Early Takes on Trump: Ohio By Douglas Brattebo
A conglomeration consisting of disparate regions sometimes dubbed “The Five Ohios,” the Buckeye State is a microcosm of sundry aspects of America’s diversity. Ohio is a decidedly purple state even with gerrymandering that has produced a U.S. House delegation of 12 Republicans and 4 Democrats.
As in many other states, Democratic candidates tend to do better here when the total electorate swells in presidential election years, whereas midterm elections often are kinder to Republicans. This dynamic is among the chief reasons that the magnitude of Donald Trump’s 2016 victory over Hillary Clinton in Ohio was a shock even to seasoned observers.
In 2012, Barack Obama carried Ohio for the second time, defeating Mitt Romney by just under three percentage points (51 percent to 48 percent), a narrower but still comfortable margin compared to Obama’s 2008 victory over John McCain (51 percent to 47 percent). In 2016 Trump crushed Clinton 52 percent to 44 percent, a margin of over eight percentage points. Although averages of Ohio state polls showed Trump with a lead of 2-3 percentage points on the cusp of Election Day, few if any polling entities foresaw the impending tidal wave.
As in the other Rust Belt states of Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin, the result was driven by a huge shift in the preferences of white voters in rural counties compared to 2012. Whereas Obama won 17 of Ohio’s 88 counties in 2012, Clinton won just 8 counties in 2016. In many of Ohio’s rural counties, the swing toward the Republican nominee was well into the double digits compared to four years earlier.
Four factors were most crucial in producing Trump’s victory in Ohio:
1. The growing cultural and economic disconnect between rural voters and urban/suburban voters had opened into a veritable chasm since the 2008 recession.
2. Some evidence suggests that, in the absence of an appealing Democratic candidate to generate enthusiasm, some voters cast ballots in favor of Trump as a sort of finger in the eye of the entire political and economic establishment.
3. The percentage of voters casting ballots for neither the Democratic nor the Republican nominee rose decisively: minor party candidates received nearly five percent of total votes in Ohio in 2016, compared to well under two percent in 2012 – a sure sign of protest against both main parties and their nominees.
4. Turnout in Democratic stronghold counties such as Cuyahoga (Cleveland) and Hamilton (Cincinnati) was down significantly from 2012.
As the Trump presidency passed the 100-day mark, the president was underwater in many polls in Ohio, although by a smaller margin than in some other states he had carried. One big question was what, if anything, this might portend for Trump’s reelection prospects.
One important signal will be sent by the 2018 midterm elections, when Democratic U.S. Senator Sherrod Brown will seek to secure a third term, probably in a rematch against Republican Ohio State Treasurer Josh Mandel. Equally important will be whether the 12 (R) to 4 (D) margin in the U.S. House changes, or whether the Democrats are able to make any headway in the state legislature, where the Republican Party now has supermajorities.
In Ohio, as in several other swing states, the answer to this conundrum seems likely to hinge on whether there still exists a significant pool of voters who can be persuaded, on the basis of President Trump’s approach to governance and record on policy matters, to withdraw their support from him and his party.
One suspects that, even in this intensely partisan era, there are limits to the sensibilities and sufferance of a small but crucial percentage of Ohio’s voters. Without marked improvement in mal- and under-staffing that have caused chaos and intrigue to billow from the West Wing and executive branch departments in recent months, and without tangible legislative accomplishments to buttress a spate of bold but as yet unmet campaign promises, some portion of Ohio’s voters will forsake Trump in 2020.
After all, as the president wrote in one of his books over three decades ago, “…if you don’t deliver the goods, people will eventually catch on.” Will this shift be enough to put the Buckeye State back in the Democratic nominee’s column? That will depend on whether that presently unidentified Democratic nominee runs a competent, appealing campaign centered on a message of economic uplift.
Douglas Brattebo is Associate Professor of Political Science at Hiram College and Director of the James A. Garfield Center for the Study of the American Presidency.