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Ohio presidential vote shows importance of economy, downscale white voters in campaign ahead

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Posted: March 6, 2008 1:23 p.m.
Updated: March 21, 2008 5:00 a.m.
Ohio presidential vote shows importance of economy, downscale white voters in campaign ahead

Voters cast their ballots in Ohio's primary election at a polling station in the former Coventry Elementary School in Cleveland Heights, Ohio on Tuesday, March 4, 2008. Officials expected heavy turnout at the polls in Ohio, Texas, Vermont and Rhode Island Tuesday.


    WASHINGTON — Focus on the economy. Don’t lose sight of working-class whites. And remember the November presidential election will bring in a whole new set of voters than those who troop to party primaries.
    Ohio gave Hillary Rodham Clinton her biggest victory in weeks on Tuesday in her fight with Barack Obama for the Democratic nomination. Exit polls of voters, though, were brimming with lessons for the contests that lay ahead. Here are some of them:
    WHY OHIO MATTERS
    Not only is it one of the more populous states, but in many ways it’s a miniature United States. It’s got factories and farms, big cities and rural areas. Exit polls show it has a mix of religions and political ideologies that mirrors the country. It is ethnically diverse, though it has somewhat more whites and fewer Hispanics than the national average.
    It’s also crucial for an overriding political reason: In more than a century, no Republicans and just two Democrats have been elected president without winning Ohio. It simply cannot be ignored.
    THE ECONOMY RULES
    With their state’s huge industrial job losses and high unemployment rate, Ohioans are upset about the economy, and those who did helped deliver victory to Clinton.
    Three-quarters of Democrats said they’re worried about their family finances. Nine in 10 of them — and seven in 10 Republicans — said the economy is in bad shape. Fifty-nine percent of Democrats named the economy as the country’s worst problem, more than in any state with competitive Democratic primaries so far. The worry was strong across most lines of race, education and even income.
    Disgruntlement with trade was also a theme, with eight in 10 Democratic voters saying it has taken more jobs from Ohio than it has created. This is an issue that will be revisited this fall in Ohio and other states that have seen a flight of industrial jobs overseas.
    ‘‘Ohio is a good reminder that in 2008, the candidate who wins the economy will win the election,’’ said Geoffrey Garin, a Democratic pollster not working for a presidential campaign.
    WORKING-CLASS WHITES
    Forty-eight percent of whites have not completed college in the 26 states that have had competitive Democratic primaries so far. In Ohio, the figure is 62 percent. That’s a large group that has remained fiercely loyal to the New York senator and did so again in Ohio, reversing the momentum Obama seemed to have when he won them narrowly in Wisconsin last month.
    Their sheer numbers in Ohio — along with the state’s slightly lower income levels than nationally — contributed strongly to Clinton’s victory there. The Illinois senator has yet to figure out how to win them over consistently, and has done better among white voters in states where they are better educated.
    Looking ahead to November, whites who have not completed college loom as a potent swing group, not only in Ohio but nationally. In 2004, six in 10 of them backed President Bush over Sen. John Kerry across the country.
    AGE MATTERS
    Ohio saw Obama easily carry voters under age 30 and Clinton overwhelmingly win among those over 65, a familiar result this year. Before Tuesday, Obama had only carried the oldest voters in one state, Virginia, while she had won the youngest only in Oklahoma and Arizona.
    The two age groups each made up less than one in five voters in Ohio on Tuesday. That’s about the same proportion they were in the 2004 presidential election nationally, though in Ohio that year the youngest voters outnumbered the oldest ones by almost 2-1.
    MCCAIN’S WORRIES
    Ohio showed that the Arizona senator still has a wary relationship with his party’s conservatives, whom the GOP relies on for heavy support in the fall. Two-thirds of Republican voters in Ohio called themselves conservative. Barely more than half of them supported McCain in Ohio on Tuesday. And four in 10 GOP voters said he is not conservative enough.
    The 71-year-old even faces some concern about his age. One in five Ohio Republican voters said Tuesday that age was a factor in selecting a candidate. Of those, only about half voted for McCain.
    THE FALL CROP OF VOTERS
    Along with less-educated whites, independents will be a prime target for both parties in November.
    They had been a forte for Obama, winning them by 20 points in Democratic primaries before Tuesday. But in Ohio, he and Clinton divided them about evenly — a danger sign for Obama.
    Independents made up 22 percent of those voting in the Ohio Democratic primary. They were a quarter of all voters in Ohio and nationally in the 2004 general election, so their importance will only grow.
    Adding to the challenge, the independents in play in November will tend to be more centrist than those who were motivated to vote in Tuesday’s Ohio Democratic contest.
    On the one hand, independents have been leaning toward Democrats recently, in part due to the unpopularity of Bush and the war in Iraq. But the certain Republican presidential nominee, John McCain, has done well with independents so far, meaning they seem to be up for grabs.
    ‘‘McCain has some serious reach’’ with this group, said David Winston, a GOP pollster not affiliated with a candidate.
    The Ohio figures were from samples of voters in 40 Ohio precincts in an exit poll conducted by Edison Media Research and Mitofsky International. Included were interviews with 777 Republicans, with a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 5 percentage points, and 1,612 Democrats, with a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 4 points.
    ———
    AP Director of Surveys Trevor Tompson contributed to this report.

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