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Battleground Dispatches: Q&A with Ohio’s Karen Kasler

A woman fills out a provisional ballot at a polling location Nov. 4, 2008, in Columbus, Ohio. Photo by Chris Hondros/Getty Images.

Of all the attention being given to the battleground states in the final push to Election Day, Ohio stands out as perhaps the most important target for both presidential campaigns. The candidates are practically camped out there, crisscrossing the state to sway what few undecided voters might be left and drum up excitement to draw large numbers of supporters to the polls.

On Friday’s NewsHour, we have a report from Todd Zwillich of Public Radio International on how the auto bailout and the prospect of a boom in energy production have brought back the economy in Northeast Ohio. It is the fourth in our “Battleground Dispatches” series, a project funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting in collaboration with public media partners around the country to bring you stories from areas critical to this year’s election.

To get a sense of what’s happening more broadly in the state, I spoke with Karen Kasler of Ohio Public Radio. She’s a longtime reporter in the region and wrote recently about the mood there now:

“I’ve never seen this state so passionately split, and while it’s great to see so many people engaged, it’s concerning to see so many who are also very angry. And never have I heard so many people – including political junkies — say they can’t wait for the election to be over,” Kasler wrote.

Karen will be joining the NewsHour for our Election Night Special, but we wanted to check in early and we started by asking about the mood on the ground.

MELIA: Karen, you have been a reporter in Ohio for 22 years, but the mood in this election season is different, even though Ohio has historically been a battleground state?

KASLER: Absolutely. [The polls have even tightened up.](http://www.realclearpolitics.com/epolls/2012/president/oh/ohio_romney_vs_obama-1860.html) For awhile, there was a 10 point gap and now there is a five point gap [in the presidential race]. And so neither of the two major parties have given up on Ohio. President Obama is in town tonight. Mr. Obama and Vice President Biden [were in Dayton](http://www.wyso.org/post/obama-biden-visit-crowd-9500-ohio) earlier in the week. Mitt Romney was in town today and Rep. Paul Ryan is taking a bus tour through Ohio this weekend. It is definitely as much a battleground as it ever was.

MELIA: And the mood there? It is more partisan than ever, but people are also growing tired of it at this point?

KASLER: I think that is true. There are very few undecided voters and polls continue to show there are some, but there appear to be fewer and fewer. The folks willing to change their minds appear to be growing smaller. What is building up is a mix of pretty strong passions and partisan beliefs about the candidates, not only for the presidency, but also the candidates for US Senate. You do have people who believe there are stark differences between say Mr. Obama and Mitt Romney. You have people who feel there are stark difference between Sen. Sherrod Brown and his challenger Josh Mandel and these are definitely coming out. And they are starting to be coming out too in events and rallies, but also in debates and other places where there used to be a little decorum. Now it is getting a little wild.

MELIA: You moderated one of the senate debates – can you describe that for us, both in terms of the topics addressed and the mood in the room?

KASLER: It is definitely a campaign that has got a lot of people excited and engaged and that was certainly evident at the City Club of Cleveland which was the first debate between Brown and Mandel. Sherrod Brown has been in office for some 30 years and so a lot folks know him. The City Club of Cleveland is his home ground so to speak, but Josh Mandel is also from Cleveland. He is fairly new on the scene. He is a former state representative, now state treasurer and the two of them could not have been more different and their supporters were out in force for that event. They were making it known even though the audience was told several times to keep it down and not show support to keep moving. They were cheering. They were booing. They were getting involved in almost every answer. I told them to stop a couple of times. Brown told them to calm down, but they were very excited and interested in expressing their opinions for their candidate and against the other guy.

MELIA: We know in the presidential race there is a lot of talk about the auto-bailout and it’s impact there? Is that still a front burner issue for a lot of voters?

KASLER: Oh, it certainly is. It is definitely a big issue in the senate campaign. In the City Club of Cleveland debate that was the first time we established that Republican candidate Josh Mandel would have voted against the bailout. And to say that in Northeast Ohio is a big deal given the role the auto-making industry has played in Northeast Ohio. The auto industry bailout has been huge here and you can see it in the ads for president, the ads for senate. It is considered to be a big driving issue for the economy, not just because of the automakers, but because of the automaker suppliers and people depend on automakers to keep their businesses going. Obviously the economy like anywhere else is the big issue and Ohio’s economy has been improving in the last four years and the question becomes is it improving because of President Obama or is it improving because of Republican Governor John Kasich who was elected in 2010 along with other Republican statewide leaders.

MELIA: That puts Gov. Kasich in a position of sending out some mixed messages compared to the Romney campaign, right, which is arguing the last four years have not been better for the country and Ohio?

KASLER: Absolutely. It is interesting to watch the governor talk about his own accomplishments, what he feels he has done for Ohio while still trumpeting Romney and what he feels he will do as opposed to what Mr. Obama has done here in Ohio. And so there have been questions of whether Gov. Kasich has been as supportive of Romney as he could or should have been. We have asked the governor a couple of times and he has said that he definitely believes in Mitt Romney and feels Mr. Obama is causing Ohio problems as it tries to improve, but it is interesting for once people are arguing who gets the credit for Ohio’s economy rather than who gets the blame for Ohio’s economy, which had been the story for several years.

MELIA: I imagine it is hard to watch television without seeing any political ads in Ohio and been that way for some time. Can you describe that aspect of the campaign and what it feels like on the ground?

KASLER: I just participated in an experiment for NPR of a group of journalist in swing states tracking ads and messaging . And we got a lot of ads. Ohio was the winner in terms of the most political ads during the 11 o’clock nightly news. We are all watching the nightly news broadcasts and about 3/4 of our 11 o’clock news ads were political. They were not just for president, but senate, and local races. They were not only the candidates, but Super PACs. There was an NBC news analysis that said there were 6,600 political ads in Columbus in this month alone – that’s 333 a day. And it is extraordinary the amount of ad time that has been taken up and the tone of these ads in many cases is very negative, not only for the presidential race, but the senate race and going down to state house races. You have local races for the Ohio House of Representatives sparring on television over taxes and that sort of thing. It is an amazing year in terms of negativity.

MELIA: A lot of Ohio voters this year have already cast their ballots? There was a court ruling that extended the time for early voting? And some estimates say more than 30% of voters will cast their ballot before November 6?

KASLER: Right. Early voting has caught on big in Ohio. The issue with the lawsuit was over the last three days, the final weekend before Election Day when you had huge number of voters turn out in 2008. The Obama administration got involved because they believed a lot of those people who vote on that last weekend of the election are more likely to support Obama. When the Ohio secretary of State, a Republican, shut down all weekend voting including last weekend before the election. The Obama administration sued and the courts have gone in favor of allowing voting on that final weekend before the election. But more than a million people have gotten their absentee ballots in and the numbers are pretty big in terms of the people responding to voting by mail and also early, in person voting.

MELIA: We will all be watching Ohio and we will see you again on the NewsHour for Election Night.

KASLER: I can’t wait. Thank you very much.

Todd Zwillich’s report on the Youngstown area will are Friday night. He filed our first report in the series on how Medicare is front and center in tight House races in Flordia and New York before the Vice Presidential debate. Anna Sale of WNYC did the second story on how women voters and candidates are drawing the spotlight in New Hampshire. Cathy Lewis from WHRO looked at concerns over sequestration in the Hampton Roads region of Virginia for the third piece. And next week will have stories from Nevada and Iowa, plus much more online.

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