KEY POINTS FROM THIS ARTICLE
— The pro-abortion rights/Democratic side won yet another fight related to abortion rights on Tuesday night, this time in red-trending Ohio.
— Turnout was robust and likely advantaged the Democratic side. Voter participation was relatively poor across Appalachia, a once-competitive area that has become extremely Republican in recent years.
— Issue 1 seemed particularly unpopular in some usually red suburban counties, although we have to remember that ballot issues and partisan races are different and that Republicans are still in a strong position in Ohio.
Dissecting Ohio’s Issue 1
There is an old saying that “pigs get fat, but hogs get slaughtered.” It is an apt description for what happened in Ohio’s Issue 1 vote on Tuesday evening.
Ohio Republicans, who already dominate state government, asked voters to essentially take away their own power by raising the threshold for voters to approve statewide constitutional amendment ballot measures from a bare 50% majority to a 60% supermajority. The proposal also would have made the signature-gathering process much more difficult in order to place such amendments in front of voters.
The whole point of this process was to erect an impassable barrier in front of a looming constitutional amendment on the ballot in November that would enshrine abortion rights protections into the state constitution. Secondarily, Issue 1 would have made it much harder for redistricting reformers to successfully present a constitutional amendment to voters, perhaps in 2024, to establish a new, independent redistricting system in Ohio, which Republicans would oppose.
Basically, the Ohio Republicans got greedy in seeking to eliminate the most surefire way in which voters could go over the top of elected state leaders and impose something that Republicans did not want. The voters did not respond kindly to it.
Turnout was robust for this irregularly-scheduled August election that featured only a single item on the ballot. As of Wednesday morning, 3.06 million votes were cast. That is nearly three-quarters (74%) of the total cast in the state’s high-profile Senate race last year, 4.14 million. The Issue 1 total was markedly higher than the 1.66 million cast in the May 2022 primary, which featured a competitive GOP primary for the Senate nomination.
County-level turnout data suggests that Democrats had an edge compared to the 2022 electorate. Map 1 shows the patterns — counties in yellow were over that 74% statewide figure, and counties in purple were below.
Map 1: Issue 1 votes cast compared to 2022 Senate race
Notice that turnout was relatively weak throughout Appalachian Southeast Ohio. The state has 32 counties in eastern and southern Ohio that are classified by the federal government as part of Appalachia — all but one of them is in purple. The lone exception is Ashtabula in far northeast Ohio, a postindustrial Obama-to-Trump county that really isn’t actually Appalachian at all, culturally-speaking, but the designation opens it up to economic development aid.
Meanwhile, the state’s bluest county, Cleveland’s Cuyahoga, was at 81% of 2022 Senate votes cast, the third-best mark in the state. Just ahead of it were Delaware, the traditionally Republican but blue-trending northern Columbus suburban/exurban county, as well as traditionally Republican Geauga, which is east of Cleveland and is relatively well-off and highly educated.
Not only was turnout robust in those two counties, but they also shifted by more than the state did from the 2022 Senate race. In that contest last November, Sen. J. D. Vance (R-OH) defeated former Rep. Tim Ryan (D, OH-13) by 6 points, 53%-47%. On Tuesday, Issue 1 lost by 14 points, 57%-43%. So there was a 20-point statewide difference between the Senate margin and the Issue 1 margin — yes, we know that one was a partisan race and this one was not, but we thought some of the differences were telling.
Delaware and Geauga were among the counties that exceeded that 20-point Senate-to-Issue 1 shift, as Delaware went from backing Vance by 6.3 points to rejecting Issue 1 by 15.4 (a nearly 22-point swing) and Geauga went from Vance by 18.7 to No by 4.4 (a 23-point swing). Other higher-turnout counties with above-average swings from 2022 Senate to Issue 1 were Lake, Lorain, Medina, and Portage. These are all places in Northeast Ohio, and Lorain and Portage were important parts of the state’s Democratic coalition that swung to Donald Trump. Another place with high turnout and a high swing was Union, a northwest Columbus exurban county.
Other “collar counties” surrounding the big city counties — Cleveland’s Cuyahoga, Columbus’s Franklin, and Cincinnati’s Hamilton — also saw bigger-than-average swings against Issue 1 but were also below average in terms of percentage of 2022 votes cast. That description applies to Hamilton’s trio of blood-red collar counties, Butler, Clermont, and Warren. According to our calculations, Issue 1 passed with just about 51% in the 8th Congressional District, a 60% Trump district that includes Butler County. Similarly, Issue 1 failed by nearly 30 points in District 1, a Joe Biden +8 seat that pairs Cincinnati proper with Warren County. All of this is suggestive of both a turnout and persuasion problem for Republicans that we would not expect in, say, a presidential general election. (We would apply this analysis to Appalachian Ohio, too.)
