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RealClearPolitics HorseRaceBlog

By Jay Cost

« Swing State Review: Ohio, Part 1 | HorseRaceBlog Home Page | On Obama's Message »

Swing State Review: Ohio, Part II

In the previous installment, we analyzed partisan voting patterns in Ohio. Today's essay will apply this analysis to the upcoming election.

Let's encapsulate the last essay's observations in a simple visual presentation. The following picture measures the partisan "swing" of each Ohio county. 1

Ohio Countywide Partisanship.jpg

The lightest red, lightest blue, and purple counties generally vote as the state does. They are bellwethers. A few observations about them are noteworthy.

First, Ohio's mid-sized cities are in the political center. The purple counties in the northwest are near Toledo (in Lucas County). Dayton is in Montgomery County, another purple county. Ditto for Springfield, in Clark County, and Canton, in Stark County.

Second, there are lots of swing counties in the south. We noted last week that Democrats tend to win when they form an inverted "C" on the map - winning the counties along Lake Erie, the Ohio-Pennsylvania border, and the Ohio River. However, such a pattern is not a guarantee. While the eastern border is generally reliable territory for Democrats, the southern border is not.

Let's apply these insights to the pragmatic task of winning a close election in the Buckeye State.

In a close election, a generic Democrat can generally count on many counties along Lake Erie and the eastern border, but he or she must supplement this base. There are several ways to do that:

(1) Win the counties surrounding Cleveland (Medina, Lake, and Ashtabula Counties).

(2) Win the south/southeastern counties in Ohio's sixth and eighteenth congressional districts.

(3) Win Columbus (Franklin County).

(4) Win mid-sized cities like Canton, Dayton, and metro Toledo.

(5) Minimize losses in the Cincinnati and Columbus suburbs/exurbs.

Of course, complete success would mean a blowout, not a close election. To win a close one, the Democrat need not do all this. Instead, he or she can win by mixing-and-matching several of these tasks. Indeed, if you look at the close elections we reviewed in the last essay, you'll see that Democratic victories all look a little different.

Meanwhile, the generic Republican can count on the western and central parts as his base. He or she must then stop the generic Democrat from doing several of these tasks. Much like the Democrat, there are many possible combinations for a GOP victory. 2

What might a McCain or Obama victory look like? By and large, we'll have to wait and see. Nevertheless, we can make a few reasonable points now, thanks to the primary results. However, we have to be careful with the data. After all, there was no McCain-Obama ballot question. So, the results cannot tell us how well one will do against the other. Nevertheless, they might tell us about a candidate's strength in one part of the state relative to his strength in another. 3

Let's begin with Obama-Clinton.

Clinton v. Obama.jpg

These results indicate potential problems and opportunities for Obama. We'll begin with the potential problems, of which there are two.

Start with the counties on the eastern border. Counties like Trumbull, Mahoning, Belmont and Monroe are solidly Democratic. So, we should not expect them to vote McCain. They'll go for Obama. The question is, by how much? They swung heavily for Bill Clinton, but less so for Gore and Kerry. Clearly, Obama was not the first choice of Democrats in these counties. Is this an indication that the swing voters here - the friends, neighbors, and relatives of the primary voters who voted so overwhelmingly for Clinton back in March - will be inclined to McCain? Possibly, but not necessarily.

Next, notice the Appalachian counties in the south and southeast. Unlike Trumbull and Mahoning, many of these are swing counties. Clinton defeated Obama by such large margins here that I would give McCain the advantage. Indeed, I think Obama would, too. After all, he chose to advertise in North Dakota and Montana, but not Kentucky and West Virginia, which these counties are a lot like.

This is the bad news for Obama. However, it is far from devastating. As mentioned above, there are many ways a Democrat can win Ohio. The primary map indicates the possibility of other such routes for Obama.

First, the Appalachian counties are not very populous, and many are losing people. Obama can suffer losses here, so long as they are not extreme. For instance, suppose that turnout in 2008 is identical to 2004, that Obama performs as well in those dark green counties as Kerry, and that in the rest of the state he performs as well as Bill Clinton did in 1996. Under those conditions, Obama would win. It would be closer than Clinton's victory - more like 2% than 6% - but a win is a win.

