The first in a 10-part weekly series
COLUMBUS, Ohio -- The unconventional dynamics of this year’s presidential race have reset the national battleground map, with some traditional swing states no longer competitive and others up for grabs based on a mixture of fast changing demographics and this election cycle’s nominees.
Yet Ohio is holding on to its bellwether status as both the most important and most competitive battleground state, reflecting the characteristics and nuances of the contest.
The Buckeye State will test many of this cycle’s themes: the strength of Donald Trump’s appeal to disaffected voters despite many traditional Republicans’ aversion to him; whether down-ballot candidates can still convince voters to split their tickets, or whether their fates are tied to the presidential contests; and whether a candidate -- either Hillary Clinton or Trump -- can win a crucial state where more than half of voters view them unfavorably.
As Ohio Republican Rep. Steve Stivers put it: “We are the swingiest of swing states, that’s for sure.”
The candidates’ schedules this week reflect just how integral Ohio is to their White House aspirations. Clinton addressed the American Legion on Wednesday in Cincinnati. On Thursday, Trump will be campaigning in Wilmington and Vice President Joe Biden will stump for Clinton in the Youngstown area. Clinton and her running mate, Virginia Sen. Tim Kaine, will both campaign in Cleveland on Labor Day.
Trump has very few paths to the White House that don’t include the Buckeye State – no Republican has ever won a presidential contest without it – and Clinton could seal the deal if she wins here.
Ohio’s importance is inflated by other key states like Virginia, Colorado and Wisconsin becoming less competitive as Clinton has opened wide leads over Trump. According to the RealClearPolitics average, the Democratic nominee leads her rival by just under four percentage points here. Trump is performing better in Ohio than other battleground states because the percentage of white voters without a college degree is higher, says Kyle Kondik, author of “The Bellwether: Why Ohio Picks the President.”
“Ohio is often the gateway to the Midwest for Republicans,” Kondik says. “It's reasonable to think Trump may do better in Ohio than he does nationally.”
The demographics of the state favor the business tycoon. It has a higher percentage of white voters than the rest of the country, and a much smaller Hispanic population; the African-American population is on par with the national average.
While Trump has been attempting to make inroads with minority voters in recent weeks, his base of support lies in non-college-educated whites, meaning he has a strong potential base of support in Ohio.
His campaign has been focused on areas of the state where there are possibilities to woo these white, working-class voters who might otherwise lean Democratic. Since accepting the nomination in Cleveland, Trump has visited the state four times, with events in Toledo, Columbus, Youngstown, and Akron. “We are going into areas where we think Mr. Trump’s message appeals to disaffected Democrats and independents,” says Bob Paduchik, Trump’s Ohio manager who also ran George W. Bush’s successful efforts in the state in 2000 and 2004. “One of the reasons why Ohio has maintained such a competitive position for both candidates is because he has an appeal to disaffected Democrats and independents, unlike any candidate for statewide office in my recollection.”
Yet self-inflicted wounds may have squandered opportunities for Trump to keep the contest closer. He dissed John Kasich after the popular governor with deep connections throughout the state refused to endorse him. His back-and-forth with Kasich put him at odds with the Ohio GOP, which has campaign infrastructure throughout the state vital to a Republican running for president. And he blew through his post-convention polling bounce with a string of gaffes that might have had serious impact on his standing here.
"Over a couple of weeks ... the Trump campaign wasn’t effective in terms of being on message and starting to galvanize support."
“I think we saw after the conventions were over a couple of weeks where we just weren’t effective, the Trump campaign wasn’t effective, in terms of being on message and starting to galvanize support,” Matt Borges, the Ohio GOP chairman, told RealClearPolitics in an interview at his office in Columbus. “It was a missed opportunity. I don’t think a critical or fatal one, so we have to recover from that. He has been recovering that slowly over the last week, two weeks. He’s going to have to continue on this path.”
Borges and most of the state party infrastructure backed Kasich during his presidential primary run, and they’ve slowly transitioned to supporting Trump -- Borges said he and the nominee have become “kind of odd friends,” and that they speak whenever Trump comes to the state. He said that after Trump gave a major economic speech in Detroit in early August before campaigning in Canton, Ohio, he told the standard-bearer that if he campaigned like that every day, he would win the state. But if he continued campaigning like he had in the weeks following the convention, he would lose it.
“There’s nothing I can do. The only person who matters in this situation is you. You have to do this better,’” Borges said he told Trump. “He pretended to listen to me. I don’t have a big enough ego to think he takes my advice.”
Though Trump’s Ohio strategy has included reaching independents, so-called Reagan Democrats and disaffected voters, he also needs to consolidate GOP support here. Stivers, who represents parts of Columbus, acknowledged that “all of the Republicans have not quite come home yet,” but he expects the support will consolidate in the weeks before the election.
Specifically, Trump will need to work to earn the backing of traditional GOP voters in the suburbs who are averse to his tone and rhetoric.
"The question in this election is how much better does Trump do than Romney did with non-college-educated whites?"
“The question in this election is how much better does Trump do than Romney did with non-college-educated whites? And how does he then do with college-educated whites?” said Kondik. “There are going to be a lot of suburban, well-educated voters who voted for Romney who can't bring themselves to vote Trump.”
