The Middle of Nowhere

What does Ohio matter to the Democrats?

Danny O’Connor shakes the hand of a man in shirtsleeves and a tie.
Democrat Danny O’Connor visits a coffeehouse to thank voters and volunteers on Aug. 8, 2018, in Columbus, Ohio. O’Connor narrowly lost a special congressional election and a general election in a red district last year Scott Olson/Getty Images

WESTERVILLE, Ohio—At an event in an ice cream shop downtown in this small suburb of Columbus, hours before Democrats’ presidential debate blocks away, Democratic National Committee Chairman Tom Perez held court with a dozen or so young, rising Ohio Democrats to declare that the national party was here for a reason.

“We’re here in Ohio because Ohio’s a battleground,” Perez said, “and I’m confident we can win Ohio.”

Perez wasn’t just trying to cheer up the troops. He was weighing in on a live, controversial question: Should Democrats give up on Ohio?

For more than half a century, this question would have been unimaginable. Ohio was the definitive bellwether state in presidential elections, with the candidate who won its electoral votes winning the presidency every time, going back to the 1964 election. Those electoral votes were especially critical to the winners of the first four elections of this century.

In 2016, though, Ohio was nowhere near the national tipping point. Donald Trump won it by 8 percentage points over Hillary Clinton, while 13 states were decided by narrower margins. That new, stable reddish hue was confirmed in the 2018 midterms. Although Democratic Sen. Sherrod Brown was able to win his reelection, Republicans swept statewide executive offices despite a strong blue cycle that saw Democrats regain ground in other Midwestern swing states.

From the cold perspective of Electoral College math, Ohio is unusually distant from the quadrennial importance it’s grown accustomed to—which has drawn scores of reporters to its small-town diners every cycle for Delphic wisdom about the election outcome. Now it’s just kind of … a red state, and not one in which the major Democratic presidential candidates saw fit to hold events before or after the debate.

Ohio Democrats, well aware of what recognition as a Republican stronghold would mean for their attention and resources, are understandably sensitive to the label. Some of their rebuttals are better than others, with the worst ones relying on adages that the evidence no longer supports.

When I asked Danny O’Connor, the Franklin County recorder who narrowly lost a special congressional election—and a general election—in a red district last year, why Democrats should invest in Ohio, he responded with a neat digest of the dated lore.

“I think Ohio is such a perfect microcosm of the United States,” he said. “When you’re winning in Ohio, you’re winning in the United States.” Sherrod Brown, meanwhile, told CNN that Ohio has “always gone with the winner and it will again next year.”

Ohio is not a perfect microcosm of the United States—or, as its variant goes, a “cross-section of America”—anymore. It is much whiter than the United States as a whole and has a relatively high percentage of whites without college degrees. This makes it favorable to Donald Trump. So O’Connor’s adage is maybe one-quarter true. If Democrats win in Ohio, then they win the United States in a near-landslide, because already they’ll have clinched the election by locking up Michigan, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, probably Florida and North Carolina, and possibly Arizona, Georgia, and Iowa. If Republicans win Ohio, then they’ve simply won a state they should win.

The better arguments for Democratic competitiveness in Ohio in 2020 are still bank shots but do justify a certain amount of investment in the state—if only to require Republicans to spend resources trying to protect it. Recent polling shows Trump’s approval rating is underwater in Ohio. Democrats believe that hitting Trump over “broken promises” to Obama-Trump voters in the state—the closure of the Chevrolet Cruze plant in Lordstown, Republicans’ effort to repeal protections for preexisting conditions, and the effects of tariffs on farmers—gives them a chance to draw some back.

“Barack Obama won 40 percent of the vote in rural Ohio, and Hillary Clinton won something like 27 percent of the vote in rural Ohio,” Perez told me. “That was a huge difference-maker. And so we’re going to school on that.”

He transitioned from there, though, to a discussion of Democrats’ success in Wisconsin in 2018, where Democrats vastly improved in “suburban, exurban, and rural parts of the state, where we organized, and where we performed much better” than in 2016. Since we were talking about Ohio, and not Wisconsin, I asked him why this didn’t happen in Ohio.

“Well, the other side had motivation as well.” Well.

Ohio Republicans did have the benefit of the lingering popularity of outgoing Republican Gov. John Kasich and a Republican gubernatorial candidate, in former Sen. Mike DeWine, who was not particularly frightening either. These figures were able to maintain some of the traditional suburban Republican strength that evaporated elsewhere in the country. Democrats hope that, with Trump atop the ballot instead of a friendly neighborhood Republican, they can hasten the suburban switch and put themselves in a more competitive position.

And that’s how a Democratic presidential debate landed in Westerville, Ohio, a tiny college town on the outskirts of Columbus that was previously an anchor of the Republican coalition, going for George W. Bush by comfortable margins when Ohio twice put him over the top. Westerville went for Mitt Romney in 2012 by 8 percentage points, but Clinton won it by 5 in 2016. In the 2018 special election, O’Connor won Westerville by 13 percentage points. Westerville serves, in other words, as the perfect enclave for Democrats to cherry-pick for PR purposes in a state where far more voters have moved away from them than have come their way.

If Democrats can run up the score in the inner suburbs like this, while not actively chasing away rural and small-town voters, they would have a shot. This time, though, Ohio Democrats wouldn’t be celebrating for their role in deciding the outcome. They’d be gravy on a victory won earlier in the night. How much is that worth to the party?