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Analysis: In Ohio, Biden Tears Up The Old Playbook

joe biden
Andrew Harnik
While on a train tour through Ohio and Pennsylvania, Democratic presidential candidate, former Vice President Joe Biden, made a stop at Amtrak's Pittsburgh Train Station, Wednesday, Sept. 30, 2020.

Ohio is back in the conversation when it comes to presidential politics, but two things are certain in this year of almost universal uncertainty.

  1. Joe Biden does not need to win Ohio to be elected president.
  2. Donald Trump absolutely must if he expects to have a second term.

For the Biden-Harris campaign, the formula for winning Ohio is easy – study every move Hillary Clinton's campaign made in Ohio in 2016 and do the exact opposite.
Here's a good example of what not to do:

On Halloween in 2016, eight days before the election, several thousand people gathered in Cincinnati's Smale Riverfront Park at dusk for a rally featuring Hillary Clinton.

The folks in that crowd were loud and enthusiastic and totally dedicated to making Clinton president. Clinton gave a passionate speech about how Trump would be a divisive figure in the White House, setting one group of Americans against another.

It was all well and good, with plenty of pretty TV pictures of the Cincinnati riverfront and happy people, but it didn't amount to a hill of beans.

hillary clinton
Credit Andrew Harnik / AP
Then-Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton arrives at a rally at Smale Riverfront Park in Cincinnati, Monday, Oct. 31, 2016.

She was preaching to the choir. Everyone there was going to vote for her – or already had, by absentee ballot or early in-person voting.

But that rally – and subsequent rallies in Cleveland and northeast Ohio in the days leading up to the election – fit perfectly into the old, worn-out Democratic theory on how to win Ohio: just roll up big numbers in Ohio's Three C's – Cincinnati, Columbus and Cleveland – and try to break even in the rest of the state.

But Ohio voters were no longer playing along with the plan.

Ignore the small towns and county seats of the rural counties of western Ohio. Ignore the Mahoning Valley and eastern Ohio, a region that was (and is) battered and beaten down by disappearing industries and high unemployment. Ignore southeastern Ohio, a place of chronic poverty that seems doomed by geography to fail.

A perfect formula for snatching defeat from the jaws of victory. A perfect formula for losing Ohio by 8 percentage points, which is exactly what Clinton did, giving Trump the gift of Ohio's 18 electoral college votes.

Dumb. Should never have happened. But it did.

The Clinton campaign can't be blamed for spending time in Cleveland, because, in the end, a fall-off in turnout among Black voters hurt her chances in Ohio, but she should have been taking the case to voters in those "forgotten" regions of Ohio, who yearned for attention and were drawn to the promises of Donald Trump.

Given the recent polling in Ohio, there's no question that Trump's 8 point lead of four years ago is either mostly gone or entirely gone. The polling has Ohio as a dead heat, with Trump having a statistically insignificant lead in some and Biden with an equally insignificant lead in others.

And where did that lead go?

The polling would suggest that it is suburban women – many of them college educated, many of them Republicans – who are abandoning ship on Trump, and aren't buying his dog-whistle insinuations that Biden would destroy the suburban lifestyle, implying that their lily white suburbs will somehow be overrun by people of color.

It's an argument that shows how out of touch Trump is with life in America. He seems to have a 1950s view of the suburbs, most of which are already racial and ethnic melting pots and doing quite well, thank you.

He's also slipping in eastern and southeast Ohio, where promises of bringing back job-creating industries have been largely unmet.

This is why on Sept. 30, the morning after that insane "debate" in Cleveland, Biden took a train tour from Cleveland to eastern Ohio and western Pennsylvania, going to a multitude of towns that flipped to Trump in 2016 and helped make him president.

It was a smart move. And while the Trump campaign is pulling its ad dollars out of Ohio, the Biden campaign is investing more.

One of the interesting aspects of the Biden effort in Ohio is the large amount of money that is being spent on radio advertising in the rural counties of western Ohio and in the small counties of the Appalachian foothills in southeast Ohio. People listen to those small town radio stations; they form the background noise of many a household and business in rural, small town Ohio.

Some of those 2016 voters who went for Trump can be won back, Biden told The New York Times.

"Others, it's about cutting the margin,'' Biden said. "Even if we just cut the margin, it makes a gigantic difference."

And, in most of the areas of Ohio that Trump won in 2016, Biden is expected to outperform Hillary Clinton. That, alone, could be enough to flip Ohio.

So, you ask, why did Biden spend Monday in Toledo and Cincinnati?

Toledo was an easy mark; the auto industry is a major employer there and Biden likes to take credit for the bailout of the auto industry during the Obama administration. And Toledo and northwest Ohio is an area the Trump campaign targeted for special attention the last time around.

Cincinnati is a good place to start, because the Biden campaign believes it can build on the 10 percentage point win that Clinton enjoyed in Hamilton County four years ago.

But Cincinnati is a one of the "Three C's" and it's more likely the election will come down to places like Belmont County and Alliance than Ohio's biggest cities.

politically speaking 2
Credit Jim Nolan / WVXU

Read more "Politically Speaking" here.

Howard Wilkinson is in his 50th year of covering politics on the local, state and national levels.