Obama’s Ohio Problem With African-Americans

As he takes the national stage tonight, the president has a sticky swing-state situation on his hands.

Mandel Ngan, AFP / Getty Images

Predicting that Bill Clinton would deliver a knockout nominating speech last night was easy.

Predicting the weather in Charlotte is a bit more difficult, causing President Obama’s acceptance speech tonight to be moved from an outdoor stadium that seats 70,000 to an indoor arena that seats 20,000—leaving about 50,000 of the faithful without seats and sorely disappointed.

They came to Charlotte to see the president nominated in the flesh, to be a part of living history. Many would have stayed home if they knew they would have to watch him on TV. And while the threat of inclement weather is something everyone understands, the disappointment in Charlotte is supposedly palpable.

Another bit of unpredictable weather, the recent Hurricane Isaac, is causing the president a bit of trouble of another kind here in Northeast Ohio. President Obama was scheduled to be the featured speaker at the 41st Annual 11th Congressional District Caucus Labor Day Parade here in Cleveland, but he canceled in order to make time to visit victims of the hurricane on the Gulf Coast instead. But the problem is, he still made a scheduled stop in nearby Toledo on the same day, thus bruising the feelings of Greater Clevelanders, who feel—and voting patterns bear them out—they are by far the most politically powerful and solidly Democratic voting bloc in the state. If he could only make one stop, they think it should have been in Cleveland.

Started by former congressman Lou Stokes (the brother of Carl B. Stokes, the nation’s first black mayor of a major city), the Labor Day event has grown to become the premiere political gathering in Cuyahoga County, and virtually every politician (black or white) makes the annual trek to the heart of Cleveland’s black inner city—even if they are not up for election that year —or risks being consigned to political irrelevancy. Attendance is virtually mandatory.

So when Obama canceled his Cleveland appearance (supposedly his handlers spotted Romney’s plane headed in the direction of Louisiana and panicked), some local black Republicrats began dropping salt, talking about how the president disrespected the black community by being a no-show. These dudes have been sucking up to John Kasich, a Republican, since the minute he got elected governor in 2010, attempting to gain favor in a GOP-dominated legislature. Now it appears as if they’re purposely fanning the flames of an already-heated situation.

The hurt feelings over Obama’s cancellation should have faded into history by now — since, after all, it been almost five days — but with skilled operators slyly stoking the hurt and discontent, the grumbling (while still mostly sotto voce) appears to be growing instead of fading. This should be troubling to the local Obama folks.

Widely known as a hard-to-predict swing state, both political parties readily concede that a victory in November is exceedingly difficult without carrying Ohio. And the demographics of the state are such that Cuyahoga County is absolutely crucial to the Obama campaign. There’s simply no way for him to carry Ohio absent a great (not “good” but “great”) turnout in Northeast Ohio—which means especially in the black community.

The problem for Obama is that Ohio (which he carried in the last election) really is a southern state that just happens to be geographically located in the north. Here’s proof: a black has never won statewide office running as a Democrat, and of the two black Republicans who managed to win, one of them, Robert Duncan (who won a seat on Ohio’s Supreme Court in 1969) is so fair-complexioned he can easily be mistaken for being white. The other was former Cincinnati mayor Ken Blackwell, who served as Ohio Secretary of State from 1999 to 2007.

Even when Democrat Ted Strickland won the 2006 Ohio gubernatorial race by a wide margin (60 percent versus 37 percent for his opponent, Ken Blackwell) the only two candidates on the ticket with him who did not win were both black: Barbara Sykes, who ran for auditor, and Ben Espy, who ran for the Ohio Supreme Court.

While most political pundits refer to Ohio’s political divide as “upstate versus downstate,” it’s actually a bit more complicated than that. About 30 miles outside of Cleveland, in fast-growing Medina County, so many residents in the city of Brunswick are originally from across the Ohio River the locals refer to the enclave as “Brunstucky.” And they are very conservative.

President Obama undoubtedly will make a return trip to Northeast Ohio before the election; he might even schedule the appearance in vast Luke Easter Park, where he was a no-show on Labor Day. If he’s as smart a politician as the man who nominated him on Wednesday night, he’ll do a few things: sincerely apologize to the folks of Northeast Ohio, assure the faithful he meant no disrespect—and bring Bill Clinton with him.