This is a good time to say that ballot issues — and, as we have pointed out in the cases of some other states, judicial races — are not directly comparable to partisan elections, and this election does nothing to impact our belief that Ohio is likely to vote Republican for president next year.
Still, while we aren’t expecting Joe Biden to carry Ohio next year, the state is set to host one of the 2024 cycle’s key Senate races, as Sen. Sherrod Brown (D) is seeking a fourth term. Brown, who is the sole Democrat occupying a non-judicial statewide office, was last reelected in 2018. Map 2 considers Brown’s 2018 showing, which may be considered something of a high-water mark for Democrats, alongside the results of Issue 1.
Map 2: 2018 Ohio Senate race vs 2023 Issue 1
The No side on Issue 1 won by 14 points, or about double Brown’s margin. The trends on the third image on Map 2 are basically familiar. “No” outperformed Brown in most of the major metro centers — a diagonal running from Cincinnati then to Columbus and then up to Cleveland is obvious — while it ran behind his showing in most counties along the Ohio River and in the northwest. Four counties saw swings that were over 20 points in No’s direction: Cincinnati’s Clermont and Warren as well as Columbus’s Delaware and Union — this reinforces our view that Brown’s path to reelection probably runs through improvement in the suburbs, as Democrats seem to have more room to grow in counties like that. One exception to that urban trend was the Youngstown area, which has been drifting towards Republicans for several cycles. Though No fared a little better in Mahoning County than it did statewide, its 58% was down from Brown’s 60.5%.
One other note on the results/turnout: the Democratic big-city trio of Cuyahoga, Franklin, and Hamilton all saw a little less than the 20-point swing from 2022 Senate, but all were above average for percentage of 2022 votes cast. To the extent that Issue 1 held up well for Republicans in both performance and turnout, it was in some parts of rock-solid Republican northwest/western Ohio, but even there we saw some erosion compared to the 2022 Senate election.
A major difference between Tuesday night’s vote and the looming abortion amendment in November is that the sides will be reversed. On Tuesday, the Democrats’ position was No and the Republicans’ was Yes. For the abortion amendment, the Democrats will be backing the Yes position to enshrine abortion rights protections in the state constitution, while Republicans will be on the No side. There is often a “status quo” bias that advantages the No side in a statewide ballot issue, and that may have been a factor in Tuesday’s vote (we noted last year that this dynamic may have been at play in what became a watershed referendum in Kansas). That said, this kind of bias could have been mitigated given the robust coverage of Issue 1 and the strong turnout, and that also could apply to the November vote, which on its face is probably easier to understand than yesterday’s issue. It seems possible that the abortion issue will do worse than Issue 1 because there likely were some Republicans who oppose abortion but who did not want to disempower themselves in voting on constitutional amendments. Then again, with abortion directly on the ballot in November, as opposed to indirectly on the ballot in August, the pro-abortion rights side may be even more energized. It’s hard to know, but we do feel confident in saying that the pro-abortion rights side starts the November campaign with a cushion based on what we saw on Tuesday night.
One key figure who did not appear to be involved much if at all in the Issue 1 campaign was Gov. Mike DeWine (R), who said he supported Issue 1 but otherwise did not play any apparent role in pushing for its passage. One telling result — and we’re not suggesting this has anything to do with the governor himself — came in DeWine’s home county, Greene, where No narrowly won amidst high turnout and an average swing from the 2022 Senate race. Greene is a Dayton exurban county that is higher-than-average in terms of educational attainment, and it is otherwise reliably Republican. DeWine won his first election as Greene County Prosecutor nearly half a century ago. We are curious to see if the governor takes a more active role on the reproductive rights amendment, given his deeply-felt and long-held opposition to abortion.
Secretary of State Frank LaRose (R), who recently joined what should be an intense U.S. Senate primary that also features businessman Bernie Moreno and state Sen. Matt Dolan (who both ran in 2022), was the public face of the “yes” on Issue 1 campaign. One wonders whether its failure will negatively impact LaRose, who despite warming up to Trump recently may find himself outflanked by Moreno in that department (Dolan is the least-Trumpy of the trio).
Last night was in keeping with what we’ve seen elsewhere in the post-Dobbs era — the pro-abortion rights side performing well in a statewide ballot issue that is either directly or, in this case, indirectly about abortion rights. There is another ballot test for the abortion rights side coming up in Ohio this November, although at this point we would describe it as more of a test for the anti-abortion rights side: Can they figure out a way to stop one of these issues? Their record so far is poor.