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Published: 11/7/2008

GOP stalwarts shun tradition, switch votes; Obama aides win over support in Ohio's Republican counties

BY CHAUNCEY ALCORN
BLADE STAFF WRITER

FREMONT - President-elect Barack Obama's fight to win Ohio was won not only by increased Democratic voter turnout in urban areas, but also by an army of volunteers who persuaded voters in traditionally Republican counties that he would better serve them in the White House than Sen. John McCain.

Joya Gresham, 26, of Fremont was one of the Obama foot soldiers in Sandusky County who persuaded voters there to support a Democrat over a Republican for president, which has not happened in the county since 1996.

Sandusky County voters supported Republicans in every other contested race on Tuesday, but chose Mr. Obama over Mr. McCain for president by 1,166 votes, joining Wood, Lake, Tuscarawas, and Cincinnati's Hamilton County as Ohio counties that went from Republican territory in 2004 to Democrat territory in 2008.

Mrs. Gresham said she knows why.

She is a former Navy petty officer living in her parents' home with her 23-month-old son, Jakai, while her husband, Jakeem, who has completed two tours of duty in Iraq, is stationed in Rota, Spain.

She said she was released from the Navy on medical disability in 2005, but is now fighting with the Department of Naval Corrections for money she was promised for medical expenses as well as with another Navy department to fund her college education.

She also recently was laid-off from the Eaton Inoac manufacturing plant in Fremont and said she joined the Obama campaign in September so more people will not end up like her, struggling to find work and pay for a college education.

She said her personal story convinced some undecided voters to support Mr. Obama.

"When you're fighting for your country, your country should be fighting for you," she said.

"It's not about war and politics and how much money I'm making now. It's about my kids, my family, my beliefs, and what's going to happen in the future. Once you touch personally with people, it opens their hearts up. Once you get to, 'What do you want with your life, your family, your future?' That's Senator Obama."

Increased Democratic enthusiasm for Mr. Obama combined with lack of Republican enthusiasm for Mr. McCain also spelled doom for the Arizona Senator in the Buckeye state.

Unofficial vote totals show Mr. Obama won fewer votes in 2008 than George W. Bush won in 2004.

Political experts point to a lack of enthusiasm among some conservatives for Republican nominee John McCain and the lack of a statewide issue like the anti-gay marriage referendum of 2004 that energized social conservative voters.

Statewide, Mr. Obama received 14,294 more votes than the 2004 Democratic presidential nominee, John Kerry, while Mr. McCain brought in 11 percent fewer votes than Mr. Bush.

Mr. Obama was helped by his massive campaign, armed with millions of dollars in donations, which set up 89 headquarters across Ohio.

Former Democratic nominee Al Gore and Mr. Kerry, with relatively limited financial resources, chose to concentrate their efforts in Ohio's metropolitan, Democratic strongholds, such as Cleveland's Cuyahoga County, conceding defeat in the more-rural counties, which typically vote Republican.

Mr. Obama performed better than John Kerry in 76 of Ohio's 88 counties.

He performed worse in the southern, Appalachian counties, such as Meigs County, where Mr. Kerry received 4,334 votes in 2004 and Mr. Obama received 3,990 votes on Tuesday. The same was true in Galia County, where Mr. Kerry scored 5,188 votes to Mr. Obama's 4,616. And in Lawrence County, where Mr. Kerry garnered 11,874 votes to Mr. Obama's 10,956.

Isaac Baker, communications director for Mr. Obama's campaign in Ohio, said volunteers such as Mrs. Gresham used their personal stories of economic hardship as one strategy to sway undecided voters in rural areas.

"With neighbor-to-neighbor grass roots organizing, we made inroads into smaller, more conservative counties across the state," he said. "We just felt we could make significant ground there, turning out new voters in record numbers and making a strong push for independent voters who had been turned off by the Bush economy for the last eight years."

The Obama campaign did not win most of the state's rural counties, but by campaigning there, the campaign decreased the overwhelming margins of victory Republicans enjoyed during the 2000 and 2004 elections.

"We were committed to making sure our candidates actually visited these places," Mr. Baker said. "We had Senator Obama make a stop in Lima, the first Democratic presidential candidate to stop in Lima in 50 years."

The other major victory for the Obama campaign was winning the race in Hamilton County, where Democratic party operatives said no Democratic presidential nominee has won in 44 years.

The campaign also increased Democratic voter turnout in the largely suburban Butler County, which borders Cincinnati to the north.

George Bishop, professor of political science at the University of Cincinnati, said Mr. Obama's grass-roots campaign combined with the changing demographics in the Cincinnati-area helped bring him the victory there, and that the county's change from Republican red to Democratic blue might be permanent.

"The process looks somewhat irreversible to me over the next decade," he said. "The African-American population is growing as compared to the central population.

"The other big part is you're getting the out-migration. Hamilton County has actually lost population to Butler County. West Chester and Liberty Township, those are heavily Republican areas. The kind of families migrating out there are buying newer houses. You're getting demographically whiter, more affluent families."

Justin Smith, chairman of the Sandusky County Republican Party who also represented the McCain 2008 campaign, said he thinks the economy was what led to Mr. Obama's win in rural counties.

"Evidently they just thought it was time for a change," he said.

Politics writer Tom Troy contributed to this report.

Contact Chauncey Alcorn at:

calcorn@theblade.com

or 419-724-6168.



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