Ohio has a reputation as the quintessential bellwether state, and for good reason. It has picked the winning presidential candidate in all but four elections since the end of the Civil War, including every election since 1964, the longest active streak of any state.
But lagging population growth, demographic stagnation and industry losses have contributed to the state’s rightward shift since 2012, culminating in President Donald Trump’s definitive eight-point victory over former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton during the last presidential election in 2016.
That trend looked likely to continue in 2020 — that is, until broken presidential promises, a global pandemic, and a disastrously managed re-election campaign put the state solidly back in play.
Democrats, meanwhile, nominated Joe Biden, a moderate candidate with his own Rust Belt background who won the state twice as President Barack Obama’s vice-presidential candidate.
“Ohio really had continued its move to the right, from a purple state, to perhaps a pink state, but not really a red state, yet,” said Herb Asher, a professor emeritus of political science at Ohio State University. ”But then this last year unfolded.”
Ohio’s high margin in favour of Trump in 2016 already put the state uncharacteristically out of step with national voting trends, in a race where Trump won the Electoral College while resoundingly losing the popular vote. Now the question is whether it will fully shed its bellwether reputation by embracing a losing candidate for the first time in more than 50 years.
Slow population growth has seen Ohio shrink to 18 Electoral College votes, down from 26 in its heyday in 1968. And though Ohio has ceded its role of the early 2000s as the deciding state in a presidential contest, Trump likely needs a repeat in Ohio more than Biden needs a win.
If Biden’s superior polling bears out in Southwest states like Arizona and New Mexico and Midwest states like Michigan, Minnesota and Wisconsin, Ohio would be more of the icing on top of a cake that’s already baked. Trump, on the other hand, would need Florida, Ohio and some combination of the aforementioned states to build a winning coalition.
Polls throughout the fall have shown Biden with a slight edge overall. A recent Quinnipiac University poll had Biden leading by one percent – in other words, a statistical tie. That’s notable because that same poll was one of the few nonpartisan surveys to predict a large win for Trump around this same time in 2016.
There’s plenty of good news for Trump, though. Ohio hasn’t seen the demographic shifts other states have. It remains slightly older and much whiter than the rest of the country. Whites make up nearly 79 percent of the 11.7 million population, compared to about 60 percent nationwide. Ohio also hasn’t seen the Latino influx that has driven partisan change in other states.
Also in Trump’s column, the state has 1.9 million registered Republicans and about 300,000 fewer registered Democrats. The bad news for Trump is that number is down from the two million GOP devotees in 2018, while Democratic registration has grown from 1.1 million in 2016 to 1.6 million this year.
Independent voters are key
The real prize, though, is a large slice of the 4.5 million unaffiliated voters, who choose to sit out political primaries but cast swing votes in general elections. And on that front, there are some alarming statistics for Trump.
In the recent Quinnipiac poll, Trump has the support of only 38 percent of independents, with 55 percent saying they’ll vote for Biden. That’s opposite of the 2016 exit polls, which showed Trump winning 51 percent of independents to Clinton’s 37 percent.
The antipathy that once sunk Clinton seems to have shifted to Trump, according to the poll. Seven percent of Republicans said they’ll back Biden, an unusually high number among the party faithful. In 2016, seven percent of Democrats said they would shun Clinton to back Trump.
The shift to the right in Ohio wasn’t limited to the presidential contest. Even as a blue Democratic wave swept the country in the 2018 midterm elections, Republicans won nearly every statewide office in the Buckeye State, with the exception of the seat held by scrappy progressive Democratic Senator Sherrod Brown.
But in other ways, Ohio is a microcosm of nationwide trends. In general, the population centres like Cincinnati, Cleveland and Columbus have grown increasingly blue while Republicans have made strongholds of largely rural areas of central Ohio and Appalachia. For Democrats, the name of the game will be keeping Trump’s numbers down in those counties, while increasing what was lacklustre turnout among African-American men in 2016 and reclaiming some ground of Northeastern Ohio counties that used to be centres of the auto and steel industry.
But that won’t be easy. Historically loyal Republicans, like white exurban women, and traditionally loyal Democrats, like industrial, working-class whites, have basically traded places, said Terry Casey, an Ohio Republican strategist and state government official.
“To paraphrase Charles Dickens, it’s a tale of two states,” he said. “You can drive around in areas that were normally more Republican, more suburban, better educated, and see tons of Biden signs that you wouldn’t normally see. But then you can go out to more rural, mid-sized counties near urban areas, and see a very strong Trump presence.”
Who wins the working class?
That’s why Democrats think their key to victory is blasting Trump’s performance, specifically his failure to deliver on promises to rejuvenate the steel and auto industries. If Trump’s erraticism has already done him in with suburban voters, “Middle-Class Joe” hopes to finish the job by out-folksing him in places like the Mahoning Valley.
At a 2017 rally in Youngstown, Trump told workers, “Don’t move. Don’t sell your house.” But by early 2019, General Motors had closed the nearby Lordstown plant following sluggish sales of the Chevrolet Cruze. Trump’s promises to bring back the steel and coal industries have rung equally hollow.
Biden’s been pitching himself as the guy who saved GM in the first place, helping manage the 2008 auto bailout. “He turned his back on you,” he told a crowd in Cincinnati this month. Trump has countered that Biden will ban fracking and has continued to tout his opposition to free trade deals, which won him favour in the Rust Belt last election.
But local Democrats hope that after four years, workers will see through Trump’s rhetoric. It’s not that they’ve given up on Democrats, they’ve just given up on people that make promises that they can’t keep, said Democratic former state Representative Bob Hagan, who represented the Youngstown area from 1997 until 2014 and whose wife, Representative Michelle Lepore-Hagan, has represented the district since.
“I think they found that he’s nothing but a big phony,” Hagan said. “The working people, hopefully, the ones that jumped ship because Donald Trump made a promise that he couldn’t keep, didn’t keep, and pretty much ignored, are now starting to understand that Joe Biden is a calm guy that can in fact, with his history, deliver.”
Still, after a surprise walloping last time, Democrats are taking nothing for granted. Biden has a 2-to-1 cash advantage against Trump in the final stretch, and while Trump has cancelled television ad buys in Ohio, Biden is spending heavily on the airwaves.