ll turn it over to you, Dr. Beck.

MR. BECK: Okay. Thank you, Ariel. Good to be with all of you. Let me start with just kind of a framing comment about the role of Ohio. The U.S. presidential election is conducted in 51 different constituencies. Fifty of them are states; the 51st is the District of Columbia. The winner in each one of those constituencies, at least for most of them, get all of that state’s electoral votes, which is the number of Senators plus the numbers of Representatives in that state.

Now it turns out that in this election, as has been true in the past, the election really focuses on a set of states that are called battleground states. The battlegrounds are states that each party thinks it has a good chance of winning in the presidential contest. This year, we are ending up on the day before the election talking about maybe seven to eight battleground states, and that’s it out of these 51 constituencies. All the others are presumably safe for one party or another. The campaigns really don’t focus on those other states. They don’t spend money there, they don’t have television ads, they aren’t sending staff members there. It all comes down to these eight, maybe as many as 10 states, and that’s where we are on the day before the election.

Ohio is one of them. Ohio, in fact, is the second-largest of them, the largest being Florida. Ohio is a state that’s been a battleground state for a number of presidential elections, actually going way back in our history. But certainly the last three have been very tight races in Ohio – last four, actually, very tight races in Ohio, including the one this year. It looks like, if we read the polls, that Obama has just a very slight advantage in Ohio. But the truth is most of the poll results are within the sampling error margin that the polls report, and so it really is a race in Ohio that is too close to call at this point.

The other thing to say about Ohio, maybe to provide some of the context, is that Ohio is unusual in all of these battleground states in having a lot of what are called provisional votes. These are people who show up at the polls on Election Day, but their identification information doesn’t quite connect with how they’re recorded on the voter rolls. They have to vote provisionally so that in the next 10 days that information can be checked to make sure they are legitimate voters. In 2008 there were 208,000 such voters out of about 6 million Ohioans who voted in that election. And so the number of provisional votes is substantial. In an election where there is not a close contest between the two major party candidates, it doesn’t matter as much. But in an election like the one that we seem to be facing tomorrow, it could matter a lot.

The other thing to add to that is that if people have asked for an absentee ballot, they can vote ahead of time, of course, by mail. If they’ve asked for an absentee ballot but do not use, but instead show up at the polls and vote, they are automatically provisional voters and they, too, have to be determined as to their authenticity in the 10 days after the election. Now what’s new in Ohio this year is that the Secretary of State, who oversees the elections, mailed applications for absentee ballots to all 7 million eligible Ohio voters. If they turned that application back in, they got a ballot. If they decided not to use that ballot and to vote in person, then they become a provisional voter. So we really don’t know how many provisionals there will be. Yet the contest is separating the two candidates by, let’s say 1 percent, which is about 55 to 60,000 votes, and there are 250,000 provisional votes, we obviously won’t know the outcome of the contest until 10 days from now.

So maybe I can go into anything about the electorate and about the voting, but let me maybe open things up for questions.

MODERATOR: Okay, we’ll open the lines for questions. Please wait for instruction.

OPERATOR: Ladies and gentlemen, if you’d like to ask a question, you may press * then 1 on your touchtone phone. You’ll hear a tone indicating you’ve been placed in queue. You may remove yourself from queue at any time by pressing the # key. If you’re using a speakerphone, pick up the handset before pressing the numbers. Once again, if you have a question you may press * 1.

Our first question comes from the line of Martin Burcharth with Information.

QUESTION: Yes. Hi, Dr. Beck. Can you hear me?

MR. BECK: I can.

QUESTION: Yeah, good. I was just wondering, in 2008 the provisional status was 200,000. Now if you go back to 2004, as far as I remember, Senator John Kerry lost Ohio by something around – something about like 60,000 votes. What were the number – there was a lot of questions at the time as to whether the Kerry campaign should call for a recount. What was the number of provisional ballots at that – in that year? Did it make a difference?

MR. BECK: I actually don’t know the answer to that. I could find out. It would be on the Secretary of State’s website. But if I remember 2004, the complications – if I remember correctly – the complications were more than just provisional ballots. There were all kinds of questions about the operation of the voting machines on Election Day. In some cases – the Cleveland area, for example – there were long lines after 7:30, which is the closing time for the polls. Some voters were standing in line so long they simply left the line and ended up not voting. There were accusations at the time that the boards of elections of the various counties in Ohio where this happened were basically trying to deny people the ability to vote. These were areas where a lot of minority voters lived. And sort of all kinds of questions about the administration of the election, less so about provisional votes. I don’t remember much of a dispute over provisional votes at the time, but there certainly were disputes over the running of the elections.

