U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown holds a seven-point lead over State Treasurer Josh Mandel among likely voters, according to the latest Ohio Newspaper Poll.
Brown's lead comes despite more than $18 million in outside money aimed at deposing him -- and in part because of a gender gap. Brown has a 14-point lead among female voters while being virtually tied with Mandel among men.
But the race "may turn out to be one of the harder races to handicap this fall," said Eric Rademacher, co-director of the Institute for Policy Research at the University of Cincinnati, which conducted the poll for the Ohio Newspaper Organization, a consortium of major newspapers, including the Akron Beacon Journal.
"The saturation of Ohio with presidential campaign ads has made it very difficult for the U.S. Senate candidates to get their messages to voters, and voter patience with campaign ads is dwindling," Rademacher said. "Name recognition, incumbency and funding from outside groups against both candidates may factor into how the race unfolds in the last month-and-a-half of the campaign."
At this point, Brown fares slightly better with voters in the survey than does President Barack Obama, whose lead over Mitt Romney is five points.
And while Brown and Obama split the men's vote identically -- 48 percent, versus 49 percent for the Republicans -- Brown's margin with women is 4 percentage points larger than the president's.
That hints at possible ticket splitting.
Splitting her vote
Linda Rae Brown, an independent voter from Cleveland, is in fact favoring Romney for president but Brown for the Senate.
"From the ads on TV, I do not like Josh Mandel at all because he shouldn't have missed all of those meetings," the telemarketer said, referring to Mandel's missing the first 14 meetings of the State Board of Deposit after becoming state treasurer.
She was also aware of pro-Mandel ads saying Brown had missed hundreds of congressional votes, and she did not like that, either. But she praised Brown for supporting the auto-industry bailout.
"We couldn't let the car industry go by the wayside. We can't lose those jobs in Ohio. They're so important," she said. "I'm not crazy about Brown, either, but if I have to vote for one, I will vote for Brown over Mandel."
On the other hand, there are voters like Melissa Love of Cortland in Trumbull County. A conservative Republican, the 36-year-old customer service representative said Brown "is too liberal for me."
"Mandel is a serviceman, he served his country, he has conservative views he believes in," Love said. "I don't have as strong views about [Mandel] because I don't know much about him. I don't like Sherrod Brown because of his voting record."
Kasich may help Obama
Brown's lead comes even as voters are feeling kindly toward Republican Gov. John Kasich. In the poll, 48 percent of the voters surveyed either strongly or somewhat approved in general of Kasich's performance in office, with another 4 percent leaning toward approval.
Indeed, the U.S. House speaker, Ohio Republican John Boehner, said recently that Kasich's relative success may have helped the Democrats' chances in Ohio.
"One of the things that probably worked against Romney in Ohio is the fact that Gov. Kasich has done such a good job of fixing government regulations in the state, attracting new businesses to the state, so our unemployment rate in Ohio is lower than the national average," Boehner said, according to the political publication Roll Call.
Another sign that some messages are not breaking through the ad clutter is the way many voters have little or no knowledge of two state issues.
Kasich's proposed change in the oil and gas severance tax, for example, is favored by only 23 percent of voters surveyed. But fully 66 percent said they were not sure or did not know how they felt about it, and 93 percent said they had heard little or nothing about the proposal.
Issue 2 is an unknown
Forty-eight percent opposed State Issue 2, which would change how legislative and congressional districts are drawn, but 87 percent of the voters surveyed said they had heard little or nothing about the issue.
As more becomes known about those issues, that could change some of the voting dynamics. But Rademacher said that, for now, "I would be very cautious in drawing conclusions about redistricting or severance tax other than to say that many viewers are not aware of these issues."
At the same time, the voters may have disengaged from this and other campaigns. They have made up their minds (only 3 percent said they did not know whom they would vote for in the Senate race). Or they are simply weary of the nonstop politicking in Ohio, which has included not only the elections but the 2011 battle over Senate Bill 5, which consumed tons of ink and air time.
Regarding that issue, a collective bargaining law affecting public employees, 28 percent of the voters surveyed said they did not know how they voted -- or whether they voted at all. Of those who remember voting on the issue, 22 percent were for it and 30 percent against; the bill was defeated by about 2-to-1.
Brown's lead is across all age groups, with the youngest voters favoring him most, and at all education levels.
In geographical terms, Brown is most popular in northern Ohio, including a 20- point lead in the Northeast. He is dead even with Mandel in Southeast Ohio and trailing the Republican challenger in the southwestern region.
The telephone poll of 861 likely voters was conducted Sept. 13 through 18. The margin of error for the poll as a whole is plus or minus 3.3 percentage points, with a possibly larger margin for specific groups within the poll because of the smaller sample; results involving independents, for example, have a margin of plus or minus 11 percentage points.
Rich Heldenfels can be reached at 330-996-3582 and email@example.com.
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