Friday, December 19th, 2014
Mostly True
Ohio Democratic Party
Rob Portman won the fewest votes of all Ohio U. S. Senate victors since 2000.

Ohio Democratic Party on Sunday, June 3rd, 2012 in a news release

Ohio Democratic Party says Sen. Rob Portman got the fewest votes among Senate winners in Ohio since 2000

No one outside of Mitt Romney’s campaign may really know if Ohio’s Rob Portman is likely to become the running mate on this year’s Republican presidential ticket. But in case the freshman U.S. senator is picked, Democrats are preparing a dossier.

On June 3, the Ohio Democratic Party used it to take several shots at Portman, his experience and his popularity, including a claim that he’s really not a tremendous vote-getter in his home state.  "In four Ohio Senate elections held between 2000 to 2010, Robert Portman garnered the least votes out of all the winners," the Democrats said in a news release.

If that’s the case, the party suggested, Portman would "not significantly help Romney carry the Buckeye state." This larger claim is prospective, although there is polling to support it. The polling could turn out to be right, or wrong, as it came out six months before the election. But what about hard data from Portman’s last election? Did he really get fewer votes than the previous three victors in Ohio’s U.S. Senate races, Mike DeWine, George Voinovich and Sherrod Brown?

The raw numbers tell part of the story. From the Ohio secretary of state’s office:

Portman won in 2010 by getting 2,168,742 votes.

In the previous Senate election in Ohio in 2006, Brown won with 2,257,485 votes.

In the Senate election before that, in 2004, Voinovich won with 3,464,651votes.

And in 2000, Mike DeWine (defeated by Brown in 2006) won with 2,666,736 votes.

So there you have it, if you use the raw numbers. Portman got the fewest votes among the victors in these last four Senate elections.

But wait. The number of votes a candidate gets not only reflects his popularity but also the dynamics of each election. Not all elections are equal.

DeWine and Voinovich, for instance, won in elections in which voters chose  a president as well as a senator. Political Science 101: Turnout in presidential years is always higher than in mid-term term elections. This has long been the case. It follows that if more people come to the polls because presidential candidates are on the ballot, the number of votes cast in the Senate race will rise too.

Think of it like religion. More people attend church on Easter Sunday than on a snowy late January. Is it fair, then, to criticize a particular church for its low attendance by using Easter as the yardstick?

A more telling comparison is a candidates’ margin of victory over his challenger. Of all the votes cast in any of these elections, who won by the highest percentage?

DeWine, a Republican, beat Democratic challenger Ted Celeste in 2000 by a margin of 24 percentage points (he got 60 percent of the vote, to Celeste’s 35.9 percent).

Voinovich, a Republican, beat Eric Fingerhut in 2004 by a 27.7 point margin.

Brown, a Democrat, defeated DeWine by a 12.3 percentage margin.

And Portman, running for an open seat after Voinovich decided to retire, beat Lee Fisher, then Ohio’s lieutenant governor, by a 17.5 percent margin.

So what’s this tell us?
It says that if you ignore the context, the Democrats are right about Portman’s election performance:   "In four Ohio Senate elections held between 2000 to 2010, Robert Portman garnered the least votes out of all the winners."

But two of those four elections were of a different nature, with presidential candidates pushing up the totals all around. Take away those two and simply compare 2006 and 2010, or use all four elections but consider the margins of victory rather than each winner’s raw vote total. Using the latter measure, Portman would rank third out of four in margin of victory. Brown garnered more votes in 2006 than did Portman in 2010, but Portman won his lower-turnout election by a wider margin.  

These matters -- presidential-versus-non-presidential elections, and margins of victory -- must be mentioned to fully understand the Democrats’ claim. That’s why despite its narrow accuracy, we reduce it a notch to Mostly True.