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How Down-Ballot Candidates Stand Out In Swing-State Ohio

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Every four years, down-ballot candidates in Ohio struggle to be heard above the noise of the presidential campaign in a key swing state. And this year, they say the struggle is harder than ever. From member station WKSU, M.L. Schultze followed the efforts by local candidates to stand out.

M L SCHULTZE, BYLINE: Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump and their top surrogates have been averaging four campaign visits a week to Ohio. They're dominating the news here and spending about $350,000 a week on TV ads. So how does someone run for an office way, way down-ballot, like the state board of education? - especially since a lot of voters aren't even sure what it is. Voter Glenn Miller shrugs.

GLEN MILLER: A lot of times, I don't even vote on them so I haven't read up on it.

SCHULTZE: For candidate Merle Johnson, standing out from the crowd is key.

MERLE JOHNSON: My earliest memory is when I was in the sixth grade. I dyed my tennis shoes purple in my mom's washing machine (laughter). She wasn't very happy.

SCHULTZE: These days, that purple extends to her braids and pinstripe suits. And she shows up everywhere - ward meetings, festivals, candidate forums. The state school board hires the state superintendent. But on many issues, it's powerless. The campaigns often run on about $15,000, so TV ads are not an option. But Johnson says, in a way, that plays to her strengths.

JOHNSON: I'm a social butterfly, and I just love meeting strangers. I just enjoy talking to people. And education is something that everybody can connect around.

SCHULTZE: Johnson also can't afford high-powered campaign staff. But she does have a 16-year-old assistant, Yersi Dotel.

YERSI DOTEL: I was in gym class, and I was just shooting hoops. And then my auntie comes - she's a teacher at the school where I go to - and she was like, I have an opportunity for you. And I was like, oh, OK.

SCHULTZE: Johnson also relies on one staple of all campaigns, yard signs.

JOHNSON: When you see one in your neighbor's yard or somebody on your street, and you're like, you know what, I have no idea who to vote for, but my neighbor thinks they're OK. So maybe I'll vote for them, too.

SCHULTZE: Jim Crooks is a political consultant specializing in local campaigns. He says social media is also important to separate local campaigns from the white noise of the presidential race.

JIM CROOKS: Amongst the presidential campaigns, we're certainly not talking about the issues. We're certainly not talking about policy. But at the local level, we try to make the messaging that hits people where it counts.

SCHULTZE: Many political consultants say all campaigns share one thing, the message, ultimately, is the candidate. But for some, it's just harder to get the voters to remember who that candidate is.

For NPR News, I'm M.L. Schultze. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.