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By Jay Cost

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Swing State Review: Ohio, Part 1

Today I initiate a new series of essays that will discuss the electoral landscape of the swing states.* Each essay will consider a different state in some detail, outlining how partisanship in the state typically manifests itself, and what this manifestation might mean for November.

We'll begin with Ohio, which typically has been a crucial component of Republican voting coalitions ever since the Civil War. That being said, Ohio has not been a state that the Republican Party could necessarily count on. Since 1960, it has voted with the winning party in every cycle. That's 11 in a row. Plus, Ohio's popular vote has tracked closely with the national popular vote. Over those 11 presidential elections, Ohio's vote has deviated from the national vote by a scant 2%.

Ohio behaves like this because of its diversity. It has large populations firmly rooted in one party or the other. A great example of this can actually be seen in the famous election of 1896. In Ohio, Democrat William Jennings Bryan won 47% of the vote against William McKinley, of Canton. At first blush, that seems strange. Why didn't McKinley dominate his home state? The answer had to do with the state's diversity. McKinley was the candidate of prosperous American industry, Bryan of struggling farmers. Because Ohio was a state with sizeable farming and industrial elements, it split its vote between the two.

While the nature of the Republican and Democratic bases have changed - the fact remains that both parties have large enough bases that competitive elections are inevitable. The relatively narrow slice of voters in the center of the state is thus endowed with the power to swing many elections one way or the other.

Because the zeitgeist currently belongs to the Democrats, it is fitting to begin our investigation with the last presidential election Democrats won - the anticlimactic contest of 1996. Bill Clinton won Ohio by 6.4 points. How did he manage it?

1996 Election for President.jpg

Clinton's victory is visually striking. It is a kind of inverted "C." He dominated the counties along Lake Erie and the Ohio-Pennsylvania border. Prior to the election of 1932, these places were solidly Republican. With FDR in 1932, they switched sides and generally have not switched back.

Furthermore, note the cluster of counties that Clinton carried in the southern part of the state. These are the poorest counties in all of Ohio. There is little farming or industry here. They are actually part of Appalachia, and many of them are classified as economically distressed. Typically in these counties, you'll find the biggest employers to be various governmental agencies (local school districts, the state, etc) and Wal-Mart.

Additionally, observe the three counties in the middle of the state that Clinton won. These are Montgomery County (Dayton), Clark County (Springfield), and fast-growing Franklin County (Columbus). Each of these counties have sizeable African American populations, which makes them more electorally balanced than their neighbors. Also, note the suburban counties that surround Franklin, Hamilton (Cincinnati), and Cuyahoga (Cleveland). By and large, Clinton did not win them, but he kept Dole's margins relatively small. Neither Al Gore nor John Kerry could do that to George W. Bush, which is a big reason both of them lost.

Bob Dole, for his part, generally won central and western Ohio. These are areas with vast expanses of farmland. However, you're much more likely to find people in these parts making a living through industrial work. As we'll see in a little bit - the central and western parts of Ohio constitute the Republican base in the state.

The pattern of Clinton's victory is neither unique nor accidental. Instead, this inverted "C" forms the geographical core of the Democratic coalition. When Democrats win, their victories tend to take this shape. Consider, for instance, the 2006 election for Attorney General, which the Democratic candidate won by about the same amount as Clinton did.

2006 Election for Attorney General.jpg

There are some modest differences in how the vote is dispersed, but by and large we see the same essential pattern. That is noteworthy. Even though the election for Attorney General is not nearly as salient as the election for president, the same basic dispersion of the vote remains.

Sooner or later, a political party in power will mess things up really well, giving the opposition an opportunity for a big win. Republican governor Bob "No Contest" Taft had succeeded in doing that by 2006 - which meant that the Democrats had an opportunity to win some offices by large margins. Their victory in the Attorney General race was relatively narrow, but Sherrod Brown's victory over Mike DeWine in the Senate contest was broader, and thus illustrative of what the state looks like when Democrats win a bigger majority.

2006 Election for Senate.jpg

Brown's 12-point victory did not occur because the state voted homogeneously. That inverted "C" is still the essential pattern. Instead, the differences between Brown's win and the other Democratic victories are two-fold. First, the inverted "C" is more pronounced in Brown's victory. The counties in the east and south that vote Republican in other elections flipped to the Democrats; the counties that vote Democratic did so more intensely. Second, the counties outside the "C," while still red, are generally a much lighter shade. DeWine still carried the western and central counties, but his margins were much smaller. Importantly for the Democrats, DeWine was relatively weak in the suburban counties that surround Columbus and Cincinnati, and he was defeated outright in the suburban counties around Cleveland.