I also remember one county that didn’t report the results until two days after the election, and there were real questions about whether those ballot boxes or those voting machines might have been tampered with. I don’t think anything came of that, but it became even more problematic in 2004, because the company that was supplying the voting machines to many areas of Ohio was also a company whose chief executive officer was a very active donor and campaigner for the Republican candidate George W. Bush. And so there were real questions there about whether there was some kind of insider manipulation. I don’t think anything was ever proven, and the Kerry forces decided not to contest that election.

MODERATOR: Dr. Beck, this is Ariel. I’m wondering – the candidates have been criss-crossing the state obviously for many months, but definitely in the last week. What are some of the messages that you feel are resonating with Ohio voters, on both sides?

MR. BECK: Well, I think, obviously, one of the major questions of this campaign has to do with the state of the economy, whether it’s getting better, whether it has stalled, whether the Obama Administration – at least the charge would be on the Romney side – had made many missteps in trying to dig our way out of the economic recession that we were in beginning in 2007 and 2008. And so the economy’s on everybody’s mind.

It’s a question, I think on the part of the two campaigns, of who is to blame for the economy and whether it’s getting better. The Obama campaign would argue we’ve done the kinds of things we need to do to improve the economy over the long run; we need more time for these things to work out; the recession was far worse and different in important ways than previous recessions had been, which means it’s going to be a more sluggish recovery.

The Romney campaign on the other side would say, no, you’ve made major mistakes in this; you had promised we would do much better than that; you failed in delivering on that promise; you’ve had four years to try to settle things, and it’s time to give somebody else a chance at doing this. And of course, the Romney campaign has argued, and Romney himself has argued that he has been in the business of creating jobs: "I know how to do this; my business acumen and experience will be very valuable in the White House. Also, we need to lower taxes so that we can further stimulate the economy through that route. And we need to massively cut spending, particularly in domestic programs." But it all revolves around the question of the economy, and maybe by extension, the question of the considerable federal debt that is on the books, and how that debt will be serviced and paid for and retired over the next several years.

I should add one wrinkle to this, and that is that one of things the Obama Administration did, of course, was bail out the Detroit automakers by providing federal loans and helping them kind of get over a period where their sales were really in bad shape. Obama has taken a lot of credit for this; I think a lot of workers in Ohio who are tied to the auto industry have been inclined to give him credit for that, and that’s helped him among working-class whites in Ohio, which is a group that he hasn’t done particularly well with in the past.

The Republican attack has been that Romney also had a plan for bailing out the auto workers that didn’t involve federal guaranteed money up front, but it would have come later on. He has stated this plan more recently; he talked about an editorial that was in the New York Times four years ago, in which he laid out his position. My sense is that particular emphasis, which is coming in late in the campaign – and there’s been a real debate over that here in Ohio – has hurt Governor Romney. It’s hurt him because it raises the issue again. And his response is, in some ways, too complicated, and I think most workers in looking at that say, “Well, now wait a minute. The money wouldn’t have been there in terms of private sector loans. The Obama Administration did what it had to do. We don’t like your recipe for doing this.” So you begin to see some movement in the polls with white, working-class voters moving a bit more towards Obama than they had in the past. So I think it’s attributable to the visibility that this debate has gained again in the last several days of the last week of the campaign.

MODERATOR: Thank you. And now we’ll just repeat, for those who are just joining the call, the question instructions. If I can have Barbara (the AT&T operator) just repeat the question instructions, please.

Just calling for Barbara, it looks like we have a call on the line from Camille El Hassani.

OPERATOR: Oh, yes. Your line is open.

MODERATOR: Great. Thank you.

QUESTION: Yes. Hi, thank you for doing this call. I had a question. And I – maybe I missed it at the top. If there – if it gets to the point where they have to count the provisional ballots, do they start counting on November 16th or November 17th? And is it 10 days that they then have to count those?

MR. BECK: The situation is that individual voters who have cast a provisional ballot will know that they have cast a provisional ballot. They will be told at the polling place if their ballot is provisional. If there are questions about their identification as voters who are eligible to vote in that precinct, the individual voter has to settle those questions by producing the right documentation. They can show, for instance, by presenting an electricity bill or a gas bill that indeed they are the person who lives at that particular address. So there are ways to clear that up.

