Election 2016 In-Depth Look at Battleground States: Ohio

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With the election less than 20 days away, we’ll take an in-depth look into the battleground states that will ultimately decide who occupies 1600 Pennsylvania Ave starting next January.

This series will be ordered, roughly, by the states expected to be the most competitive this year. Many will be the usual suspects; others are new to the battleground category this year.

Today we start with the state of Ohio.

Past Winners

2000: George W. Bush (R)

  • Bush: 50% (2,351,209 votes)
  • Gore: 46% (2,186,190 votes)

2004: George W. Bush (R)

  • Bush: 51% (2,859,768 votes)
  • Kerry: 49% (2,741,167 votes)

2008: Barack Obama (D)

  • Obama: 51% (2,940,044 votes)
  • McCain: 47% (2,677,820 votes)

2012: Barack Obama (D)

  • Obama: 51% (2,827,709 votes)
  • Romney: 48% (2,661,437 votes)


Once at the heart of American manufacturing, Ohio has seen its clout dwindle over the last four decades. The state has 18 electoral votes this year, down from 20 as recently as 2004, and from its peak of 26 electoral votes in 1964 and 1968.

Ohio has lost electoral votes after every census taken since 1970 due to the state’s shrinking population; the result of a steep decline in the state’s, and the nation’s, manufacturing industry. Since 2000, Ohio’ population growth has been an anemic 2.3 percent. By comparison, the population growth of the United States during that time has been 14.2%.

Yet despite all of that, for years now, Ohio has been seen as the ultimate bellwether state. It has voted for the winning presidential candidate in every election since 1964. The last candidate to win the presidency without carrying the state was John F. Kennedy, who lost the state to Richard Nixon by six points in the 1960 election; and no Republican has even won the White House without carrying the state. In fact, ever since the Republican Party was formed in the 1850’s, Ohio has only voted against the winning presidential candidate four times – in 1884, 1892, 1944, and 1960.

Even though the state is a national bellwether, it typically votes a point or two more Republican than the country, and it has done so in 24 of the past 30 elections.

One of the reasons Republicans do better in Ohio than they do nationally, and are likely to do so again this year, is a favorable demographic landscape. Ohio’s population is older and less diverse than the nation as a whole. Non-Hispanic whites make up 80% of the state while making up 77% of the country’s population; Hispanics make up 18% of the US population, in Ohio they make up just 4 percent. The same is true among Asian voters, an increasingly influential voting bloc in the country. The Buckeye State’s Asian population (2 percent) is four percent lower than the nation’s (6 percent). The state’s African American population is equal to the United States as a whole; at 13%.

In addition to being less diverse, people over the age of 25 with a college degree make up a smaller share of the state’s population (26%) than the country (29%).

These voters make up the backbone of the Republican Party in the conservative, northwest part of the state. They are also swinging the Appalachian southeastern part of the state, home to most of Ohio’s coal mines, from reliably Democrat to Republican.

Even though these areas are Republican strongholds, they are sparsely populated and only contribute to 10 percent of the statewide vote. Where Republicans make up for it in the wealthy suburban areas on the outskirts of Columbus and Cincinnati which are comprised of mostly white, college educated voters.

Democrats tend to do well in the state’s more diverse urban centers and have consistently won 60% of the vote in the northeastern part of the state; where a number of union members reside.

How Ohio Will Be Won

Of all the state’s President Obama won in 2008 and 2012, Ohio represents one of the biggest challenges for Clinton. If she is going to keep the state’s 18 electoral votes in her column, it is imperative that she run up the score in the “Three C’s;” Cincinnati, Cleveland, and Columbus.

Cincinnati (Hamilton County), unlike the vast majority of urban centers in the country, has been a historically Republican County. From 1968 until 2008, no Democratic candidate for president carried the county. The GOP win streak here was broken by Obama in 2008 (he won the county again in 2012) and since then, Hamilton County has fallen in line with other urban areas and has become more diverse and more Democratic.

Obama carried Hamilton County by nearly 30,000 votes (53% to 46%) on his way to winning the state by five percentage points; or 262,244 votes in 2008. Four years later against Mitt Romney, he carried Hamilton County by just over 26,000 votes (52% to 46%) and won Ohio by a 51% to 48% margin; 166,272 votes. By contrast, in George W. Bush’s two point Ohio victory over John Kerry, he carried Hamilton County by 23,000 votes.

Cuyahoga County (Cleveland) and Franklin County (Columbus) have been Democratic counties for some time now; with Cuyahoga last going for a Republican in 1972, and Franklin doing so in 1992.

African Americans make up 30% of Cleveland’s population, the most in the state, and nearly one-quarter of the population in Columbus. Each county is more educated than the state as a whole, Franklin County, home of Ohio State University, more so than Cuyahoga.

Cleveland gave Obama by far his largest margins of victory in the state in 2008 and 2012; voting for him by nearly 260,000 votes each time. Columbus too, went heavily for Obama; carrying it by at least 100,000 in both of his campaigns.

It should also be noted that Obama did a lot better with white working class voters than many are inclined to believe. Nationwide, he won 39% of the white vote. In Ohio he won 41%. This, in addition to performing well in the big cities, helped him carry Ohio, and Iowa as well.

