Aug 11, 2023, 12:07pm EDT

How did Issue 1 fail in Ohio? We asked the top spokesmen for ‘Yes’ and ‘No’

Adam Cairns/USA Today Network via REUTERS

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The News

Ohio voters decisively rejected Issue 1 this week, the ballot initiative to change the threshold for amending the constitution, after it turned into a much-watched proxy war over abortion access.

To get the after-action report, I talked to operatives on both sides of the vote — Spencer Gross, the spokesman for the pro-Issue 1 Protect Our Constitution campaign, and Dennis Willard, the spokesman for the anti-Issue 1 One Person One Vote campaign. This is an edited version of our separate conversations.

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The View From 'Yes' on Issue 1

Americana: So, what went wrong?

Spencer Gross: The “no” side did a very effective job in turning out their voters early. When the first results came in, you saw many populous counties where we were down by 40, 50 points. That’s a tough hole to climb out of, and the other side just did a more effective job with turnout. Election Day turnout, though robust, was not enough to make up for it.

I think that the job that organized labor did in this effort gets lost in some of the “abortion” noise. You can’t discount how that issue played, but organized labor got very galvanized on this vote, and if you look at the map of where “no” did very well, eastern Ohio, that was their influence.


Americana: What did they do right?

Spencer Gross: They were very disciplined in their messaging. I think it was really telling that their first ad was not about abortion or any social issues. It was much more centrist in its style and even the imagery on the ad, cutting up like the Bill of Rights, sort of looked Republican in its aesthetic. I think it did an effective job of confusing some voters.

Keeping that messaging on the airwaves was smart, and they didn’t really deviate from it. They let their coalition members — Planned Parenthood or the ACLU or whoever — talk about their individual issues to their constituencies, but over the airwaves, kept their message disciplined and down the middle. You do have to tip your cap. I think they ran a good campaign and were able to get their people out.

Americana: After the vote, SBA Pro-Life criticized the business groups that sided with “yes,” saying that they didn’t back up that commitment with resources. Is that a fair critique?

Spencer Gross: I don’t think I’d be as harsh as that. They did a lot of grassroots work, talking to their own members. For us to be able to say, “look, the Chamber of Commerce and the NFIB support this” was helpful for our voters. One strength of our coalition was in just how diverse it was. But when it’s that diverse, it’s harder to have a cohesive issue to grasp on to, like they may have had with abortion.


Americana: Are you saying that there were too many messages, or that abortion overwhelmed them? State Senate President Matt Huffman has talked about trying to pass this again, after the November abortion vote. Would that make a difference?

Spencer Gross: Perhaps, but the whole campaign meant different things to so many different constituencies. We kept our messaging tight on the elevation of standards for changing the constitution, and then the individual coalition members were able to take that message and extrapolate it out to their constituencies.

On the timing, I think if you talk to some lawmakers, there’s frustration that they couldn’t have gotten this done earlier. A lot of them did want to get it done earlier, holding the vote in May, so that the messaging wasn’t quite as mired in the November ballot issue. For whatever reason, they couldn’t get it done. This was a bipartisan measure in 2018 — it was introduced at the state house, to raise the threshold to 60%.

Americana: Republicans are dominant in Ohio, but I didn’t see, until the final day, an effort to bring some national GOP voices in to support “yes.” Was that a mistake?

Spencer Gross: We wanted this to be an Ohio issue. It was just very localized. Making it about local issues, and things that could actually pass here — I don’t think that was a mistake. When we tested messaging, if you’re able to ask about the facts of this amendment, most people supported it. They don’t think it should be extraordinarily easy just to change the constitution. But the timing of the November issue certainly played a role. I don’t think there’s any doubt about that.

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The View From 'No' on Issue 1

Americana: The president congratulated the “no” campaign when the result was in, but there wasn’t much effort to nationalize this. Why was that?

Dennis Willard: We wanted the face of this campaign to be everyday people, and we had that ability because we had so many organizations on board. Who was out there, knocking door to door? Who was making those phone calls? These were rank and file members of labor, rank and file volunteers with groups like the League of Women Voters. They were holding press conferences, writing letters to the editor, hosting postcard parties — you just had this true ground game. If you say to someone, do you trust the League of Women Voters or the politicians in Columbus? They knew that the former speaker of the state House was in prison for corruption. That was an easy question.

Americana: Were you surprised that it took the “yes” side so long to get on the air?

Dennis Willard: Frankly, they were in a box from the beginning. They were trying to sneak the election past the voters, so anything they did with paid media that was not targeted, or micro-targeted, raised awareness of the election. They didn’t want voters to know what’s happening. So it wasn’t that we got out in front of them – they came in late, after early voting had started because they thought they could turn out voters en masse on Election Day and beat us. Their whole campaign was ill-conceived.

They were probably surprised when voters started showing up on the first day of early voting on July 11. We were not surprised by that, because we knocked on more than 650,000 doors. If anything surprised us, it was how many people were already aware there was a special election for special interests on August 8, and they were already angry about it. The people who voted “no” truly believe that they were protecting majority rule and they were up against [Ohio Secretary of State] Frank LaRose and [anti-abortion lobbyist] Mike Gonidakis on their Dumb and Dumber tour.

Americana: The “yes” campaign credited labor with turnout in northeast Ohio. What was their role?

Dennis Willard: Labor was huge. If you go back and look at when we killed this in the lame duck, we asked every organization that opposed it to put their name on a piece of paper with how many people they represented. We asked them to come through, hold that up before cameras, fold it, like it was their ballot and put it into a voting “no” box. We had the Ohio Environmental Council, we had the FOP in Ohio, we had firefighters, nurses, people you know, who wear hard hats, people who erase chalkboards.

And they had Frank LaRose, desperate for attention. They kept lying and the public saw through that.

Americana: If Republicans do push this ballot measure again, does this coalition stay around? Do things change if abortion is off the table?

Dennis Willard: This was an opportunity for us to organize, register voters, turn out voters, build lists. There were a lot of positives that came out of this campaign. So, our goal is to stay together.