By PETER A. BROWN
Fourteen months before the November 2008 presidential election, Ohio — a key to winning the Electoral College — is looking very blue. And the most important issue there makes the state even more of an uphill climb for the Republicans.
Simply put, it is very difficult to figure a way for the Republicans to win the White House without the state’s 20 electoral votes. And it is not just recent horse-race polls that give the Democrats a lead in the state, no matter which of their candidates win the nomination.
Public opinion on the most important issue in the state — jobs and the effect international trade has on the Ohio economy — is moving very much in a direction that could help the Democrats next November.
Moreover, Democrats would also likely benefit if last week’s data showing negative job growth nationally — prompting some economists to talk recession — turn out to be the norm for the next year and not an aberration.
Ohioans already believe that their economy is much worse than the country’s overall, and history says that voters punish the party in power (the White House more than Congress) during times of economic distress.
No Republican since 1884 has won the presidency without carrying Ohio. President Bush’s narrow victories in 2000 and 2004 would have been defeats had he lost the state.
A Quinnipiac University poll of Ohio voters last week matched up the three leading Democrats — Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton, N.Y., Barack Obama, Ill., and former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards — against the four leading Republicans — former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, former Sen. Fred Thompson of Tennessee, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, and Sen. John McCain of Arizona.
Democrats won 11 of the 12 mythical contests. McCain’s 42-41 lead over Obama was the aberration. A trial heat between the respective front-runners showed Sen. Clinton with a 47-40 lead over Giuliani.
But perhaps the most significant finding of the poll was the overwhelming support for protectionist trade policies that cuts across almost all demographic groups in the Buckeye State.
Along with Michigan, Ohio has been perhaps the state hardest hit by job losses due to foreign competition. Although Republicans are slightly more supportive of free trade than Democrats or independents, even within GOP ranks there is clear resentment that Ohio’s prosperity is being sacrificed to foreign competitors.
For instance, when Ohio voters are asked whether they think the U.S. economy would be better off if the nation continues its current trade laws, or increases restrictions on imported goods, by a 60 to 30 percent margin they pick the latter. Even Republicans want new restrictions on imports by a 55 to 35 percent margin.
Although some studies show that the growth in international trade has created as many or more jobs than have gone overseas, Ohioans see the global economy as a loser for their families, their state and the country.
Only 21 percent believe the growth of the global economy has helped the Ohio economy, 30 percent think it has helped their families’ bottom line and 30 percent say it has helped the U.S. economy.
The anti-trade feeling in Ohio is one reason why John Edwards, whose views are the most protectionist of the Democratic candidates, actually fares best in trial match-ups against the Republican candidates.
The trade issue could be a problem for Sen. Clinton, because her husband’s presidency was one in which free trade prospered and the United States aggressively sought agreements, such as NAFTA, with other nations. Many Democrats, especially union activists, see NAFTA as paving the way for an exodus of U.S. jobs overseas that continues today.
Proponent of status quo
So far, Sen. Clinton has been the least outspoken of the major Democratic candidates on the trade issue, and is generally considered the strongest proponent of the status quo among the major Democratic contenders.
On the GOP side of the aisle, the major candidates are all avowed free traders and could find themselves on the defensive with Ohio voters if they are nominated.
Many Republicans think that Sen. Clinton might be the easiest Democrat to beat in November. The irony is that in the key state of Ohio that could be the case, because on the key issue of trade, she is more in tune with GOP views than the other Democrats.
X Peter A. Brown is the assistant director of the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute. Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.