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Has the longtime swing state of Ohio stopped swinging?

Democrats may struggle to reverse Buckeye State’s recent turn to the right

A woman holds her voting sticker in her hand after casting her ballot in Leetonia, Ohio, on Election Day 2016. President Donald Trump defeated Hillary Clinton by 8 points to pick up the state’s 18 electoral votes . (Ty Wright/Getty Images file photo)
A woman holds her voting sticker in her hand after casting her ballot in Leetonia, Ohio, on Election Day 2016. President Donald Trump defeated Hillary Clinton by 8 points to pick up the state’s 18 electoral votes . (Ty Wright/Getty Images file photo)

When it comes to presidential elections, no one picks ’em like Ohio.

Going back to 1896, the Buckeye State has backed the winning candidate in all but two elections — the best record for any state in recent history. John F. Kennedy in 1960 was the last person to win the White House without winning Ohio.

Ohioans have gotten used to the political attention their state gets every four years. But recent trends have political insiders questioning whether the state is slowly shedding its swing-state status.

President Donald Trump swept past Hillary Clinton in 2016 by 8 points — the widest margin for a Republican nominee in almost three decades. Last year’s midterms saw the GOP maintain its dominance at the state level, winning all executive-branch positions. And while Democrats were flipping House seats across the country, the partisan makeup of the Ohio delegation remained unchanged.

Election handicappers largely put Ohio in the GOP column for 2020 — Inside Elections with Nathan L. Gonzales rates the state’s presidential race Likely Republican.

Also watch: 2020 Democrats at labor event can’t stop talking jobs

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Seeing red

While Ohio is becoming more diverse, it’s still whiter than the national average, with a lower percentage of residents with a bachelor’s degree. The state also has an above-average share of white working-class voters, who have been steadily growing more Republican, according to political analyst Kyle Kondik, author of “The Bellwether: Why Ohio Picks the President.”

Beyond the “steady, plodding demographic shifts,” the loss of industrial jobs in northeast Ohio has also contributed to increased GOP popularity, said Paul Beck, professor emeritus of political science at Ohio State University. Trump won several ancestrally Democratic counties in the region in 2016. Trumbull County, for example, backed him by 7 points — after voting for President Barack Obama by 23 points four years earlier.

Matt Borges, a former chairman of the state GOP, said that over the last few cycles “the dogma of the Democratic Party … has been very anti-coal country, pro-NAFTA.”

“I also think that socially, a lot of that perceived political correctness just hasn’t been resonating in that part of the country, certainly in that part of [Ohio],” he said.

Relative to other states in the eastern Midwest such as Illinois, Wisconsin and Michigan, Beck maintained that Ohio is still “Trump country.”A March survey by Morning Consult gave Trump a 45 percent approval rating in Ohio, with 51 percent disapproving. That’s still better than Gallup’s national poll for the same month that found 39 percent of voters approving of his job performance with 57 percent disapproving.Kondik uses a statistic called the “presidential deviation” to calculate how far states deviate from the national popular vote in a presidential election. In 2016, Ohio moved 5 points toward the Republicans. It marked the furthest the state has deviated from the national popular vote since 1932 when Franklin D. Roosevelt won his first term, Kondik said.

 “After decades of voting very close to the national average, albeit more Republican than the national average, Ohio took more of a clear turn to the right in 2016. And there is some reason to think that it’ll stay there based on the demographics of the state,” he said.

Priorities USA, a prominent Democratic super PAC, isn’t including Ohio in its early engagement program for 2020, while once solidly red Arizona, Georgia and North Carolina made the cut. 

But Kondik isn’t ready to write off Democratic chances in the Buckeye State just yet.

“I don’t think that Ohio has gotten to the point that it is unwinnable for Democrats. … If the candidate proves to be not as weak with white non-college voters as Clinton was, you could see the Democrats perform better across the Midwest, which might include Ohio,” he said.

Still purple

One Democrat who epitomizes the embrace of blue-collar populism that still resonates in Ohio is Sen. Sherrod Brown, who won a third term last fall by 7 points. He remains the only Ohio Democrat to hold a statewide nonjudicial position.

“If you can create anything like the brand Sherrod Brown has created in Ohio, you will win Ohio,” said David Pepper, chairman of the state’s Democratic Party.

Pepper doubts the state is as red as analysts and Republicans make it seem, pointing to aggressive partisan gerrymandering of Ohio’s legislative and congressional maps, as well as the purging of people who hadn’t cast a ballot for several years from state voting rolls.

“We’re more of a rigged state than we are a red state,” he said.

And Pepper sees signs of the party’s resurgence at the state level — Democrats flipped six Ohio Statehouse seats after failing to unseat any Republican incumbents for nearly a decade, according to the state Democrats’ 2018 election results memorandum.

Of the current crop of Democratic presidential hopefuls, former Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke  seems to be taking direct influence from Brown in his 2020 messaging. And while Brown passed on a presidential run, Ohio Rep. Tim Ryan could benefit from home-state appeal if his long-shot bid catches fire.But most analysts point to former Vice President Joe Biden as the Democrat most likely to succeed in Ohio and win back the white working-class voters who flipped from Barack Obama to Trump. Biden, who hasn’t yet announced his candidacy, has led consistently in national primary polls. Still, with several women accusing him of inappropriate touching — and his party’s lurch to the left in recent years — many are skeptical of his chances of winning the Democratic nomination

Ground games

While the Ohio presidential primaries are not until March 10, 2020 — a week after Super Tuesday — the state is already a campaign hotspot for both parties.

“What these visits really do is motivate the base, motivate volunteers to work for these various campaigns, but also motivate voters to vote for them, and I think that will continue — certainly through the primaries,” Beck said. “But then pick up again in a major way as we head into the general election in the fall.”

O’Rourke campaigned in Northeast Ohio in March. Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders visited auto workers in Lordstown over the weekend following last month’s closure of a General Motors plant that left 14,000 people unemployed. California Sen. Kamala Harris will speak in Cleveland at a party dinner later this month, while Speaker Nancy Pelosi will headline an upcoming party dinner in Columbus.

Trump held his second campaign rally of the year in Ohio last month, charging up his base at an appearance in Lima. His former top strategist, Steve Bannon, recently attended a town hall in Cincinnati to raise money for Trump’s proposed southern border wall.

“Even though Republicans have achieved victories in recent years in Ohio, even beyond those attributed to gerrymandering, I think it’s still winnable by the Democrats,” Beck said.

“We will be a swing state by dint of our size, as well as our competitiveness.”

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