Hillary Clinton is unlikely to have the same luxury this year due to a larger amount of attrition from white working class voters in the state. Given her low support among blue collar whites, she is probably going to have to win Cuyahoga, Franklin, and Hamilton Counties by an even greater margin than Obama did.

Outperforming Obama in these counties will be no easy task for Mrs. Clinton; so she will also try to pick off votes in the state’s heavily suburban, and mostly Republican Counties.

Her top target is likely to be Lake County, a suburb northeast of Cleveland that has gone for the Republican nominee in all but three presidential elections since 1964; Carter in 1976, Bill Clinton in 1996, and Barack Obama in 2008. Even though it has been reliably Republican over the last 50 years, the margins have been very close of late. Romney carried the county by 1,100 votes (50% to 49%) in 2012, which is the same margin Obama won it by four years earlier. In fact, the margin of victory in Lake County has been under five points in every election since 1992.

Delaware County, just north of Columbus, and Warren County, northeast of Cincinnati are other areas where Clinton is hoping to pick off votes. These suburban counties are the two wealthiest, and most educated, in the entire state. And the most Republican. Obama lost Delaware County by 20 points to John McCain and by 23 points to Mitt Romney. He fared even worse in Warren County, losing by 36 and 39 points respectively. You’ll have to go back to 1964 for the last time a Democrat carried this Cincinnati suburb and all they way back to Woodrow Wilson in 1916 for the last Democrat to carry Delaware County.

So why is Clinton putting in the time and effort in these heavily Republican areas? Because they are teeming with wealthier, college educated, white voters. Typically a reliable Republican voting bloc, they have been abandoning Mr. Trump in droves in 2016. Nationwide, Trump is in danger of being the first Republican nominee since Dwight Eisenhower in 1952 to lose among college educated white voters.

Watch these counties on Election Day. If Clinton is vastly outperforming Mitt Romney in the right-leaning suburbs, chances are she will carry the state.

Speaking of Trump, his strategy is simple. Maximize support among white working class voters; the only voting bloc where he is outperforming Mitt Romney from four years ago.

The prevailing thought heading into this year was the support for Democrats among blue collar whites hit its floor during the Obama years and any Democrat was likely to do better. Turns out that was dead wrong. What was a steady desertion from the Democratic party turned into a tidal wave when Donald Trump entered the 2016 race and started speaking to issues such as trade and racial animosity.

And while there may not be enough “angry white voters” to help Trump win carry a number of states this year, there may be enough to help him carry Ohio.

Trump is almost guaranteed to win the state’s conservative, coal country in the southeast counties by larger margins than any Republican in recent memory. Same goes for the bright red counties along its western border with Indiana.

The real danger for the Clinton campaign is Trump is also likely to pick up a large share of votes in counties that have been the backbone of Democratic support for decades, such as Mahoning (Youngstown),Trumbull, and Stark County.

Both Mahoning and Trumbull gave Obama more than 60% of the vote in both of his campaigns, but they also two of Trump’s strongest counties in the GOP Primary earlier this year; winning over 50% of the vote in both, even though he went on to lose to Gov. John Kasich in a landslide.

Like Delaware and Warren County for Clinton, it’s unlikely Trump will actually flip Mahoning or Trumbull over to his column, but these are areas of Ohio that have been hit the hardest by the trade deals he has been railing against.

Trumbull County has seen nearly one-quarter of its jobs, nearly 26,000 of them, disappear over the last 15 years. One thousand jobs alone were eliminated in 2012 after the closing of one steel mill; while Mahoning has seen its population fall from its 1970s peak of over 300,000 all the way down to under 240,000 per the 2010 Census.

In addition, both counties are less educated, have lower median incomes, and more citizens living in poverty than the state as a whole. If Trump is performing well in these traditionally Democratic strongholds, he will almost certainly replicate it in surrounding Democratic County’s like Stark, and it will be indicative of how much he is running up the score in republican areas with similar demographic makeups.

So, Who Will Win Ohio?

Trump’s passionate support among blue collar white’s without a college degree will certainly help him, but the fact his message is specifically tailored to this voting bloc runs the risk of alienating voters in more diverse areas. Clinton is hoping to use this to her advantage to make up for the defections to Trump.

Since their first debate in late September, national and state polls have shifted significantly in Clinton’s direction. Ohio, on the other hand, has been one of the few exceptions. Clinton has improved he standing in the state, yes, but there are as many polls showing her with a lead as there are showing Trump ahead.

RealClearPolitics shows Trump ahead by an average of 0.6% in a four-way race and by a slightly smaller 0.4% margin when the race is head-to-head. The Huffington Post has Clinton ahead by an average of two points. Nate Silver’s FiveThirtyEight model gives Clinton a 60% chance to win the state, while The New York Times Upshot model gives her a 54% chance.

I mentioned before how Ohio is slightly more republican than the country as a whole, and it is keeping in line with tradition, even in an unconventional election cycle like this.

The problem for Mr. Trump at the moment, is he is losing to Mrs. Clinton by an average of seven to eight points nationwide. Considering Ohio isn’t THAT much more right-leaning than the US, I give a very slight edge to Secretary Clinton.

In my own made up odds, I put her chances at around 51% given the size of her lead in national polling.

Status: Leans Clinton

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