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Cleveland! Are You Ready to Riot? How Populism Worked in Ohio.

[Guest post by Noam Scheiber:]

For months now, a variety of left-leaning pundits have warned Democrats to strike a more populist tone if they want to survive politically. Unless your definition of “survive” is pretty liberal, it’s hard to argue that Democrats accomplished that last night (though losing control of the Senate would obviously have been much worse). Looking over the reams of data that the midterms generated, is there any evidence that the kibitzers were right?

The short answer is yes. And, ironically, it comes by way of a contest the Democrats lost. The Ohio governor’s race pitted Ted Strickland, an incumbent Democrat from the state’s hard-luck Appalachian region, against John Kasich, a former GOP congressman who spent the last decade working for Lehman Brothers, the collapsed investment bank. Kasich narrowly edged Strickland to capture the governor’s mansion. But the loser’s near miss—about two points—suggests the populist line of attack can be potent.

Strickland began flaying Kasich for his Wall Street ties pretty much from the get-go, highlighting them in ad he ran the week Kasich locked up his party’s nomination. The following week, Strickland trooped to the Democratic Party headquarters in Columbus to  pronounce Kasich “Wall Street to the core.” "I didn't learn my values from Wall Street," he elaborated. "I didn't learn my values from a bankrupt investment bank. I didn't learn my values from modern-day robber barons. I learned my values on a little dirt road in southern Ohio called Duck Run."

It was a theme Strickland rarely strayed from. He accused Kasich of favoring Social Security privatization as part of a quid pro quo with his future employers: “They wanted to get their hands on our Social Security resources. When he left Congress, they rewarded him with a big job on Wall Street.” He complained that the company had given Kasich a $400,000 bonus even as it was setting the financial system on fire. He derided Kasich as “pro-rich” for, among other things, having supported a bill that would let the ultra-wealthy welch on their income taxes by renouncing their citizenship. He released ten years of tax returns and delighted in Kasich’s refusal to do the same. (Kasich allowed reporters to glimpse, but not photocopy, parts of his 2008 tax return.) In another debate, he mentioned Kasich’s Lehman stint on a dozen separate occasions.

Granted, Kasich was more vulnerable on this front than the average Republican, who typically hasn’t labored for a company synonymous with the worst financial crisis since the Depression. Likewise, Ohio is probably more receptive to this sort of charge than the average state. According to last night’s exit polls, the Ohio electorate was significantly less affluent than the national electorate (85 percent of voters there had family incomes under $100,000, versus 74 percent nationally). It was also more rural and less educated.

Still, given the GOP’s near-unanimous opposition to financial reform, it’s not hard to link the party to Wall Street interests. And the exit polls indicate this would be fruitful across the country.  For example, Strickland did much better than Democrats nationally among people whose highest level of education is a high school diploma (17 points better) and people with some college attendance but no degree (11 points better). Among whites with less than a college degree—more or less the white working class—he ran 15 points better than Democrats elsewhere. The only education group in which Strickland underperformed the national baseline was people with graduate degrees, as you would expect. But given its small size, this only cost him a single percentage point of the vote, while his gains among the less educated won him about 6.5 percentage points.

Slicing up the data in other ways tells a similar story. Strickland ran 21 points ahead of Democrats nationally among seniors, something his Social Security mantra likely abetted, while running slightly better among the middle-aged and no worse among younger voters. Geographically, Strickland also improved on the Democratic baseline. He did about as well as Democrats nationally did in the suburbs, slightly better in cities, and far, far better in rural areas (24 points)—though the latter clearly owes something to his Southeastern Ohio roots. (Strickland has long been one of the NRA’s favorite Democrats.)

The only ambiguous numbers correspond to income. Strickland ran about the same as the rest of the Democrats among voters whose families have incomes under $50,000 per year, and significantly better among those making between $50,000 and $100,000. But that gain was offset by his underperformance among voters with incomes over $100,000, making his strategy a wash if you analyze the electorate through the prism of affluence. (My hunch is that this is an artifact of the initial exit polling data, which will get re-weighted as the final vote comes in.)

But what’s most interesting is that Strickland’s populism didn’t just help him among voters who tilt left. It helped him outperform his party among right-wingers, too. Strickland ran ten points better than Democrats nationally among people who strongly support the Tea Party, among people who say they’re “angry” at the Federal government, and among self-described conservatives. (This also suggests the Tea Partiers really are principled, at least at the margins. They seem to like investment-banker Republicans a lot less than GOPers who don’t hail from Wall Street.)

So if Strickland’s strategy was so shrewd, why didn’t he win? Two reasons: 1) A massive anti-incumbent, anti-Democratic headwind: Strickland’s lieutenant governor, Lee Fisher, lost by 18 points in his U.S. Senate race against former Bush budget director Rob Portman; most of the state’s Democratic congressional candidates lost by much more than the polling predicted. 2) Cuyahoga county, which is basically Cleveland. In 2008, Obama carried Ohio by running up a 47-point margin in Cuyahoga. Last night, Strickland only won it by 13. He was almost certainly hurt by an FBI investigation into the local Democratic machine, even though he had zero connection to the alleged corruption there.

The real problem with aggressive populism isn’t that it doesn’t work. It’s that it can be crude, ugly, and conspiratorial—Strickland’s suggestion that Kasich embraced Social Security privatization to curry favor with Lehman is at best unfounded, and probably backward. (It’s much more likely that Kasich’s free-market, “pro-rich” views made him attractive to Wall Street employers.) But if Democrats can figure out a way to channel populist frustration without straying into demagoguery—a stand on the upper-income Bush tax cuts would be a good place to start—Strickland’s experience suggests the returns could be large.