Women in suburban collar counties that surround Ohio’s biggest cities -- for example, in Delaware County, just north of Columbus -- will play a crucial role here, according to Jai Chabria, a former top adviser to Kasich.
“Are they going to hold their nose and vote for Donald Trump?” Chabria said. “Are they going to bite the bullet and vote for Hillary Clinton? Or are they going to stay home? Two of those three are not good for Donald Trump."
But while Trump works to consolidate support and make up ground in the Ohio polls, the other top Republican running statewide this year, freshman Sen. Rob Portman, is hoping to disprove another convention of politics: that voters no longer split their tickets. Over the last several cycles, voters have tended to support the party line much more often than usual, leading many to suspect that the fate of down-ballot Republicans in swing states would be tied to Trump’s success. But based on a strong campaign infrastructure and massive spending from both the campaign and outside groups, Portman has managed to outpace Trump in the polls, giving national Republicans hope that even if their nominee doesn’t succeed, key Senate races could still turn in their favor.
The Clinton campaign isn’t taking any advantages for granted. The nominee and Kaine made Ohio one of the first stops on their post-convention Rust Belt bus tour that was designed to woo working-class voters. She chose Cincinnati as the location to debut an endorsement from Sen. Elizabeth Warren, emphasizing the Democrat standard-bearer’s focus on a similar segment of the electorate.
But the Clinton team believes its ground efforts will outpace those of the opposition, citing as an example its 36 field offices in the state, which far outnumber Trump’s 16.
Clinton has made an explicit push in recent weeks to persuade not just independents but moderate Republicans turned off by Trump to support her candidacy. Her speech to veterans at an American Legion conference in Cincinnati on Wednesday exemplified this appeal. “This election should not be about ideology. It’s not just about differences over policy -- it's truly about who has the experience and the temperament to serve as president and commander-in-chief,” she said.
That strategy might have a specific impact in Ohio. Rep. Tim Ryan, of one Clinton’s biggest supporters in the state, mentioned white suburban voters -- the same voting bloc that Chabria, the former Kasich aide, said might abandon Trump -- as a group Clinton could persuade to flip. He said the Democratic convention, in particular, might have represented a turning point.
“It was just an elevated convention to where they say, ‘Maybe I don’t like Hillary, maybe she’s not my favorite and I’m a Republican, but they can govern the country. They’re responsible enough. They might do things I don’t like but she’ll be a responsible commander-in-chief,’” Ryan told RCP.
But among those voters and even Clinton supporters in the state, she has a problem with trust and favorability. A recent Monmouth University poll found that 51 percent of likely Ohio voters view Clinton unfavorably compared with only 33 percent who see her favorably (Trump was viewed unfavorably by 58 percent of likely voters and favorably by 29 percent). In a CBS News/YouGov poll last month, Clinton was leading Trump by six percentage points, but only 33 percent of voters said they think the phrase “tells the truth” described her -- including just 17 percent of independents.
Ryan, the Ohio congressman, said Clinton’s continuing visits to the state and focus on her background will help improve those numbers, as will efforts from top Ohio surrogates like himself, Rep. Marcia Fudge or Sen. Sherrod Brown to highlight positive elements of that background. He said he hears some of the concerns about trust from voters, but that most don’t have a deep knowledge about the former secretary of state’s history and work in the early parts of her life, and that’s the message he tries to relay.
"People don’t know, necessarily, a lot about [Clinton]. ... People don’t know what she did back when she was younger or when she was Arkansas first lady. A little reminder gives people a different viewpoint."
“People don’t know, necessarily, a lot about her,” Ryan said. “They don’t know what she did out of college. People don’t know what she did back when she was younger or when she was Arkansas first lady. A little reminder gives people a different viewpoint.”
Both Borges, the Ohio GOP chair, and state Democratic Party Chairman David Pepper told RCP that in terms of raw numbers, Ohio has more Democratic voters than Republican. While that translated into success for Obama’s two victories in the state in 2008 and 2012, Republicans had sweeping success in the midterm elections in 2010 and 2014. For Pepper and Ohio Democrats, that’s a source of frustration, but also motivation — Pepper said the outcome in Ohio will come down to turnout and that get-out-the-vote efforts from the party could be the difference between victory and defeat.
“The thing that energizes Democrats, though, is that we realize it’s on us to win,” Pepper said in an interview in his Columbus office. “When we do our job and generate high voter turnout, we do win.”
While helping Clinton secure the state’s electoral votes may be the immediate task, the more pressing long-term goal for Ohio Democrats is to reverse a trend of significant down-ballot losses that have depleted the bench and given Republicans nearly blanket control of the state.
Pepper, who became chairman last year, sees these two problems as intertwined. He said Democrats started organizing early in the Buckeye State this cycle, with a 30-person field staff in place last October. And they’re raising money on a plan dubbed “1618” -- with participants donating $16.18 per month -- to show their commitment to midterm success along with this year’s presidential cycle. The races two years from now, with an open governor's seat and Democratic Sen. Sherrod Brown facing a tough re-election battle, will be critical.
“Everything we are doing is to take the opportunity where we become the national center of it all for ’16 but don’t have that be a one-off,” Pepper said. “Use that to build the relationships, to build the best practices, to build the infrastructure, and then don’t let it fall off but continue it through ’18 when, if everything in the country relies on this November, everything in Ohio is at stake in 2018."
Next week: Florida