They have 10 days to do that. All of that has to be done by Friday the 16th of November, at which point the individual counties – there are 88 counties in Ohio – the individual counties will then report what has happened with those provisional ballots, how many of them are valid votes, how those valid votes break out in terms of which candidate they are for. They report back to the Secretary of State’s office here in the state capitol in Columbus, Ohio, and then the Secretary of State’s office will total those up and report those on November the 17th. But until the 16th, there still is a possibility for these questions about the provisional ballots to be resolved.

In many cases, it’s the individual voter who has to resolve the question. In some cases, it’s just a matter of checking the records. For example, if a voter requested an absentee ballot and one was mailed to their house, and then they decided they didn’t want to vote absentee but instead wanted to actually appear in person at the polling place, and did that on election day, that becomes a provisional vote. The checking would be done there in the board of elections office just to make sure they weren’t voting twice. And if they had never sent the absentee ballot back in, the vote that they cast on election day would be counted. And so some of those would be resolved in that particular way.

QUESTION: Okay. Thank you. So we would know on November 17th?

MR. BECK: If the election is really close. You can imagine the following happening: that Obama wins Ohio by 100,000 votes, let’s say; that the report that comes out tomorrow is that there were 200,000 provisional votes. Now, there are enough provisional votes to change the outcome, but almost all of them would’ve had to have voted for Romney rather than Obama. And so people who know what has happened in the past, what the patterns have been in the past, the patterns have been that most provisional votes that are counted are votes that are cast by Democrats. So they would probably conclude that Obama is going to win this election in Ohio, but the official result really wouldn’t be clarified until November 17th.

QUESTION: Okay. Thank you very much.

OPERATOR: Once again, ladies and gentlemen, if you have a question you may press *1 at this time. We have a question from the line of Jade Chen with Caixin Group. Please, go ahead.

QUESTION: Hi, Dr. Beck. Thank you for your time. And I have question that is: Could you tell us more about the public opinion in Ohio towards Romney’s attitude toward China, especially he said in his day one he will rank China as a currency manipulator? So what is the public opinion in Ohio about this kind of opinion? Thank you.

MR. BECK: Thank you for the question. China’s been talked about by both candidates, and I think China has become kind of a convenient scapegoat for both parties in that Ohioans, particularly Ohioans who are working class voters – and this has been very much a swing group in Ohio – have seen the loss of jobs through jobs that are shipped overseas. And so that’s a real issue in Ohio. Democrats and Republicans alike have been very critical of the outsourcing of jobs. And of course, China becomes a very convenient country to accuse of doing that. Some jobs obviously have been shipped to China. I think it also helps in terms of identifying China as somebody to attack on this, or a country to attack. It also helps that China is seen as an economic rival to the United States.

And so both candidates have done a bit of that. I think it’s something that probably is attributable more to rhetoric during the campaign rather than things that really have to do with what their policies are going to be later on after they are elected, after one of them is elected.

Now having said that, sometimes candidates will say things during the campaign and then feel that they need to follow through on those to be consistent with what they’ve said during the campaign, so they can get trapped in that way. But the bottom line, I think, for me is that the China trade issue – and that’s really what it is about – looms larger or is more important as a campaign issue than it is as a governing issue or whoever is elected as president.

QUESTION: Yes, I agree with you. Thank you.

MR. BECK: Thank you.

MODERATOR: Okay. While we’re waiting for more questioners to line up, I have another that I’ll throw out there. We’ve heard that this election is really going to come down to turnout. Can you speak a little bit, from your perspective, what the ground game of each campaign is in Ohio?

MR. BECK: Yes. The ground game is the name that we give to efforts to turn out voters, to get voters to the polls. That’s very important in American elections, because about a third of the people who could vote do not vote. And then the question becomes, well, okay, does that hurt one side or the other? And it probably does, different sides in different years sometimes. And so what the ground game is is a focus on making sure that the people you think would be supporters of your candidate actually end up voting, either on election day or in early voting or through the absentee voting provision through the mail.

Both parties and groups that are allied with the parties are very, very active in trying to contact voters to make sure that those voters have voted. They, of course, only want to contact voters that they think are going to vote for their candidate. They don’t want to encourage somebody to vote who’s going to go and vote on the other side.

What we’re picking up in the polls that have been conducted, particularly late in the campaign, is that there’s been an extraordinary effort to reach out and contact voters. In one poll I saw just today, five out of every six people who were polled – and these are likely voters – are people who said that they had received a contact from one party or the other on behalf of their candidate.

