In Ohio and elsewhere, Dems need better messaging on fracking, police, other issues

A fracking well head. Photo by Joshua Doubek via Wikimedia Commons.

Tax the rich! Defund the police! Ban fracking!

This is the sort of policy sloganeering voiced by factions within the Democratic Party during the recent presidential election campaign in Ohio and elsewhere. While all are based at least in part on worthy policy goals, post-election analysis suggests that President Trump and GOP strategists exploited that shorthand in swing districts to steer many voters away from candidates whom their messaging relentlessly branded as “radical Democrats.”

This may help explain why Trump and down-ballot candidates performed better than preelection polls suggested they would. The Blue Wave swept in hardly anywhere, including Ohio.

The 2020 election had no shortage of takeaways, including this stunner: In the week following the election, for the first time in every American’s lifetime, many of us anxiously contemplated the prospect of a military coup incited by a losing presidential candidate. At this writing, while that hasn’t happened and likely won’t, the president has yet to acknowledge defeat, or more importantly begin cooperating with the transition during a catastrophic pandemic.

Let’s set that historical outrage aside and consider a less apocalyptic takeaway for Democrats, regardless of when and whether Joe Biden takes his rightful place at the helm of our country. Dems are still struggling to produce messaging on key issues that doesn’t play into the hands of Trump and other Republican fear-mongers. They can only hope that the “defund the police” straitjacket doesn’t cling to them through 2022, lit up by video clips of looters burning businesses.

To be sure, for complex issues with layers of nuance — economic justice, police reform and energy policy — it can be challenging to formulate a snappy, effective message that can fit on a 3-by-3-foot sign, or in an eye-catching Facebook ad or 30-second TV spot.

How’s this for some pithy Democratic messaging?

  • Eliminate Trump’s Tax Cuts for Rich People and Give More Money to the Middle Class and the Poor!
  • Transfer Some Funding From Police Departments to Social Services That Will Do a Better Job!
  • Expand Solar and Wind Energy So Those Economic Engines Can Replace Environmentally Destructive Fracking in Rural Areas!

Yes, those need some work, but looking toward future election campaigns, Democrats should devote ample resources toward clarifying and focusing their messaging on these important issues, while formulating better ways to attack Republicans than just tying them to Donald Trump.

HERE IN SOUTHEAST OHIO, from my perspective as a reporter-editor who wrote dozens of articles and opinions about fracking between 2009 and 2020, I’m especially concerned that hollering “Ban fracking!” has hurt Democratic efforts to make headway in solidly red, once-blue parts of eastern Ohio. In these areas, market forces, some related to the global pandemic, are the only thing stalling a continuing boom in shale oil and gas development.

Undergirding the militant “ban fracking” sentiment alive within the broader Democratic Party is the widely accepted idea that horizontal hydraulic fracturing produces no economic benefit to local communities (despite the fact that the oft-repeated slam against fossil-fuel industries — “boom and bust” — isn’t all about the “bust”).

The “fracking doesn’t benefit locals” sentiment would come as a surprise to the mostly poor rural and Rust Belt counties along the Ohio River in Eastern and Southeast Ohio. The shale oil and gas boom has provided substantial economic succor to individuals and communities in this region over the past decade. Leading the cheers for the economic revival in parts of Appalachian Ohio have been Republican legislative candidates, whose 21st Century electoral success continued unabated on Nov. 3.

President Trump and down-ballot Republicans who support fracking without reservation won fracking-heavy counties in Ohio by heavy margins. Granted, fracking wasn’t the only issue that voters considered when casting their ballots (the “defund the police” scare campaign likely carried as much or more weight), but unreservedly backing fracking clearly didn’t hurt Trump and other Republicans.

In his paper from 2018, Ohio University professor Gilbert Michaud documents the economic benefits that accrued from shale oil and gas development in 26 mainly Appalachian/eastern Ohio counties in the years preceding the study.

“Ohio’s shale industry serves as a significant facet of the state’s economy, employing nearly 150,000 and contributing over $22 billion of positive impacts as of 2015,” Michaud wrote in the paper’s abstract… Strong economic impact metrics are found for shale activity, including robust multiplier effects relative to other industries in the state…. Further, in order, the top five counties by total economic contribution per capita are Noble, Monroe, Belmont, Guernsey, and Washington. In fact, roughly 90% of the gross regional product in Monroe and Noble counties is attributable to the shale industry.”

In the recent election, Trump clobbered Biden 81.3 to 18.7 in Noble County, 77.1 to 22.9 in Monroe County, 71.9 to 28.1 in Belmont County, 74.4 to 25.6 in Guernsey County, and 70.5 to 29.5 in Washington County.

In his study, Michaud, assistant professor of practice at OU’s George V. Voinovich School of Leadership and Public Affairs, also cited the negatives associated with fracking. “With these findings, economic development and policy implications (in eastern Ohio) are highlighted, which are important as no other shale-play region in the U.S. is so disproportionally affected by resource extraction which contributes to regional poverty and negative pollution effects,” he writes. “Retaining wealth in this region with the legacy of boom-and-bust resource extraction is ever important…”

Other studies undertaken by Michaud and the Voinovich Center look at the potential benefits of the growing renewable energy sectors, foremost solar but also wind energy. As summarized in an article issued by the Voinovich Center, a study led by Michaud from late this summer, “The Economic Impacts of Utility-Scale Solar in Ohio,” found that “installing utility-scale solar energy in Ohio could support more than 54,000 construction jobs, generate up to $67.5 million in local tax revenues annually and power over 1.5 million Ohio homes…”

“With proper planning and investments, Ohio can be a leader in the renewable energy economy,” Michaud stated in the Voinovich release. “Our compelling results show that Ohio can support new solar energy jobs, add additional dollars to rural communities, and do it all in a way that is good for the environment.”

THERE’S A POTENTIAL LESSON here if Democrats can figure out how to channel it into easily digestible 30-second ads and social media messaging: Acknowledging the “boom” half of the dreaded boom-and-bust cycle associated with fracking and other extraction industries — and outlining what sort of economy should and could replace them when they’re gone — will carry more weight with voters in these areas than simply shouting “ban fracking!” (and the subtext, “after that, you’re on your own”).

Whether it will carry enough weight to erase the overwhelming voter support for Republican candidates in eastern Ohio and similar areas is doubtful. But combined with smarter messaging on police reform, economic justice and environmental issues, maybe just maybe a more realistic message on fracking could light the fuse on an eventual Democratic comeback in rural and Rust Belt areas of Ohio and elsewhere where the party once competed for power.

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