How Donald Trump Won Ohio: Bad Polling And Stronger Turnout From Rural Voters

Nov 5, 2020
Originally published on November 5, 2020 6:00 am

Elections officials around Ohio are still sorting out a few final ballots trickling in through the mail, but one outcome is certain: President Donald Trump won Ohio by about the same 8-point margin he got in 2016.

After months of polls suggesting a dead heat between Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden, the incumbent was able to pull out a comfortable lead in the Buckeye State again. Ohio State political scientist Herb Asher says that shift in the president’s favor suggests there’s underlying problem with how pollsters collect and weighted voters in rural areas.

“A lot of the errors that were made seem to be fairly consistent in terms of either underestimating the Trump performance or overestimating the Biden performance,” Asher says.

He points out that too-optimistic view for Democrats showed up in other states as well, like late polls indicating an 11-point advantage for Biden nationwide. But Asher dismisses the idea of “shy” Trump supporters explaining the apparent gap between surveys and results.

Not surprisingly, the state's three biggest counties—Cuyahoga, Franklin and Hamilton—all went to Biden.  But while turnout in urban centers like Cleveland, Columbus and Cincinnati saw Democrats pick up more votes than 2016, those improvements weren’t enough to offset gains elsewhere around the state.

And although Biden won comfortably in Cuyahoga County, Trump was able to pick up about 10,000 additional voters compared to the last time around.

When it comes to the suburbs, the night seemed to be going to plan for Democrats. It wasn’t ever likely for the party to flip counties surrounding urban centers, but by running up the score in the cities and then eating into the margins in neighboring counties, there was an argument Democrats could cobble together a victory. 

In counties like Butler, Warren and Clermont outside Cincinnati, Democrats were able to make some strides. But this "lose better" strategy played out most successfully in Delaware County just north of Columbus. The area has been trending toward Democrats for a few cycles, but in 2020, Biden was able to pick up about 16,000 votes—effectively cutting the GOP advantage in half.

“It may still be a Republican county but it’s not—the Republican Party has changed quite a bit, and of course Trump is not exactly the candidate of choice for many suburban highly educated voters, men and women,” Asher says.

In other counties near Columbus, the margins held steady or improved slightly. Near Cleveland was a mixed bag as well.

The most obvious place where Trump sealed his victory in Ohio was in the rural western portions of the state. In counties like Auglaize, Shelby and Mercer, Trump built on the already-massive advantage he held in 2016.

In Northeast Ohio, gathering in suburbs near Cleveland and stretching out to the Pennsylvania border, there was a broad, red shift. Lorain County, which Clinton narrowly won, went to Trump; Mahoning County flipped to the GOP as well.

In counties where Biden was able to build on 2016 turnout, the Trump campaign was usually able to find even more voters. Rather than losing better, Democrats often saw the GOP margin of victory grow.

“What you’re seeing here is, I think, Trump solidifying his support among white working class voters,” Asher says.

Trump was also able to gain ground in a number of the smaller Democratic counties. Lucas County, home to Toledo, went to Biden, but Trump was able to gain two points compared to the last cycle. In Athens County, meanwhile, both candidates underperformed when it came to turnout, but Trump was able to narrow the gap. 

Asher isn’t sure what’s behind the lighter turnout in Athens County, especially during a higher-turnout election. But he suggests it could be a product of fewer college students being on campus due to COVID-19.

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