There’s no denying that Democrats in general, and public sector unions in particular, won the biggest prize up for grabs in yesterday’s election. By a vote of 61 to 39%, Ohio voters repealed a statute rolling back the collective bargaining rights of public sector workers. Any way you slice it, that’s a stinging rebuke to Ohio Republicans for misinterpreting their 2010 mandate and a resounding popular affirmation of public sector unionism.
It’s hard to say, however, what it portends for 2012. By all accounts, the composition of the electorate that turns out for state ballot initiatives in odd-year elections is more sensitive to disparities in each side's investment of money and energy in get-out-the-vote operations than the composition of the electorate in even-year elections when the House and one-third of the Senate are on the ballot. And the composition of the mid-term electorate, in turn, is more sensitive to such disparities than the composition of the electorate in presidential election years. So the fact that the national labor movement massively outspent and out-organized the Republican opposition in Ohio means that this electorate was probably a lot more Democratic and liberal than the one that will turn out in Ohio and elsewhere in 2012.
That makes it all the more astonishing that, by a vote of 66-34%, a disproportionately Democratic and liberal Ohio electorate approved a ballot initiative expressly designed to prevent the implementation of ObamaCare in the state. More astonishing still, 58% percent of Cuyahoga County (aka the Socialist Republic of Cleveland) supported it. It's true that somewhat different electorates came out for each initiative--roughly 2.1 million votes were cast respecting collective bargaining rights and only some 1.2 million votes respecting health care. But that doesn't change the fact that a lot of people who voted to uphold public sector collective bargaining rights could have, but didn't, vote to uphold ObamaCare. Evidently, the union movement either wasn't trying to exert its influence in behalf of ObamaCare because it recognized an up-hill battle when it saw one or did try but was markedly ineffective. Either way, the popularity of public sector unionism in Ohio didn't translate into popularity for the signature programmatic achievement of Obama and congressional Democrats.
If I were you, I wouldn’t take much solace in the fact that Ohio voters only expressly repudiated the individual insurance mandate in ObamaCare without saying a word about its more popular features, like the requirement that private insurers cover pre-existing conditions (see, e.g., Greg Sargent here). As I recall, when the passage of ObamaCare was being debated in the fall of 2009 and the spring of 2010, the individual mandate excited opposition mostly among liberal Democrats. They thought that it was an idea of Republican provenance that, if enacted in the absence of a public option, would represent an unconscionable giveaway to the private insurance industry. The individual mandate became a cause célèbre among Republicans only later, after some clever lawyers figured out that it might be ObamaCare’s Achilles heel under constitutional law. By now, however, you’ll have a hard time finding a Democrat who doesn’t wholeheartedly support the individual mandate or a Republican who doesn’t wholeheartedly oppose it. It has become the convenient hook on which people hang their approval or disapproval of ObamaCare as a whole.
So the Ohio results are an expression of the fact that, while public sector unionism is a lot more popular than it seemed to be after the 2010 elections, programmatic liberalism isn't getting any more popular along with it. I'm not sure what that combination means for 2012. But I can't help thinking that, if Democrats with an eye on 2012 couldn't win both Ohio ballot initiatives, they'd have been better off winning on ObamaCare and losing on public sector union collective bargaining rights.