For decades, Ohio was a swing state. In fact, the presidential nominee who carried that state won fourteen consecutive elections from 1964 to 2016. From Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton to Barack Obama and Donald Trump, the Buckeye State was a bellwether of where the country was politically.
But that tradition has since changed – and it happened quickly.
After rewarding Democrat Barack Obama with 5 and 3 percentage point victories in 2008 and 2012, respectively, Republican Donald Trump was dominant there in 2016 and 2020, winning by over 8 percentage points each time. Moreover, the state hasn’t elected a Democrat governor since 2007 while the State House has been in Republican control since 2011 and U.S. Senate candidates there have won just three times since 1994 (Sherrod Brown).
All six of the elected officials of the state – governor, lieutenant governor, attorney general, secretary of state, state auditor, and state treasurer – are white men from the Republican party. (This excludes members of the Supreme Court)
On paper, Ohio looks more like Mississippi or Alabama than a midwestern state where, not too long ago, candidates from both parties usually had reasonable shots of winning a major statewide race.
No, Ohio hasn’t been liberal or left-leaning in a very long time, if ever. But, it used to be a bastion of moderacy. And if it did lean a bit right, victorious Republicans there were usually mainstream conservatives like former Governor George Voinovichon or the moderate side a la former Ohio U.S Congressman/Governor John Kasich.
So, why such overwhelming support for Donald Trump? And why did Trumper and ideological extremist J.D. Vance defeat a quintessential, Midwestern, blue-collar Democrat in Tim Ryan in 2022 for the state’s vacant U.S. Senate seat?
It’s not quite demographics
Ohio and its neighboring state Michigan, which leans Democratic, are very similar demographically.
- Michigan and Ohio have similar white populations, 78% and 80%, respectively
- Michigan and Ohio have similar Black populations, 14% and 12%; respectively
- Bachelor’s degree recipients, both 18%;
- People over 65, both 17%
- Median household incomes, both $59,000 in 2020 dollars; and
- Workers belonging to unions, both between 12 and 13%
So while we’ve seen Democratic control of the Wolverine State soften over the years, it’s still fairly blue.
And what about all those big cities?
Urban areas tend to favor Democrats and Ohio has them in abundance. There are 6 Buckeye cities with populations over 100,000 and 3 with 300,000 or more people – Columbus, Cleveland, and Cincinnati. However, the 3 large metropolitan areas account for only 44 percent of Ohio’s population. In comparison, Pittsburgh and Philadelphia metro areas represent 57 percent of Pennsylvania’s population while Chicago and its suburbs represent 69 percent of Illinois’s population.
Although Ohio’s populous areas still have a strong blue lean, the farmlands have become overwhelmingly Republican, and the major urban areas aren’t large enough or blue enough to offset all the red everywhere in the state.
“Logan County, is so red that I have had town clerks tell me, literally, you have to send out a search party to find a Democrat,” wrote Kevin Fodir on Quora.
Trump took a bold move. Unlike any other candidate before him, he vowed to bring back manufacturing jobs that had been lost. He boldly promised something that few – Republican or Democratic – would ever have attempted and it paid off immensely as he was able to convert a lot of previous blue-collar Democrats to MAGA Republicans in blue strongholds like Cleveland and Youngstown that had been hit hard economically.
“Trump will be on the ballot in 2020, and he might well be able to repeat his message of hope for the hopeless economy,” wrote Kurt Kaletka on Quora prior to the 2020 election.
“You can be sure no Democratic candidate will, because they don’t have a plan to bring back all these manufacturing and mining jobs. Trump doesn’t have any such plan, either, but he manages to keep aloft the lie that he does. Unless enough Ohioans realize that the emperor has no clothes by Election Day 2020, Ohio will go red again.”
So, why is it happening in Ohio and not Michigan?
Well, it’s a combination of little things. Although the states have strong demographic similarities, their subtle differences add up.
- Ohio voters are a little more likely to be male, 52% to 50% – Advantage Republicans
- Ohio voters are more likely to be white, 83% to 80% – Advantage Republicans
- Ohio voters are less likely to reside in a union household – Advantage Republicans
- Ohio voters are much more likely to identify as Republicans, 41% to 32% – Advantage Republicans
- There are 6 cities in Ohio with over 100K as opposed to 8 in Michigan – Advantage Republicans
By themselves, the above figures aren’t consequential but together they’ve made a big difference.
It’s like a man being in a relationship with a woman who tells him, “It’s the little things that matter most.” And in Ohio, those ‘little advantages’ have paid big dividends for Republicans in a political environment so divided nationally.
Second, let’s not forget that while Ohio borders left-leaning Michigan to the south, it also borders ruby-red Indiana to the east. Although voting hasn’t always reflected it, perhaps Ohio has always been (at least in the last 40 years) a little more Hoosier than Wolverine. And when U.S. politics became incredibly divisive (2016), Ohio veered in its more natural direction.
Ohio has ended up like Indiana – deep red except for a handful of blue pockets. It will likely be a while before the Democrats are consistently competitive again there in statewide races.
Did anyone see it coming?
Ohio had been slowly shifting for the last two decades, but its metamorphosis was overlooked due to Obama’s victories there in 2008 and 2012. Nevertheless, the state has become reliably Republican for the same reasons that states like Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, and Michigan are no longer reliably Democratic – The shift from conservative Democrat or centrist to MAGA among a) rural voters and b) suburban blue-collar workers in moderate to highly-populated
Ohio had been slowly shifting for the last two decades, but its metamorphosis was overlooked due to Obama’s victories there in 2008 and 2012. Nevertheless, the state has become reliably Republican for the same reasons that states like Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, and Michigan are no longer reliably Democratic – The shift from conservative Democrat or centrist to MAGA among a) rural voters and b) suburban blue-collar workers in economically hard-hit areas.