If there is one place in the whole of the United States where Barack Obama has to do his very best today, it is Cleveland’s Cuyahoga County. Four years ago this one county gave Obama 258 thousand of his 260 thousand vote lead in the Buckeye State. If you took away Cleveland, Ohio’s other 87 counties were seven points more Republican than the 2008 national average.
Cuyahoga County, Ohio’s largest, is traditionally Democratic–only once in the last 40 years has it given more votes to the GOP nominee for President–and that was in 1972 when Nixon still got less than 50% of the total vote in the county. Between 1996 and 2004 the county gave between 29 and 34 percent more support to the Democratic candidate. In 2008 Obama’s Cleveland support exceeded McCain’s by 38 points.
That is why Republicans need to escape Cuyahoga County with a smaller margin stacked against them than their 258,000 deficit of four years ago. To do so, Republicans need to either see Cleveland’s turnout drop and/or increase the GOP share of the vote in the rest of the state.
On that first score, it doesn’t look good for the GOP. The below comes from Cuyahoga County Board of Elections data from Saturday. It shows an overall increase in the number of absentee ballots returned: 228,905 with two days left in the race in 2012 versus a total of 210,592 in 2008. Even more concerning is where those returned ballots are coming from. This includes only the 33 most populous communities in the county (so as to remove a few small communities where a change in just a couple dozen votes wildly skews the percentage) and ranks them from least to most Republican.
I’ve highlighted the city of Cleveland itself, which accounts for one-quarter of the county’s total ballots received. By Saturday it had already received 32% more mail-in votes than they did in 2008. What is clear from this chart is that vote-by-mail turnout has increased by the highest amount in the most Democratic communities in Ohio’s largest Democratic County.
But what of those reports that early voting is down for Democrats in Ohio? It is. Even in Cuyahoga County, early voting through Sunday was down 15% from 2008. The problem for Republicans is that the number of vote-by-mail absentee votes is five times as large as the number of those who vote in person. So while there were about 7,400 fewer in-person early voters in Cuyahoga County than there were in 2008, the number of by-mail voters increased by almost 19,000 with still another two days to go. At roughly 2:1 in favor of Obama, that’s a net gain of about 8,000 more total early votes from four years before.
I see that some Republicans are arguing that Democrats have cannibalized their election day voters by getting them to vote early. Sorry, as much as I’d like to believe that, I’m not buying it; at least not in Cleveland. If early and absentee numbers were down, I’m certain that the GOP would be crowing about it being indicative of diminished Democratic enthusiasm, as they are claiming in Colorado, Iowa, and Virginia. Republican spin on that issue in Ohio sounds too much like a “heads I win, tails you lose” argument. Instead, I’m going with the less nuanced notion that early voting turnout is a reflection of enthusiasm.
And on that count, there is a lot of good news for Ohio Republicans. The data for the below chart comes from a website run by Michael McDonald, a professor at George Mason University and fellow at the Brookings Institute. This data source does not have all of the state’s 88 counties. He provides numbers for only 53 and I’ve included the 25 largest. It also doesn’t exactly match what I have from Cuyahoga County, but I think that is because his data is harvested on a different date. (It’s also not clear if it includes in-person voting; however, the magnitude of the numbers indicates that it does include by-mail votes, which are the much larger number of the two.
The chart clearly shows that the more Republican a county, the greater the increase in early vote turnout over 2008 levels.
I’ve labeled a few communities.
The counties containing Ohio’s largest northern cities are its Democratic strongholds (Akron, Cleveland, Toledo, and Youngstown). Early voting turnout there, while on par with or up from four years ago is lagging the much larger increases in other parts of the state.
Look at Columbus’ Franklin County. This is the largest city in the state (Franklin Co. is the second-largest county). It also includes The Ohio State University and its 80,000 students and staff. Franklin County has trended more Democrat over the years, but not usually by as much as it did in 2008. In 2012 it looks to have the lowest rate of early voting of any county in the state compared to four years ago. If this is a reflection of Obama’s GOTV efforts on major Midwestern college campuses (Madison, State College, Twin Cities, and Ann Arbor–I’m talking about you), then this has got to be making Obama concerned.
Look also at the two biggest turnout changes on the list. Jefferson (Steubenville) and Tuscarawas Counties are in Ohio’s coal country. There are 32 coal counties in the Buckeye State. Most of them are smaller, and therefore, don’t appear on this list. But I imagine that they are all trending the same way. Notice also that these counties were deep purple four years ago–only 76 votes separated Obama and McCain in Steubenville. If the upward trend in early voting is an indicator of enthusiasm, I strongly doubt that it is enthusiasm for Obama. This is not a good Obama omen for Pennsylvania.
Finally, look at Warren County. This suburban ring county sits to the northeast of Cincinnati. Between Warren and its two similar size neighbors, Butler and Clermont (not in McDonald’s database), the three counties voted for McCain over Obama by a margin of well over a hundred thousand votes. All three counties are also three of the fastest growing in the state. However, they haven’t grown by 30% in four years. That increased turnout is enthusiasm, and I expect to see it at similar levels in Butler and Clermont as well.
Bottom line from what I’m seeing in Ohio: Obama has to be happy with what he’s seeing in early voter numbers in absolute-must-win-big Cuyahoga County. But when he compares it to the rest of the state, he should be afraid.
UPDATE: Based on the enthusiasm that I’m seeing ine early vote numbers in Ohio in other portions of the state, if Barack Obama’s lead in Cuyahoga County is less than 230,000 votes, the President should stock up on bourbon instead of champagne. More than that won’t gurantee an Obama win, but less will almost certainly result in a loss.