As Primary Nears, It’s Time to Dig Deep in Ohio

Blade's strong story on housing crisis offers a good model

OHIO — As Republican frontrunners Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum parachute into the Buckeye State and clog the airwaves with television ads in coming days, the opportunity is ripe for the Ohio press to dig deeper to help voters explore the candidates’ platforms.

Voters may need the help. Ohio’s Super Tuesday primary is just over a week away. But a Quinnipiac University poll last week found that while Santorum led Romney in Ohio by 36 to 29 percent, at least half of the GOP’s likely voters said they might change their minds.

When nearly half of the voters say two weeks out that they are still waffling, that suggests one of two things—they aren’t crazy about their options, or they aren’t seeing vast differences between their choices.

Journalists can’t do much about the former, but they certainly can help illuminate contrasts between the candidates’ plans, policies, and positions on major issues that matter to Ohio and the nation. And they should.

It’s important to note that there’s not exactly an ideological gulf between the GOP rivals. As Stephen Koff noted in a well-reported recent piece for The Plain Dealer of Cleveland, GOP supporters in Ohio—especially those who have tuned in to never-ending series of debates—already know all the candidates are focused on cutting taxes, spending, and regulations.

And, as Charles Babington and Kasie Hunt noted in an Associated Press article, even as voters say they’re focused on economic concerns, the most obvious gaps between Romney and Santorum reflect typical intra-GOP differences between social conservatives and those more focused on fiscal issues. Ohioans have certainly been hearing and reading a lot lately about phony theology, abortion, contraception, family, religion and other hot-button social issues.

Still, there are opportunities for enterprising reporters at the state’s news outlets to deliver coverage of kitchen-table issues that go beyond the latest furor over socially inflammatory remarks: first, to highlight the policy differences that do exist as GOP voters prepare to choose. And second, to examine how well the candidates’ agendas reflect this state’s challenges. After all, as a bit of political folklore says, “As Ohio goes, so goes the nation.”

Take manufacturing, which remains a key part of Ohio’s economy. Both industry leaders and center-left think tanks argue there’s a role for policy to do more to promote the sector. So does the president.

So what do the Republican frontrunners think? Both candidates, and their supporters, have been outlining their approach to manufacturing in the context of their broader economic visions. And it’s drawn press attention elsewhere.

For instance, an article last week by Marisa Schultz, Josh Katzenstein, and Mike Wilkinson of The Detroit News focused on the auto bailouts, but noted that Santorum “touted a manufacturing revival” and added he wants to “simplify and lower the tax rates for corporations and abolish taxes for manufacturers who create jobs.”

Romney has also pitched cuts in corporate taxes. But as an observer from the Alliance for American Manufacturing noted, in his speech to the Conservative Political Action Conference, Romney never mentioned manufacturing.

That was probably no accident. A Romney surrogate recently told National Review that Santorum’s proposed tax break amounted to too much government interference in the free market. And a scholar from the conservative American Enterprise Institute recently argued that on this issue, Santorum’s position is most similar to… Barack Obama’s.

All of this is fruitful material for Ohio journalists as they explore the candidates’ views in the context of important local issues over next week and a half.

One good example of how to do that—on an issue where there’s less space between Romney and Santorum—was provided recently by The Blade of Toledo, on the western shore of Lake Erie just across the Michigan border.

The Blade article, penned by Tony Cook, zeroed in not on what Romney and Santorum are talking about, but what they aren’t—the housing crisis. Cook starts by paying close attention to the candidates’ rhetoric:

Attend a speech by Mitt Romney or Rick Santorum and you’re likely to hear all kinds of claims about the economy — gas prices are too high, deficit spending is out of control, and government regulations are hindering free enterprise.

But as the two leading Republican candidates crisscross Ohio and Michigan, an odd omission has emerged in their speeches. Neither has mentioned the housing crisis.

…Mr. Santorum didn’t mention the foreclosure crisis during Ohio speeches in Columbus, Akron, and Georgetown, either.

Mr. Romney also has avoided the issue during recent appearances in Cincinnati, Cleveland, Monroe, and Shelby Township, Michigan.

That seems a noteworthy omission since Michigan, which holds its primary Tuesday, has the fifth highest foreclosure rate in the country, while Ohio ranks 12th.

The silence may result from the candidates’ taking their signals from GOP primary voters. Cook does a good job exploring the underlying reasoning, first with insight from Don Haurin, an Ohio State University economist.

In wooing their Republican base, the two front-runners are emphasizing their conservative credentials. That means an emphasis on fewer government regulations and less intervention in the free market. That message doesn’t do much to reassure those who have lost their homes or are facing foreclosure, Mr. Haurin said.

“You’re telling them there’s no help and that’s not going to win you any votes,” he said.

Cook follows that gem up with a quote from Eric Herzik, chairman of the political science department at the University of Nevada-Reno: “The easy answer to why Republican candidates don’t talk about this is they don’t have any type of solution. You can say it’s tough love, but it’s not the 30-second sound bite you want.”

The response from the Republican candidates, of course, is that they’re not offering a targeted housing solution, but focusing instead on the overall economy. Cook’s article gives the campaigns room to make that argument, as it should.

But that, in turn, means those broader economic plans are even more important—and more deserving of coverage. Ohio’s press corps should provide it.

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T.C. Brown covered government and politics in the Ohio Statehouse Bureau for The Plain Dealer of Cleveland for more than 17 years, and he has also written for other local, state and national publications. Brown is a founding partner in Webface, a social media communication company.