The 2020 presidential election could end up being a critical one not just to the winner and his or her supporters, but also to Ohio. Buckeye State voters have picked the winning candidate in each presidential contest since 1960 – and no Republican has won the White House without winning Ohio.
The question is whether the state will do it again.
There’s a clear trend that’s been developing across the country and in Ohio, according to Kyle Kondik, an Ohio native who now edits the political website Sabato’s Crystal Ball from the University of Virginia.
“Generally speaking, white voters with a four-year college degree are generally trending more Democratic; white voters without a four-year college degree generally trending more Republican - so, kind of white working class voters. There are a lot of those kinds of voters in Ohio,” Kondik said.
Kondik is a former reporter and once worked for Democratic former Ohio attorney general Richard Cordray.
Ohio elections statistics expert Mike Dawson, who worked for Republican U.S. Senators George Voinovich and Mike DeWine, runs the website ohioelectionresults.com. Dawson said Donald Trump beat Hillary Clinton by eight points in Ohio in 2016, scoring big in rural areas with voters with less education.
“It was really stunning to me, just to look at from the 2016 to the 2012 election that people with a bachelor's degree or higher I looked at subdivisions in the top six counties in the state and in the top 50 educated subdivisions. Trump did worse in 49 of the 50 and he did significantly worse in many of them,” Dawson said.
Dawson said in 38 counties – 43 percent of the state – Trump had the best performance of any Republican presidential candidate since 1980. And in 22 counties, Trump had the highest percentage of votes of any Republican presidential candidate since 1856. Most of those are in Appalachian Ohio.
“It used to be those counties in Appalachian Ohio switched repeatedly because their economic lot in life was not improving. So they want to give the new person a chance,” Dawson said. “They are not switching back and forth. Now they're staying solidly Republican and even becoming more Republican so I'm not sure the economy is going to have as big an impact in this next election as it has in the past.”
Kondik agreed, saying it’s a shift he’s seeing in American politics.
“People are voting more on kind of these big cultural issues: same sex marriage, abortion rights and then kind of harder to quantify kind of cultural issues like whether Colin Kaepernick kneels during the Pledge of Allegiance during an NFL game – you know, issues of sort of patriotism and national identity,” Kondik said. “And I think what the president has done is made the Republican Party sort of more of the kind of populist cultural party which arguably was already but I think Trump kind of hyper charged that sort of trend.”
Ohio’s electorate is older and whiter than in other states, which has suggested not only that Ohio is growing more Republican but also that it could lose its status as a key presidential election swing state.
But Democrats have touted gains since 2016 in suburban Ohio and have noted that in 2018, Democratic US Sen. Sherrod Brown won several counties that Trump won two years earlier. But Dawson said it still looks like a rough road for a Democrat to win Ohio.
“My suspicion is that the race in 2020 will be closer because I think Trump has come close to maxing out in those rural counties - like I said, he did the best since 1856,” Dawson said. “I'm not sure he's hit the floor yet in the suburban counties. So I think you'll see a closer race. I still think that all things being equal Trump will win.”
And Kondik agreed the path toward a Democratic victory is a hard one, but if it happens, it’ll be a big win.
“I think you'd probably expect Ohio to again vote probably significantly to the right of the nation again as it did in 2016,” Kondik said. “It doesn't necessarily mean the state is unwinnable for a Democrat. But I think that if a Democrat wins Ohio in 2020, that Democrat will probably be elected in a relative landslide - you know something like Obama 2008 when he won by about seven points nationally.”
Kondik predicted in 2016 that if Trump wins, Ohio would vote for him. And he said based on history and demographics, Trump would likely do better in Ohio than nationally. Trump won Ohio by 8 points, and lost the national popular vote by 2 points – meaning in 2016, Ohio was 10 points more Republican than the rest of the country.