Ohio has voted for the winner in every presidential race since 1964. But the Buckeye State may be losing its status of national bellwether, as the political tint of the state has shifted from purple to red. Still, Democrats seem unwilling to write off Ohio just yet. And tonight, they’ll be out in force in Westerville, the tony northern Columbus suburb hosting the latest presidential debate.
If Ohio is emblematic of working-class America’s shift toward the Republican Party, Westerville offers a counternarrative, as a suburb where Democrat was once considered a four letter word. The town’s shift since the 2016 election of Donald Trump could hold an important lesson, suggests David Betras, the former chair of the Mahoning County Democratic Party.
Democratic Sen. Sherrod Brown won his Senate re-election campaign in 2018 because he talked issues – trade, health care – and did not brand Trump voters as anathema, says Mr. Betras. “You’ve got to give people a reason to vote, and saying Donald Trump’s an idiot is not a reason that’s going to get people to go vote.”
When Valerie Cumming heard that the Democratic Party wanted to hold its fourth presidential primary debate in Westerville, she thought it was a prank.
“It [blew] my mind. I mean, I’m thrilled, it’s like Christmas to me – but I think it’s hilarious that the first three debates were in Miami and Houston and Detroit, and the fourth one is in Westerville,” says Ms. Cumming, who serves as vice mayor for the Columbus suburb. “I don’t think it would have happened here 10 years ago, or even five years ago.”
Two years ago, Ms. Cumming and another progressive Democrat won seats on the Westerville City Council – an unthinkable prospect for an area long considered a bastion of Republicanism in Ohio, but a shift that matched the national trend of white, wealthy suburban voters fleeing the Republican Party to vote blue.
Yet while the suburban vote was key to Democrats’ historic “blue wave” in last year’s midterm elections, the party’s momentum in Westerville did not translate into statewide success in Ohio. That’s because the state’s rural areas and eastern, Appalachian counties have been racing further red. In 2018, Republicans won the Ohio governorship for the seventh time in eight elections, and swept all of Ohio’s statewide executive offices. Democratic Sen. Sherrod Brown won reelection, but Democrats failed to flip any U.S. House seats in the Buckeye State.
Ohio has voted for the winner in every presidential race since 1964 – the longest “winning” streak of any state. But the 2018 results, combined with Donald Trump’s easy win here in 2016, left many analysts wondering whether Ohio is still a political bellwether. Indeed, after decades of attention, with both parties pouring in money and resources every four years, some have been questioning whether Democrats should even try to contest it in 2020.
“Ohio has been relegated to a ‘potential’ swing state,” says David Niven, a political science professor at the University of Cincinnati. “We’ve gone from the big star of the show to an also-ran with aspirations.”
Still, Democrats seem unwilling to write off Ohio just yet. An Emerson poll from early October showed Mr. Trump’s approval rating underwater in Ohio, with 43% approval and 51% disapproval. No Republican has ever won the presidency without winning Ohio, and it is hard to see a path to victory for Mr. Trump that doesn’t include it. David Pepper, the state’s Democratic Party chair, says that Democrats can at least make the president work for it.
“I think of ourselves as sort of the left tackle,” he says. “If we’re out blocking, if we’re making Trump come here every week and spend a ton of money here so that he’s not up in Wisconsin because he’s sweating it out Ohio, that’s how we win the election.”
Swing no longer
While the state has long reflected the country’s prevailing mood in voting for the president, it no longer reflects the country’s changing demographics. It is whiter and has more residents without a bachelor’s degree than the national average – groups Republicans have made inroads with in the last decade.
“If these divisions in the electorate get sharper, I think you’d expect to see Ohio vote more Republican compared to the national average than it has historically,” says Kyle Kondik, an elections forecaster at the University of Virginia and author of “The Bellwether: Why Ohio Picks the President.”
Nick Everhart, a Republican strategist in Ohio, puts it even more bluntly: “It’s very hard to imagine a scenario where Donald Trump doesn’t win Ohio in 2020,” he says in a text message.
