Has Ohio, widely considered the swinging gate that allows presidential candidates entry into the White House, become an exclusive portal for Republicans, and a lock to send President Donald Trump back to the White House in 2020?
Recent media reports — many highlighting GOP operatives who are eager to promote an early narrative on the nascent presidential campaign — suggest that Democrats are giving up on winning the Buckeye State’s 18 electoral votes in next year’s election. As this line of reasoning goes, Trump won the state by 8% in 2016 and continues to be popular enough that Democratic presidential hopefuls aren’t even going to try to win over Ohioans whose votes for Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012 sent him to the Oval Office.
In a recent opinion piece on CNN’s website, Scott Jennings, who worked in President George W. Bush’s administration and served as a campaign adviser to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), all but encouraged Democratic presidential hopefuls to abandon Ohio as a lost cause.
“Ohio should fall off Democrats’ target map completely as the two parties fight over other battleground states,” he wrote, reasoning that Trump will point to economic growth over the past two years to convince erstwhile Democratic voters to stick with him. Advertisement “If I were setting up an electoral vote strategy for a Democratic nominee in 2020, I wouldn’t waste my resources on Ohio. Trump’s going to win it again using the same arguments Obama did in 2012.” Ohio Democrats admit to hearing these arguments. But they say such predictions are way too early to be accurate. Anyone who thinks Trump is on a glide path to victory in Ohio is being misled by the GOP’s massive spin machine *and is* failing to understand how people and politics work in the state, Ohio Democratic Party Chair David Pepper told ThinkProgress. “You can’t listen only to the pundits in Washington,” Pepper said. “I don’t even think Democrats in Washington are saying that they’re giving up on Ohio. You’re only hearing that from Republicans.” Still, in interview after interview over the past week, Pepper and a host of Democratic Party officials, activists, and organizers told ThinkProgress they’re not taking chances and are mounting efforts in each of Ohio’s 88 counties to boost voter rolls, point out Trump administration failures, and ignite excitement for the eventual Democratic presidential nominee. The idea, they say, is to make sure the roster of presidential hopefuls take Ohio voters as seriously as ever. Former Vice President Joe Biden will make his first visit to the state as a presidential candidate Saturday as the featured speaker at the Human Rights Campaign’s 2019 dinner in Columbus. Prior to Biden’s visit, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (MA), who held a May 11 town hall in Cincinnati, was the most recent candidate to appear in Ohio. Sen. Kamala Harris (CA), addressed an April 28 dinner of the Cuyahoga County Democratic Party. State officials said other candidates, including Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders (I), former Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke, and South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg have trekked through the state since announcing their campaigns. One candidate, Rep. Tim Ryan of Youngstown, is a native son who doesn’t have to journey far from home to campaign in the state. Pepper said the party isn’t predicting which candidate will win the nomination, but is making statewide efforts to support whoever wins. He added it’s entirely possible that Ohio will swing back into the blue state column next year, noting it’s far too early now to predict the outcome of the 2020 election. Making a prediction based on what happened in 2016 would be foolhardy because so much has changed in the state since the last presidential election, he said. “Like other parts of the country, but especially here in the Midwest, there’s a huge shift in voting patterns,” Pepper said, pointing to anecdotal and empirical evidence that suggests voters are moving away from the extremism of Trump’s takeover of the GOP. “Ten years ago, the suburbs and counties near bigger cities such as those around Cleveland, Columbus and Cincinnati traditionally voted Republican,” he said. “But they’ve become disenchanted and many of those areas are now 50-50 and some are solidly Democratic. Overall, the gains in the suburbs is bigger than the rural counties where we’ve lost voters.” Shontel Brown, chair of the Cuyahoga County Democratic Party, echoed the belief that Ohio voters aren’t thrilled by Trump’s performance in office, creating an opening for the party’s nominee to recapture the state. “Ohioans are starting to recognize that Trump has broken many promise to the people of Ohio,” Brown said, pointing to unfulfilled promises to protect auto worker jobs and guaranteeing wage increases. “We’re still in play.” Brown pointed to polling conducted by Ohio Northern University that supports Democrats’ belief that Ohio is still a swing state. In an online poll of 1,507 registered Ohio voters last month, Trump isn’t as popular in Ohio as GOP operatives and media accounts suggest. The poll found that 50% of respondents are dissatisfied with how Trump is handling his job, compared to 35% who are satisfied and 15% with no opinion. “The data from this poll suggest that Trump has a drag in Ohio, which is critical to his retaining the presidency,” said ONU political science professor Robert Alexander, who directed a team of students in producing the poll. “While many are putting the state in Trump’s win column for 2020, it seems that is premature. His approval/disapproval ratings are especially stunning, given the state’s relatively healthy economy, which is usually a president’s best ally in terms of popularity.”
Brown said the key for Democrats in Ohio is to make sure voters get to the polls. “In 2016, people took it for granted and a lot of people stayed home,” she said. “That won’t happen this time around.”
She added that Democrats have begun planning for next year’s elections by mounting 10-12 phone banks across the state, targeted to identifying tens of thousands of Ohioans who have been purged off the voting rolls. Additionally, the party is organizing a “Summer of Action” program to register voters and recruit volunteers in communities where potential Democratic voters live. “We have to be very conscious of having people ready when a candidate is selected,” Brown said. “We don’t want to be in the position of having to rush or hire outside organizations to what work that needs to be done in our communities.” Still, to hear the messaging emanating from Washington’s chattering classes, Ohio will be an uphill climb for the Democratic nominee, regardless of who that turns out to be. Despite the demographic trends that show Ohio is becoming more diverse, its population remains whiter than the nation as a whole, with a less-well educated percentage of residents, which favors Trump’s voting base. Indeed, outside of the big cities such as Cleveland and Columbus, the state has an above-average share of white working-class voters, who have been steadily growing more Republican, Kyle Kondik, author of The Bellwether: Why Ohio Picks the President, said in a recent interview with Roll Call. “I don’t think that Ohio has gotten to the point that it is unwinnable for Democrats,” Kondik said. “If the candidate proves to be not as weak with white non-college voters as [2016 Democratic nominee Hillary] Clinton was, you could see the Democrats perform better across the Midwest, which might include Ohio.” Janet Carson, who chairs the Geauga County Democratic Party and is president of the Ohio Democratic Chairs Association, agreed wholeheartedly with that assessment. Based on her her travels around the state and meetings with county Democratic leaders, Carson said “we’re very energized and motivated to turn Ohio blue again.” Her optimism springs from Ohio voters’ disappointment in Trump’s leadership and temperament. “Voters in Ohio tell me that they got the feeling that Democrats hadn’t been speaking to them, especially those who live in the more rural parts of the state,” Carson told ThinkProgress. “In 2016, they thought Trump was speaking to them and they thought they could relate to it. They said ‘OK, what have I got to lose. I’ll take a chance on this guy.’ But now they’re saying this isn’t working for me either.” Carson said the challenge for the Democratic presidential candidates is “to rebuild the trust, rebuild the brand and rebuild the message” of the party so that Ohio voters know the nominee is listening to them. “It’s happening,” Carson said. “It takes voters sometimes much longer than it takes activists to have the reality of Trump’s failures to hit home. But we’re telling the story that this president hasn’t been good for them or their families or the country. Hopefully, come next year, they will turn to Democrats.”