Ohio, When It Comes to Choosing Presidents, You're It. No Doubt About It

Jun 14, 2015

  Ha! We knew it all along!

Now we have the numbers to prove it! Real, live numbers – and, in politics, you’re best off not arguing with numbers.

At last we can prove what we knew intuitively all along – that there is no better state to look at than Ohio as the predictor of who the next president will be.  And it is the state where the vote in presidential elections most closely mirrors the nation’s vote as a whole.

Ohio is, in fact, the ultimate bellwether state.

We know this because Kyle Kondik, managing editor of Sabato’s Crystal Ball, a weekly politics newsletter published by the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics, looked at presidential elections dating back to 1896 and found that no state had a higher percentage of picking the winner – 28 of 30, for 93 percent.

The Buckeye State was followed closely though by another bellwether state, New Mexico, the Land of Enchantment, which has picked 24 of the last 26 for 92 percent (New Mexico didn’t become a state until 1912).

States like Kentucky (22 of 30) and Indiana (21 of 30) fall in the middle of the pack; while Mississippi brings up the rear with only 13 of 30 since 1896.

Impressive enough, but then there is the research of Eric Ostermeier, a research associate at the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey School of Public Affairs’ Center for the Study of Politics and Governance.

Ostermeier has written a blog called Smart Politics since 2006; and, this week, he did a ton of number-crunching in 29 presidential elections since 1900 and came up with this conclusion – that there is no state in the nation that comes closer to the national vote in presidential elections than Ohio.

Ohio’s vote for the winning presidential candidate, Ostermeier wrote, has deviated from the national vote an average of 2.2 percentage points since 1900, 1.3 percentage points since 1964 and only 1.2 percentage points since 1980.

In the 13 presidential contests since 1964, Ostermeier said, the 50-state average deviation from the actual national presidential popular vote has been 6.9 percentage points – more than five times that of Ohio.

The state that has come closest to Ohio since 1900 is New Mexico at 2.3 percentage points, but Ostermeier said that state has had a lot more presidential elections where the deviation was five percentage points or more than Ohio has had.

Florida, with its 29 electoral votes, will be the big prize among the battleground states, Ostermeier said, but Ohio, with its 18 electoral votes can’t be ignored.

“It is, of course, no secret that Ohio is one of a handful of battleground states that will likely determine which party wins the White House next year,’’ Ostermeier wrote in his blog. “And even though Election Day is 17 months away with at least a year before both nominees will be determined, in the end, the Buckeye State is the best bet to gauge the outcome of the national presidential popular vote.”

Of course, the national popular vote and the Electoral College vote are two different matters, with the latter trumping the former when it comes to choosing the president.

But Ostermeier told WVXU that there is no question Ohio will be in the thick of the fight.

“The electorate in Ohio is willing to flip back and forth,’’ Ostermeier said. “They have done that plenty of times. But the vote in Ohio always mimics the national vote. It’s extraordinary.”

Kondik – who is writing a book on the history of presidential elections in Ohio – said the state probably gained its bellwether nature because of its origins.

“The state was started as kind of an amalgamation of the original colonies,’’ Kondik said. “There’s the Connecticut Western Reserve in the northeast, the old Virginia Military District in the southern central part of the state. And that settlement pattern still plays a role in the state’s political diversity.”

The fact that no one city or industry dominates Ohio also contributes to the state’s political diversity.

“If one looks at the political history of the United States as a kind of battle between the Northeast and its allies and the South and its allies – that used to be more true in the past than it is today – Ohio has swung between the two regions and helped break ties in close elections,’’ Kondik said.

The Midwest, Kondik said, “is a key battlefield; and Ohio is probably the most politically-balanced state in the Midwest.”

The record is clear – Ohio picks winners; and its vote for president is closer to the national popular vote than any other state.

We can think of only one thing that might knock that record off course. And that one thing would be if Ohio Gov. John Kasich – who has done everything a presidential candidate can do except formally announce his candidacy – runs for and wins the Republican presidential nomination. Or, short of that, becomes the vice presidential running mate when the GOP meets to crown its presidential ticket next summer in Cleveland.

Kondik’s report showed that there are only two times in the 30 presidential elections since 1896 when Ohio failed to go with the winner.

One was in 1960, when Ohioans chose Richard Nixon over John F. Kennedy. The other was in 1944, when Ohio picked Thomas Dewey over Franklin D. Roosevelt in his successful bid for a fourth term.

And what made 1944 unique? It was the last time an Ohioan was on a major party presidential ticket. Gov. John Bricker (later a U.S Senator from Ohio) was Dewey’s vice presidential running mate.

Ostermeier said having Kasich on the ticket might mess up Ohio’s streak of being the closest to the national average, if Kasich were to help the GOP win Ohio by a large margin.

“Maybe it might mess up the numbers a bit for Ohio’s record of being the closest to the national outcome, but there’s no guarantee of that,’’ Ostermeier said.

And there’s certainly no guarantee that if Kasich jumps into this gargantuan pool of GOP presidential wanna-be’s that he will emerge as the winner – or even the as the running mate.

All of that remains to be seen.

For now, Ohio, thump your chests. There is no question about it – you make or break presidential candidates.