Second, many counties where Obama performed well have plenty of (as Paul Begala famously put it) "egg-heads and African Americans." Ohio University is in Athens County. Ohio State is in Franklin County. Greene County, in the southeast, has several colleges and universities, including Wright State and the famously liberal (and currently closed) Antioch College. Plus, there are sizeable African American populations in Cuyahoga, Franklin, Hamilton, Lucas, and Montgomery counties. If the Obama campaign amplifies turnout, this is where we will see its effects.

Third, Obama did relatively well in Butler County, north of Cincinnati, and he won Delaware County, north of Columbus. Both are large exurban counties, which have been a critical part of the GOP's success. The counties around Cincinnati and Columbus gave Bush a net of 175,000 votes in 2004 (and remember that Bush won the whole state by about 120,000 votes).

Obama claims he can win Republicans: can he win exurban Republicans? According to this map, possibly. He would not need to win these counties outright. It would be enough for him to need to minimize the size of McCain's victories. The gas price issue may be the crucial factor. When gas was $2 or less, exurbans swapped a longer commute for affordable homes and quiet, open spaces. Now that it is $4 or more, they are getting squeezed.

What about McCain? Unfortunately for our purposes, McCain was the all-but presumptive nominee by the time of the Ohio primary. This probably skewed the results in his favor, limiting our ability to use the data. Nevertheless, we might be able to make a few, extremely narrow conclusions.

McCain v. Huckabee.jpg

Note that McCain seemed to be strong in typical Democratic areas - the counties along Lake Erie, the PA-OH border, and the Ohio River. He also performed very well in metropolitan Columbus, winning Franklin County and its surrounding areas by over-sized margins. A similar result occurred in Cincinnati - he won Hamilton and Clermont counties by large margins. His showing in Butler County was strong, too.

This might be a sign that McCain is well-suited to counter Obama along the eastern border, as well as the suburbs and exurbs. However, that is far from a slam-dunk. After all, McCain was running against Huckabee, a candidate whose appeal never broadened beyond evangelicals. So, all we can say for sure is that McCain should be better at this than Huckabee, which is not saying much.

So, to conclude:

What To Watch in the Buckeye State

(1) If the national vote is close, expect Ohio to be close. It's a bellwether.

(2) Watch the mid-sized cities. They tend to vote with the winner. If Canton, Dayton, Springfield, and metro Toldeo go for the same candidate - he'll have the edge.

(3) Watch Franklin County (Columbus). If recent history is any guide, it will go for Obama. The question is by how much.

(4) Watch the exurbs. Obama promises to appeal to Republicans. These Republicans here are probably his best bet. McCain should still win the exurban counties of Cincinnati and Columbus, but Obama will be in good shape if he can turn them pink.

(5) Watch the eastern border. There are lots of "working class whites" here, the ones Obama had trouble with in the primaries. But it's not the strong Democrats he needs to worry about. It's the swing voters. If they vote McCain, these counties will be a lighter shade of blue than what Obama needs.

(6) Watch the south. It voted heavily for Clinton in the primary, and there are good reasons to expect it to support McCain. The bigger the margins, the better for the GOP.

(7) Watch Hamilton County (Cincinnati). Obama promises game-changing GOTV efforts. If he delivers, the first sign of success should be here. Traditionally, Hamilton County votes Republican, but just barely (and by steadily decreasing margins over the years). If Obama amplifies African American turnout enough to flip it, that's a sign that his plan's on track.

We'll review Pennsylvania next.


[1] This chart was created by examining all close elections (where the two major parties are separated by 10 points or less) over the last ten years to see how each county voted relative to the state. If, for instance, the state voted +2 Republican, and Cuyahoga County voted +20 Democrat, we would say that Cuyahoga County had a Democratic swing of 22 points. Each county gets a score like this for every close election, and those scores are averaged to produce the picture above.

[2] So, we see an intersection between the structures of politics and the personalities in politics. Each victorious candidate generates a winning coalition from the party base, plus his or her own unique personality, background, and message.

[3] For instance, suppose that Obama defeated Clinton by 6 points in one county, but lost by 40 points in another county. It is reasonable to infer from this that Obama is better positioned in the first county than the second. We have to be careful with this kind of inferential work because the data is not fine-grained enough to make some types of judgments. For instance, if Obama lost the second county by 6 points, rather than 40, we would be unwise to make any judgment between the +6 and -6 counties. The bottom line is that modest judgments can be made if we are careful with the data we have.

-Jay Cost