What’s interesting about those contacts, by the way, are two things. One is that it’s a much larger number than was the case just four years ago in 2008. So there’s much more grassroots ground game activity in 2012 than there was four years ago. Then the other interesting thing is the majority of the people who are contacted say they’ve been contacted by both sides. Now, this is rather curious, because if the campaigns are doing what they say are doing and only contacting people they think are part of their loyal voter base, then particular voters shouldn’t be receiving contacts from both sides. But they are. And that may mean that the parties don’t really know exactly who the loyal voters are, and what they’re trying to do is make sure that anybody who has a chance of voting for their candidate gets a contact, is encouraged to participate.

Maybe the other thing to say about that is that there is a lot of bragging, a lot of claiming of effectiveness in these party contacts. One really doesn’t know until the election is over how effective a particular party has been and whether one party was considerably more effective than the other. These are hard things to do. People who receive phone calls that are automated calls probably aren’t very affected by that contact. The most effective contacts are from people you know who are saying hey, people like us are going to vote for Mitt Romney or people like us are going to vote for Barack Obama and it’s very important you cast your vote. We know from good evidence that those kinds of personal contacts are the most effective, and probably there are not a lot of those kinds of contacts that are made.

OPERATOR: Ladies and gentlemen, as a reminder, if you have a question you may press *1. We have a question from the line of Louise With with Borsen. Please, go ahead.

QUESTION: Yes. Thank you so much for your time. I had a follow-up to what you were just talking about. I read today that the Obama campaign has about three times as many field offices as the Romney camp in Ohio. Do you think that matters? Is there a point where you can’t have any more or you don’t need any more offices, or is it always better to be more active on the ground and more represented on the ground?

MR. BECK: I think it’s important to have field offices in the neighborhoods, because the ground game operates most effectively when you have actual people on the ground who are making the contacts, particularly face-to-face contacts. And so if you have a more extensive network of fieldwork offices, chances are pretty good that you’re going to be able to engage in more of these direct contacts.

Now, there’s an exception to that. The parties and the campaigns are not the only ones who are working the ground game. On the Democratic side, labor unions are pretty active in contacting their voters, their members, and trying to encourage them to go to the polls. They’re one of the groups that has been very well known over the years for being particularly effective at the ground game. On the other hand, only about 55 to 60 percent of labor union members will end up voting for Barack Obama. And so there are a lot of labor union members who are not going to support the candidates that the labor leaders really want them to do. And so in terms of effectiveness, there are some questions about union effectiveness.

On the Republican side, there are really good examples, particularly from the 2004 campaign, of Christian conservative organizations operating through church communities to reach out to Christian conservative voters and encourage them to get to the polls and vote, and presumably to vote Republican. There’s a lot of that activity this year. There’s an organization here in Ohio. It is a national organization called the Faith and Freedom Coalition, headed by a fellow by the name of Ralph Reed, who has been an active Christian conservative leader for many, many years. They claim they are going to be very active in Ohio in connecting with people who are particularly fundamentalist Christians, encouraging them to vote, encouraging them to vote in such a way that it supports the kinds of things they value. I can imagine that that would be a very effective organization there. But I don’t really know, and won’t know until we see exit poll data how effective they’ve been in contacting Christian conservatives.

QUESTION: Thank you. So it’s not necessarily that just because you have three times as many offices, you are three times as active on the ground or your candidate is getting promoted three times as much?

MR. BECK: I think that’s correct. The real question is, “How many people do you have out there, knocking on doors, making phone calls?” Phone calls, as I’ve suggested before, are not particularly effective, I don’t think. On the other hand, these personal contacts are, and so if having an extensive network of field offices enables you to put more people onto the streets making the contacts, then of course that’s going to be more effective. But just because they have the offices, we don’t know, really, how effective they’re going to be and how much they’re doing that.

QUESTION: Thank you.

MODERATOR: We have a follow-up question from Martin Burcharth from Information.

MR. BECK: Sure.

QUESTION: Yes, hi again, Dr. Beck. I just wanted to know – I mean, from what you say about the provisional ballots, the chance is pretty high you’re going to get a difference between Obama and Romney in terms of the vote totals of 1 percent margin, so that basically means that we probably will not know the result in Ohio until November 17th. Now thinking about that, I mean, there are very few pathways for both candidates, especially for Romney, outside of Ohio to win this election. So is it possible that we’re going to have this bog down not only to November 17th, but actually further down the line because each side will have sent their lawyers and make sure that every provisional ballot is valid?

MR. BECK: Oh, I think there is a possibility of that. I would put it this way: If the count – after election day but before the provisional ballots have been factored in, if the count shows that Obama is ahead, Obama in all likelihood will win Ohio, because the provisional ballots in the past have been more Democratic than Republican. If Romney is ahead, there’s a possibility that that outcome would be overturned by the provisional vote count. If it’s very, very close, obviously it could go either way.

