COLUMBUS — Even in a strong year for Democrats, Republicans assumed they could count on the Ohio governor's race.
A new Enquirer/Suffolk University poll — the first statewide, independent poll since the Ohio primary — showed Democrat Richard Cordray leading Republican Mike DeWine in the governor's race, 43% to 36% among likely voters.
The result is a surprise. DeWine is well-known and is considered, as political analyst Kyle Kondik of Sabato's Crystal Ball put it, a "soft favorite." So, some caveats:
- Nearly 16% hadn't made up their minds. (The rest planned to vote for an alternative candidate.)
- Among undecided voters, Republicans outnumbered Democrats nearly 2-to-1.
- The poll had a margin of error of plus or minus 4.4 percentage points.
The poll captured a snapshot of likely voters that should serve as a warning to Republicans. People who opposed President Donald Trump were more excited about the 2018 election than those who support him and the GOP, said Suffolk pollster David Paleologos.
"Obviously, Trump won Ohio, but there are a lot of Trump voters who don’t care as much about this race," he said.
Still, that might not hold true in November.
Jennifer Duffy, who studies the Ohio governor race for Cook Political Report, was skeptical of the poll's result.
"Cordray isn't very well-known, and he hasn't done much since the primary to change that," she said. A poll from last month, commissioned by a GOP-leaning lobbying firm, showed DeWine up 6.5 points. "That, to me, sounded like where that race is," Duffy said, although she acknowledged enthusiasm among Democratic voters.
Only 5% of likely voters in the Enquirer / Suffolk poll were unfamiliar with DeWine, Ohio's attorney general and a former U.S. senator. Another 20% were undecided about their opinion of him. For Cordray, a former attorney general, 17% hadn't heard of him, and 29% hadn't formed an opinion about him.
Live callers conducted the poll on June 6-11, reaching 500 likely voters on landlines and cell phones.
Senate race: Dislike for Trump boosts Dem
In Ohio's 2018 race for U.S. Senate, Democratic Sen. Sherrod Brown stands in good position for re-election, the poll showed. He led his Republican challenger, U.S. Rep. Jim Renacci, R-Wadsworth, 53% to 37%.
It seems not many Ohioans know who Renacci is. Of the 500 polled, 26% said they had never heard of him. Brown, however, has become well known in his decades-long political career, with only 6% saying they don’t recognize his name.
Republicans have advised Renacci to travel more throughout the state. He beat Cleveland-area businessman Mike Gibbons in the Republican primary, but by a smaller margin than anticipated, 47% to 32%. Gibbons won a wide swath of rural counties from Toledo down to eastern Ohio.
In the primary, President Donald Trump’s endorsement of Renacci didn’t seem to sway as many Republican voters as expected.
Trump's endorsement might hurt Renacci in the general. Love or hate of Trump is the most important issue among those polled in how they’ll vote in the Senate.
Different voters than in 2016?
In the new poll, 49% of respondents said they wanted their vote in November "to change the direction President Trump is leading the nation." Only 28% said they were voting to support Trump's leadership. Nineteen percent said their vote didn't have much to do with Trump.
Those voting to oppose Trump and his policies showed higher levels of interest in the governor's race. Nearly three-fourths of those voters said they were "extremely" or "very" interested in the governor's race. That figure was lower – about 60% – among people who wanted to support Trump and among people who said their vote wasn't related to Trump.
In other words, some Trump voters aren't lining up to defend the Republican Party from activists bent on fighting back.
So Ohio may see a different electorate than in 2016. For instance, people of color's enthusiasm for voting meant they made up a higher percentage of respondents in the poll than in the 2016 election. The difference was a couple of percentage points, but enough to make a difference in a tight race.
In fact, if the turnout in 2016 had been identical to that indicated in this poll, Democrat Hillary Clinton would have won Ohio by 5 points over Trump, according to respondents' recollections of their 2016 votes. Instead, Trump won Ohio by 8 percentage points.
“They are more motivated to vote,” said Paleologos, the pollster, of people of color in 2018. And Trump supporters are less motivated.
“If the rest of the state’s turnout is lower, then that means that the people who are anti-Trump right now are going to drive the outcome,” he said.
Of course, the poll's sample of people of color and anti-Trump voters could prove too high. Even if it's an accurate snapshot, Trump and Republicans have time to gin up enthusiasm among GOP voters. They’ll run advertisements, knock on doors, place phone calls and hold rallies. And they have money to do it.
"Our campaign raised $1 million in 72 hours following the primary," said Brittany Warner, a DeWine spokeswoman, in a statement. "I don’t think there is any question as to who has the momentum behind them in this campaign."
Wanting to preserve Medicaid expansion
The poll's results also could reflect DeWine's status after a bruising GOP primary, in which DeWine survived nasty attacks from Lt. Gov. Mary Taylor.
Taylor attacked DeWine from the right. For instance, she said she would scrap Medicaid expansion, one of the signature achievements of her boss, Gov. John Kasich.
DeWine said he would push to keep the expansion because of the addiction treatment provided under it, but he would seek to overhaul it. Additional specifics were few.
In the poll, health care was the second-most important issue to voters, behind the economy. The next governor should keep Medicaid expansion in Ohio, 77% of respondents said. Cordray has vowed to do so.
"Polls will go up and down over the next few months," said Mike Gwin, Cordray's spokesman, in a statement. "What won't change is the concern voters have about the economic issues that keep them up at night – the cost of health care, good education and work force training for themselves and their kids, and access to economic opportunity. That is what Rich and Betty (Sutton, his running mate) are focused on."