By DARREL ROWLAND
The Columbus Dispatch
Sherrod Brown clings to a four-point lead in one of the most-expensive and nasty U.S. Senate races in the country in the new Vindicator/Ohio News Organization Poll.
Brown’s margin falls, however, within the survey’s 3.1 percentage point margin of error. That means the Democratic incumbent could be ahead by more than 10 points, or GOP challenger Josh Mandel of Beachwood could be up by more than 2.
Despite the influx of more than $27 million in outside money, so far Mandel has been unable to overtake Brown, of Avon, who was ahead by 7 in a similar poll published Sept. 17.
“On the one hand, Mandel has not been able to secure a lead in publicly released polls up to this point and the hour is getting late. On the other, both campaigns seem determined to put 10 years of work into the final 10 days before Election Day,” said Eric Rademacher, co-director of the Institute for Policy Research at the University of Cincinnati, which conducted the poll for Ohio’s eight largest newspapers.
Brown’s lead is fueled by a gender gap — he leads by 16 points among women, Mandel by nine with men — and support from independent voters, where the Democrat is up by 16 percent.
Rademacher said the outcome may depend partially on whether President Barack Obama or Republican Mitt Romney wins next week.
“Given the support they enjoy within their own parties, Brown may be helped if Obama can increase Election Day turnout among Democrats, and Mandel may be helped if Romney can increase turnout among Republicans,” Rademacher said.
“If similar numbers of Democrats and Republicans turn out and vote, the votes of independents will be decisive in the election for Senate,” he added.
Brown enjoys an advantage in the strength of his support. The poll shows that 51 percent of his voters “strongly” back him, while another 27 percent favor him, but with reservations.
For Mandel, just 36 percent of his voters are “strongly” behind him, and 34 percent back him with reservations. Almost a third of his GOP supporters express reservations about his candidacy; only a fifth of Democrats show such reluctance for Brown.
Poll respondent Linda Groom, a tutor from Violet Township in Fairfield County southeast of Columbus, is backing Romney but said she can’t bring herself to vote for Mandel, a former Marine who served two tours of duty in Iraq.
“I don’t like Josh Mandel,” said Groom, 45. “My son did two tours in Iraq, and I don’t consider someone deserving of my vote just on that premise. That’s a lot of what I see from him. I don’t think Mandel is experienced enough in local government to go to Washington. I just don’t think the integrity is there.”
Even though she doesn’t live near any major auto plants or suppliers, Dianna Rauch of Little Hocking — an Ohio River town downstream from Marietta — still strongly favors the auto-loan package backed by Brown. And that is part of what is motivating the 53-year-old office worker to vote for Ohio’s senior senator.
“His policies and how he votes align with how I feel,” she said.
Grace Huffman is voting for Mandel, but not because she thinks he’ll make such a good senator. Instead, she simply wants Romney to have Republican help in Washington.
“I look at some of these races very individually, and Sen. Brown has done some good things,” said the retired nurse, 67, from Waterville near Toledo. “But I really want to give Romney a Republican Senate.”
One of the older poll participants, Don George, 72, a retired music promoter from Fairview Park in Cuyahoga County, said he already has voted for Mandel because the state treasurer “is a younger guy and we need some change.”
Calling himself a cynic when it comes to “pandering politicians,” George said Brown “is too Obama for my taste.”
The telephone poll — using both landlines and cellphones — conducted by the Institute for Policy Research at the University of Cincinnati between Oct. 18 and Oct. 23 of 1,015 likely voters has a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 3.1 percentage points. The response rate was 19.5 percent.
The new survey also indicates:
State Issue 2, which would change the way congressional and legislative districts are drawn, is in trouble. The proposed constitutional amendment trails by almost a 2-to-1 margin, 53 percent to 28 percent. However, most Ohio voters remain unfamiliar with the issue: 54 percent said they’ve heard only a little about it, and 24 percent say they haven heard nothing at all. The measure is losing by 8 points among the 21 percent who have heard “a lot.”
Gov. John Kasich’s performance has grown on Ohioans. Nearly a year ago, voters delivered a smashing defeat to a Kasich-backed measure slashing collective bargaining rights for public workers. Now, 56 percent approve of the job he’s doing. Although he’s only halfway through his four-year term, 52 percent say Kasich deserves another term; 37 percent oppose his re-election.
The casinos opening in Ohio’s four largest cities are getting inconclusive reviews. Most (58 percent) say the facilities are a mix of good and bad for Ohio, while 24 percent say mostly good, 17 percent mostly bad.
CONTRIBUTOR: Dispatch reporter Randy Ludlow.