So I think you’re right in saying that the lawyers on both sides are going to be very active in challenging whatever they can challenge under the law. It could be absentee votes. Sometimes those are challenged. It could be how the provisional votes are counted. That could be challenged. There could be lawsuits that are filed about just exactly what kind of information do you have to get from voters for a provisional vote to be validated. I think there are all kinds of – I’ll call them nightmarish scenarios down the road here in Ohio. If Obama has won the election without Ohio, it’s going to matter a lot less. If Ohio really becomes the pivotal state in the Electoral College, and the election is not determined until the Ohio results are known, then obviously we have a long period ahead of us.

November 17th, by the way, is just the first deadline. There’s another deadline of November 27th when the final official vote totals have to be rendered in Ohio. If the vote is very close between the two candidates, there could be an automatic recount. That means every board of elections has to go back and count every ballot and then report that to the state. I think that deadline is December the 3rd. And so we’re really talking about something that could last into early December if Ohio is really close, and if Ohio turns out to be central for how the entire nation is voting in the Electoral College in this election.

QUESTION: Yeah, excuse me, just one thing. And the Electoral College is meeting sometime in mid-December, right? So it’s just in time.

MR. BECK: That’s right. And Ohio has on – in its statutes a deadline, I think the deadline is March of – excuse me – is either December 7th or December 9th when the Ohio election has to be concluded, by law. Now that doesn’t mean that that deadline would be honored. If it gets into the courts, you can imagine the courts basically saying, “We are going to hold up the election results until these issues that have been raised in the legal system get basically dealt with.” And so it could stretch even beyond that.

It, by the way, has real implications for what Congress does with what is called the fiscal cliff, making decisions on sequestration, making decisions about the Bush era tax cuts. The presumption is that the presidential election will be settled by November 7th, that Congress then will meet in November or early December and try to work through these kinds of issues. That won’t be easy, but imagine what would happen if it’s not really clear who the president is going to be until sometime in December.

QUESTION: Thank you very much. That’s a scenario that sounds like Florida 2000, doesn’t it?

MR. BECK: It could be. I certainly hope not, but I think there are possibilities and they’re not close to zero, actually. It all depends, by the way, on how close the election is here in Ohio.

QUESTION: I understand. Thank you.

MODERATOR: Okay. Do we have any final questions for Dr. Beck?

OPERATOR: There are no further – oh, there is one more person.

MODERATOR: There’s one more, okay.

OPERATOR: Yes. We have a question from the line of Louise With with Borsen, a follow-up.

QUESTION: Yes, I just had a quick follow-up from what you just said. How high – like, let’s say the polls hold and Obama, I believe, has a 2.8 advantage right now in the average with – of RealClearPolitics. Would that be enough to take him above that number where the provisional ballots matter? Like, how little would the difference have to be between the candidates in percentage points for the provisionals to matter?

MR. BECK: Okay. Let’s make some assumptions here and kind of work through the numbers. Let’s say there are 200,000 provisional votes, that 80 percent of them are judged to be valid votes. That means there are 160,000 valid votes. In past years, a majority of those votes have gone to the Democrat. And so let’s say that of the 160,000, I don’t know, 90,000 go to the Democrat and 70,000 to the Republican. Now let’s say that the polls are accurate in saying that Obama has a margin of 1 to 2 percent, maybe a little bit more than that. One percent is about 60,000 votes, so if it’s 2 percent, that’s 120,000 votes. You would figure he gets additional votes from the provisional vote tallies, and so there would be no question but that he’ll be the winner.

If, on the other hand, Romney is ahead by, let’s say, 50,000 votes or 60,000 – that’s 1 percent – the provisional votes could overturn that. But they would have to come in disproportionately for Obama to make that happen. And you could bet that there will be really active challenging going on when these counts are being rendered in the various county election boards and at the state level as well.

So I think it really depends. I’ll repeat what I said before. It depends on how narrow the vote count is. I think if Romney has not won the state clearly – well, let me say – not say it that way. If Romney is not ahead in all the votes that are counted by the end of Election Day, he cannot win the state unless there would be a real reversal in how the provisional votes go, and I don’t expect that to happen.

QUESTION: Thank you. Thank you so much.

MR. BECK: Sure.

MODERATOR: Okay. And I believe that concludes our teleconference for today. I’d like to thank Dr. Paul Beck for his time and insight. Thanks, Dr. Beck, and thank all of you for joining the call.

MR. BECK: Thank you. Good to be with you.

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