Why Ohio is important in the U.S. election, but crucial for Donald Trump

Every four years, the national and international media lavish attention on Ohio, one of the few states where the U.S. presidential race remains competitive. It's also a state that, if history is any guide, is a path to the White House. But that could change this year.

No Republican presidential candidate has won the White House without the Buckeye State

North Lawrence, Ohio, resident Larry Schultz, whose neighbours are Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton supporters, says he will be voting for the Republican presidential candidate because he's a Washington outsider. (Mark Gollom/CBC)

On the outskirts of North Lawrence, Ohio, Larry Schultz stands over the new Trump/Pence sign on his lawn. It's been wired to a steel post that's pounded firmly into the ground where two other signs were recently ripped out.

"I'm going to put a camera right here," says Schultz, hoping it might thwart — or catch — any would-be sign thieves plotting a similar heist.

The signs are a proud and public show of endorsement for the Republican presidential ticket that Schultz says he supports because Donald Trump is a Washington outsider.

As Schultz sees it, Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton "lies about everything." But Trump — despite his controversial comments — will protect his gun rights, says the retiree, who worked at the nearby Massillon steel plant for 40 years.

"This guy right here," says Schultz, pointing to a neighbour, "he's a Trump man the same as I. The next two houses down are Democrats.

"And the third man down, he's a Trump man. So there's three and then they got two."

It's a mix of voters that well represents Stark County, a bellwether region that was won, just barely, by President Barack Obama four years ago.

In a way, this northeastern area, which includes Canton and a number of small towns and villages, represents Ohio, a purple county in a purple state.

Ohio decided 2004 election

Every four years, the national and international media lavish attention on Ohio, one of the few states where the presidential race remains competitive.

Obama won the state by 4.5 points in 2008 and three points in 2012. But on election night in 2004, all eyes were on the Ohio results, which ultimately decided the election for George W. Bush.

Despite earlier reports suggesting Hillary Clinton may have abandoned Ohio, the Democratic candidate spoke at a rally at Ohio State University in Columbus this Monday. (Lucy Nicholson/Reuters)

Ohio looks much like the average of the country with its demographic makeup — the exception being Hispanics, who make up only three per cent of the population, said Paul Beck, professor emeritus of political science at Ohio State University.

It's also a combination of city centres, old mill towns, industrial employment areas, farmlands and small towns. 

"You can just go down the list of things that match up pretty well within the national average," Beck said.

Next to Florida and Pennsylvania, it carries the third-most electoral votes of any swing state (18). And if history is any guide, it's a state that is a path to the White House.

No Republican candidate has won the presidency without Ohio. Only two Democratic presidents, the most recent being John F. Kennedy in 1960, were able to secure victory without the Buckeye State. 

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump has been campaigning in Ohio, a state won by every Republican candidate who has taken the presidency. (Evan Vucci/Associated Press)

But it's a state that has traditionally leaned Republican and since no Republican has won the White House without it, it's of particular importance to the party.

The RealClearPolitics average shows a tight race here, but that could change, given the revelation of Trump's crude comments about women in 2005.

Current polling also suggests that, according to the electoral college map, Clinton may not need to secure a victory in Ohio to win the election. But those same polls also indicate that Trump, to become president, needs to carry the state.

"I think if he loses Ohio, he's doomed," said Beck.

With such an unconventional candidate as Trump, who has frustrated political prognosticators since his primary run, this could also be a year where Ohio is not the so-called arbiter of the election.

State could back Trump in a loss

"If Donald Trump becomes president, Ohio will vote for him," wrote Kyle Kondik, of the University of Virginia's Center for Politics and author of The Bellwether: Why Ohio Picks the President.

"If Hillary Clinton wins Ohio, she will be president. But if Hillary Clinton wins by just a small margin nationally, the state could easily back Trump in a loss." 

Supporters cheer for Trump at a campaign rally in Toledo. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)

The state includes 88 counties that Kondik breaks down this way: 58 are in the "red reach" (Republican), 10 are "blue islands" (Democrat) and 20 are "purple enclaves."

Yet despite the Republican advantage in Ohio's counties, the state is still competitive as Democrats get big support from the large cities, he wrote.

However, in this election, Trump's anti-free trade rhetoric has resonated among many voters in northeastern cities like Canton, where manufacturing has been hollowed out and union members blame trade agreements for lost jobs.

'Tremendous effort'

There had been reports that with polls showing Trump gaining ground in Ohio and with Clinton not in the area very often, she may be giving up on the state and instead focusing resources on places like Florida. 

But John Green, an expert on Ohio politics and director of the Ray C. Bliss Institute of Applied Politics at the University of Akron, said he doesn't give that much credence. 

Clinton made an appearance in Columbus on Monday and recently campaigned in Akron. Obama is expected to campaign here this month, while former U.S. president Bill Clinton has been all over the state.

"I don't think the Democrats have given up on Ohio. I think the Democrats are going to give a tremendous effort to win this state," said Green.

Republican Ohio Gov. John Kasich, a former presidential candidate, refused to show up at the GOP convention in Cleveland and has yet to endorse Trump. (Matt Rourke/Associated Press)

In terms of the all-important getting-out-the-vote campaign, the Democrats have certainly had a great advantage coming into the election because of their strong connection to the local Democratic parties in the state, said Green.

Trump was initially at a disadvantage, in part because of his testy relationships with the state party organization and with Republican Ohio Gov. John Kasich.

The former presidential candidate refused to show up at the GOP convention in Cleveland and had yet to endorse the real estate magnate. Now, with the release of Trump's video comments, Kasich has made it clear he will not be supporting the candidate.

Better ground game

But Green said Trump has since "substantially" improved his organization in the state, in part by hiring seasoned Republican operatives.

Meanwhile, local Republican organizations have slowly but surely come around to supporting him.

Trump is also likely benefiting from the Senate race and the campaign efforts to re-elect Republican Senator Rob Portman.

In terms of the all important ground game, the Democrats have had a great advantage coming into the election because of their strong connection to the local Democratic parties in the state. (John Minchillo/Associated Press)

"The get-out-the-vote effort works for the ticket as a whole," Green said.

As for Schultz, the disparate political philosophies among his neighbours have not affected their neighbourly relationships.

"I get along with them fine," Schultz said. "In fact, I rub it in one way or the other and they do the same to me."


Mark Gollom


Mark Gollom is a Toronto-based reporter with CBC News. He covers Canadian and U.S. politics and current affairs.


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