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Commentary: Can Brown Solve His 'Sherrod Who?' Problem?

Brown, speaking to supporters in Columbus after winning re-election to the Senate in November, announced days later that he is considering a run for president in 2020.
John Minchillo
Brown, speaking to supporters in Columbus after winning re-election to the Senate in November, announced days later that he is considering a run for president in 2020.

Starting out a possible run for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination is an ambitious project in the best of circumstances. But starting out with a well-respected national poll showing that 77 percent of American voters say they don't know enough about you to form an opinion about you – good or bad – might make you think you are running in quicksand.

That is, though, what last week's Quinnipiac University poll of 1,147 voters nationwide had to say about Ohio's newly re-elected U.S. Senator, Democrat Sherrod Brown.

It was the highest Don't Know Enoughrate among the 10 potential Democrats polled by Quinnipiac.

It means nearly eight out of every 10 voters basically have no clue who you are, and couldn't pick you out of a police line-up – not that you would ever end up in one.

But this is not entirely bad at this early stage of the game.

I am old enough to remember a time when Jimmy Carter was referred to as Jimmy Who?And there was a time not so long ago that if you lived outside of Arkansas, you had no idea who Bill Clinton was.

Both ended up in a crowded field of mostly better-known Democratic candidates and both, of course, prevailed and ended up picking up their mail at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

What Carter and Clinton were able to do as political unknowns was define themselves for primary and caucus voters, at a time when the more famous, better-funded candidates were paying no attention to them.

"Sherrod has now and always has had a message that is about the dignity of work, and when people around the country who are hurting hear this message, they will respond to it,'' said Dayton Mayor Nan Whaley, who is co-chair of the Committee to Draft Sherrod Brown.

The committee Whaley chairs with Cleveland attorney Michael Wager, who was Brown's campaign finance chair in his re-election campaign six years ago, has no official ties to Brown.

In fact, Brown – who has made it clear he is very much interested in running in 2020 – hasn't even formed an exploratory committee for a presidential campaign. Although we're willing to bet that will come early in the new year.

How do we know that Sherrod Brown is seriously considering a run for the presidency?

We have known the senior senator from Ohio since the mid-1970s, when he was, at the time, the youngest person elected to the Ohio House of Representatives at age 22.

Earlier this month, the tousle-haired senator got a nice haircut.

We can't remember him ever doing that for any campaign.

Clearly, people like Whaley, Wager and many others are hoping he runs and are ready to help.

"We want to collect information from people who might support Sherrod for president and share information about who he is and what he stands for,'' Whaley said.

And, in the process, the committee hopes to see that 77 percent number fall dramatically. After all, the early primary and caucus states – Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada – are all not much more than a year away.

If the 2020 race for the Democratic nomination seems far away, do not be deceived – objects in your mirror are closer than they appear. 

Clearly, there are Democrats far ahead of Brown in name recognition and support.

The Quinnipiac Poll has Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders – the now 77-year-old who led a youth movement in the party in 2016 that made life very uncomfortable for Hillary Clinton – and former Vice President Joe Biden, who is now 76, at the top of the list. 

Is Donald Trump beatable, by Brown, Biden or anyone else?

I don't think there is anyone who can truthfully answer that question now. You might say that Trump would win if the election was today. But guess what? The election is not going to be held today.

Trump is still underwater when it comes to his approval rating – 39 percent in the Quinnipiac Poll.

The Q Poll also says that 71 percent – including 49 percent of Republicans – believe a president should be subject to criminal charges while in office, rather than after leaving office.

But 60 percent say Congress should not begin the impeachment process against Trump.

"I don't know what is going to happen,'' Whaley said. "I don't like it, but there is a distinct possibility that we are going to be entering some pretty choppy waters economically.

"The kind of behavior this president shows may go over well with his base when the economy is good, but if things go bad, those people will abandon him,'' Whaley said.

Mark R. Weaver, a long-time Republican campaign strategist based in Ohio, said he thinks Brown is "as irrelevant to his political party as John Kasich is to his."

Which, to Weaver, means completely irrelevant.

Kasich, Ohio's GOP governor who will be out of office soon, is considering taking on Trump for the 2020 Republican presidential nomination.

The Democratic Party, Weaver said, "will not nominate a senior citizen from the Midwest as its nominee. The young people who have increasing influence in the party just won't have it."

Sherrod Brown is 66 years old.

Well, Mark, those young Democrats seemed quite taken by Sanders, more than a decade older than Brown.

"Bernie is a socialist,'' Weaver said. "He has a different appeal; he's something new on the scene for a lot of people. Sherrod is just an old-fashioned populist."

Weaver said that this time around, he believes young Democrats will gravitate toward candidates like Kamala Harris, the 54-year-old junior senator from California, and New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker, the 49-year-old former mayor of Newark, N.J.

"Right now, the Republican base is solidly with Trump,'' Weaver said. "The only way he is in trouble is if he loses his grip on that base."

Whaley calls Trump "one of the most vulnerable presidents in my lifetime."

Brown could be a formidable opponent, Whaley says.

She may be right. But that 77 number needs to start dropping soon. Very soon.

Credit Jim Nolan / WVXU

Read more "Politically Speaking" here.

Copyright 2021 91.7 WVXU. To see more, visit .

Howard Wilkinson joined the WVXU News Team after 30 years of covering local and state politics for The Cincinnati Enquirer. A native of Dayton, Ohio, Wilkinson has covered every Ohio governor’s race since 1974 as well as 12 presidential nominating conventions. His streak continued by covering both the 2012 Republican and Democratic conventions for 91.7 WVXU. Along with politics, Wilkinson also covered the 2001 Cincinnati race riots; the Lucasville Prison riot in 1993; the Air Canada plane crash at the Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport in 1983; and the 1997 Ohio River flooding. The Cincinnati Reds are his passion. "I've been listening to WVXU and public radio for many years, and I couldn't be more pleased at the opportunity to be part of it,” he says.