Commentary: Is Ohio's Bellwether Status Gone For Good?

Apr 24, 2019

Ohio, which had a reputation as the nation's ultimate bellwether state in presidential elections, threw everyone for a loop in 2016 when voters here chose Donald Trump over Hillary Clinton.

Not by a little, but by a lot – an 8.5 percentage point lead over the Democratic presidential candidate, whom nearly everyone thought would handle Trump easily.

After all, Barack Obama won Ohio over John McCain in 2008 and Mitt Romney in 2012.

The pundits, the political scientists, the political professionals, the Democrats and even a lot of Republicans all thought so, too.

All wrong.

At least they had a lot of company in their severe wrongness.

"If somebody tells me they saw this coming in Ohio, I'd have a hard time believing it," said Mike Dawson, a Republican political strategist whose website, ohioelectionresults.com, is an extraordinary compilation of Ohio election statistics going back to 1855.

In one sense, at least, it blew up the idea of Ohio being a bellwether state.

Yes, the Buckeye State chose the winner in the presidential election for the 30th time out of the past 32 elections. That's very bellwether-like.

But this is not:

One of the conditions of being a bellwether state is that its vote total is very close to the national average, which, up until Election Night 2016, Ohio had repeatedly been for many decades.

But not this time.

Clinton won the popular vote nationally by nearly three million votes. In Ohio, Trump won the popular vote by about 455,000 votes.

Extremely un-bellwether like.

In early 2016, Kyle Kondik, an Ohio-born political analyst at the University of Virginia's Center for Politics and the managing editor of Sabato's Crystal Ball, a closely read newsletter on national politics, published a book called The Bellwether: Why Ohio Picks the President.

It was a dead-on, 100% correct examination of the many social, historical, demographic and ideological reasons why Ohio had been a bellwether state in presidential elections for such a long time.

But after the election, Kondik was among the first to acknowledge that things had changed because of Trump.

"Ohio may be trending Republican and away from being the nation's top bellwether,'' Kondik wrote in the Crystal Ball right after the election.

He also said – rightly, according to exit polling – that there was a significant portion of the electorate "who had an unfavorable view of Trump but they voted for him anyway. If he doesn't follow through on the promises he made in the campaign, those voters may be willing to flip in the next election."

Now, we are on the doorstep of that next election. About 20 Democrats have announced they are running for their party's nomination to take on Trump in 2020.

The 2020 campaign is well underway.

Kondik is not at all sure that much has changed with Ohio voters.

"There have been changes in the electorate that have disadvantaged the Democrats,'' Kondik told WVXU this week.

A major factor, he said, is the aging population of Ohio.

Dawson said the electorate in Ohio is becoming much more conservative on cultural issues such as guns and abortion – something that was seen clearly in the Republican sweep of state offices in the 2018 election.

Regardless of what happened in the 2016 presidential election, Ohio is better described as a "purple" state rather than red or blue. In the last decade of U.S. House races in Ohio, the electorate has been split nearly 50-50 between GOP and Democratic candidates. But, because the Republicans drew the district lines in 2011, Democrats have only 25% of the 16 House seats.

Can Ohio voters do a U-turn in 2020 and choose a Democratic candidate over Trump?

"Quite frankly, it depends on the Democrat who is nominated,'' Dawson said. "A Joe Biden might do well. Someone like the South Bend mayor, Pete Buttigieg, might catch on. Sherrod Brown would have been good.

"The key to winning back Ohio for the Democrats is to not go too far to the left,'' Dawson said. 

Three key states where Trump, in effect, won the presidency are Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and Michigan – all of which Trump won by narrow margins. The Democrats need to find a way to win them back.

"The fact is, Ohio is redder than Wisconsin and Michigan, and much redder than Pennsylvania,'' Dawson said.

"Can Ohio get its influence back?'' Dawson said. "I have no idea. Ask me when The Democrats get a nominee."

Credit Jim Nolan / WVXU

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