Of course, circumstances could change: “An economic slowdown, coupled with a Biden nomination, could certainly create a more competitive Ohio,” Mr. Everhart adds. But for now, “it’s a safe bet to assume that the GOP map to a Trump re-elect absolutely includes Ohio in the lock column.”
Other swing states like Michigan and Pennsylvania have similar demographics to Ohio, but they possess big urban centers that help fuel Democratic support. Ohio is more suburban than urban, and its suburbs are more historically conservative than in other states. Cincinnati’s metro area voted 59.5% for Mr. Trump in 2016, according to David Hopkins, a political science professor at Boston College.
Professor Hopkins’ research shows that, contrary to the prevailing narrative, not all suburbs are trending blue. Democratic support has increased in the suburbs outside the top 20 metros nationwide, but Republicans have gained ground in smaller suburbs, giving Mr. Trump the strongest showing in such places of any candidate since Ronald Reagan.
“The challenge for the Democrats: Can [the bigger suburbs] move fast enough in their direction to compensate for losing all these small town and small suburb votes elsewhere in the state?” says Mr. Hopkins. “So far, the answer is obviously no. But if they somehow are able to stop hemorrhaging small town votes and build on their surge in Columbus, then certainly that would change the calculation.”
Westerville’s Republican roots run deep. The tony northern Columbus suburb helped kick-start Prohibition, and its prevailing politics have long mirrored those of former governor and Republican presidential candidate John Kasich, who lives nearby.
Mr. Trump upended all that, says Bill Wood, who started the Westerville Progressive Alliance with his wife in 2008. The shifting positions were evident when he knocked on doors for last year’s special election for the 12th Congressional District – a seat Republicans just barely hung onto, with the results too close to call for weeks. Longtime Republicans were voting Democratic for the first time in their lives.
“I’m a white guy in my 60s, and I’m talking to another white guy in his 60s. I think the power of me looking like them and coming to the door saying, ‘I’m supporting this Democratic candidate’ – in what would have been a Republican precinct in a Republican town – [it] gives them the opportunity for them to say to me, ‘I’m disgusted by this too,’” says Mr. Wood.
Until a few years ago, Democrat was a four-letter word in Westerville, agrees Ms. Cumming. Even she, a lifelong progressive, wouldn’t publicly identify herself as a Democrat. That’s changed, though. Scores of young families moved to the area and have catalyzed the nascent progressive movement.
But while the president’s actions have repelled suburban voters in places like Westerville, many working-class voters remain enthusiastic supporters, even though the president’s promises to revive their factories have not materialized.
Demonizing Mr. Trump will likely backfire with those voters, says David Betras, the former chair of the Mahoning County Democratic Party.
“You cannot get a voter to vote for you if the first thing out of your mouth is, ‘Oh you like Trump? You’re a racist, you’re a bigot,’” he says. “If you want someone to vote for you, do not insult them.”
Senator Brown won his Senate re-election campaign in 2018 because he talked issues – trade, health care – and did not brand Trump voters as anathema, Mr. Betras says. “You’ve got to give people a reason to vote, and saying Donald Trump’s an idiot is not a reason that’s going to get people to go vote.”
Yet Senator Brown lost ground in every county along the state’s eastern edge and in several northeastern counties relative to his 2012 win. Only Cuyahoga and Summit counties – where Cleveland and Akron are located, respectively – ran well ahead of their 2012 vote totals.
“The Democrats have been losing ground in white working-class America for a couple decades now, at least,” says Mr. Kondik. “I think Trump hyper-charged trends that were already occurring. There have been countervailing changes in the state, it’s just that when Trump sent those changes in overdrive, the changes really hurt Democrats in the state.”
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Boosting minority turnout has helped Democrats in other states overcome that shift among the white working class, but Ohio is 80% white with little in-migration from people of color. The state’s recent purge of the voter rolls could further complicate efforts to drum up support among African Americans.
“We’ve got to do some work,” says Ron McGuire, director of the Ohio Democratic Party’s minority engagement program. “We’ve got to get Democrats excited again.”
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