These days, gleeful Democrats and gloomy Republicans forget that partisan triumphs are part of a larger partisan cycle. The competitive character of elections promotes the cycle: defeat inspires innovation, reinvigoration, and eventually restoration. If we take a broad enough time frame, we can appreciate this. In fact, the Democratic triumph of 2006 ultimately depended upon the Democratic defeat of 2002, which serves as a good transition to examine how Ohioans behave when they are feeling more like elephants and less like donkeys. The following picture examines Taft's landslide reelection for governor.

2002 Election for Governor.jpg

This is an inverse of the 2006 Senate race. What we see is that the red counties became more red, and the counties of the inverted "C" became light-blue or even pink.

What about a more modest Republican victory? George W. Bush's 2004 win in Ohio is instructive. It is illustrated below.

2004 Election for President.jpg

As mentioned above, Bush failed to win Franklin County. He also lost it in 2000. This is noteworthy. Prior to Bush, the last victorious Republican to win Ohio without winning Franklin County was Benjamin Harrison, who bested Grover Cleveland in the state (but nevertheless lost reelection) in 1892. A lot has changed since then - but it is interesting that, despite improving statewide relative to Dole statewide, he was unable to improve on Dole's performance here. Moving forward, weakness in Franklin County might put more pressure on Republican candidates to win other parts of the state by larger margins. Of course, this might be mitigated by continued growth in "exurban" counties, where Republicans had been doing quite well (prior to 2006, of course). Of the 10 fastest-growing counties in Ohio, Bush won all 10, with an average of 65% of the vote.

Beyond Franklin, Bush generally was successful in Ohio. Several factors contributed to his victory. First, he consolidated the Republican hold over the central and western portions of the state - most counties there gave him margins of 20 points and higher.

Second, he kept Kerry's margins pretty minimal in the northeast. Bush was unable to make much of a dent in Cuyahoga County (Cleveland) or Mahoning County (Youngstown), but everywhere else in the northeast moved noticeably in his direction.

Third, he generally improved upon Dole's performance in the suburban and exurban counties that surround Cincinnati, Columbus, and Cleveland. We indicated this earlier by noting that Bush carried the fastest growing counties in the state. What we see in a comparison of the 1996 and 2004 maps is that the counties surrounding Ohio's three largest cities all became less blue and more red.

Fourth, relative to the results in 1996, Bush actually flipped most counties in the southeast. Remember that these counties are the economically distressed parts of the state. If Clinton's appeal to these voters was based on economics, Bush's was based on culture.

The countywide results we see in Bush's 2004 victory are not unique. Typically, that is exactly what we see when Republicans win by a modest margin. You can confirm that by checking out Taft's first election in 1998, Bush's first election in 2000, and the ever-so-narrow victory of Republican Mary Taylor for Auditor in 2006. Between these three and Bush's reelection, you'll note some variation between the counties. But by and large, Republican victories look generally similar.

All in all, we have a good sense of what Democratic and Republican victories look like. The following picture specifies this idea further by examining how the map changes as the statewide votes change.


This demonstrates the "flow" of vote patterns in Ohio. As one party or another begins to run away with the election, the picture changes in a systematic fashion. These results date back to 1996, but a trip further back in time shows the same pattern.

Old and New.jpg

These days, everybody talks about this place or that place "emerging blue." A few years back, the talk was about "emerging red." That's all well and good, and some places are indeed emerging - but this picture tells us we need to be careful with all that talk. The fact remains that vote choices depend largely upon partisanship - which, even though it can and does change at the margins, remains a fundamentally stable political characteristic, typically passed on from parent to child. This is how we can explain elections separated by 40 years or more in basically the same terms. There is a great deal of stability to American electoral behavior. We need to remember that.

This concludes the general overview of voting in Ohio. In the next installment, we'll use this analysis as a foundation to understand exactly what McCain and Obama need to do to win the Buckeye State.

[*]I'd like to thank Sean Oxendine for the helpful advice he gave in the start-up phase of this project, as well as for letting me use his maps prior to my figuring out how to make my own.

-Jay Cost