It is always dangerous to publicly predict the outcome of a presidential election, especially in a purple state like Ohio. But I’ve done it twice, in 2011 and 2016, months in advance, when both of my predicted winners, Barack Obama and Donald Trump, respectively, were behind.
This year, I am predicting that Trump will lose in Ohio. That might seem like a somewhat safe bet, since the most recent Real Clear Politics polls for Ohio show Democratic nominee Joe Biden with a very slight lead. Then again, at this point in 2016 the Real Clear Politics average showed Trump ahead by less than 2 percent, and Hillary Clinton ultimately lost Ohio by 8 points. So it’s worth considering how the Democrats will overcome the political ineptitude they displayed in 2016 and—as was not the case in the rest of the nation—2018, when the “Democratic Party left Ohio.”
The answer lies in changing demographics, Trump’s failures, the shifting views of some evangelicals, and problems in the Ohio Republican Party.
Even before the 2018 election, I sensed that the Trump fever was breaking, especially in the Youngstown area—what some have called Trump’s “ground zero.” Talking with Youngstown residents, especially working-class voters, I heard rumblings of disappointment and doubt. Trump fever was being doused by a wave of closings, which included a major hospital, the local newspaper, and GM’s Lordstown factory. Trump had told local residents that their economy would get stronger under his leadership, but he had failed to keep those promises or even to offer substantive help as the local economy reeled from these losses. Add the human and economic costs of the pandemic to the state’s already changing demographics and economic struggles, and it’s easy to see why Trump’s support is at risk.
Demographics might not be political destiny, but changes in Ohio’s population seem likely to help Democrats this year. Ohio has long been older, whiter, and more working-class than most other states. According to political analysts Ruy Teixeira and John Halpin, in 2016, white working-class voters made up 55 percent of Ohio voters, but their numbers have since declined to 53 percent. Trump won 63 percent of white working-class votes four years ago, but many are now turning away from him, particularly women and seniors.
As the white working-class share of voters has declined, Ohio has become younger, better educated, more racially and ethnically diverse, and more liberal. According to the Ohio Voter Contact Services, there are 912,000 new registered voters since 2016. Ohio political consultant Jerry Austin believes that more than 250,000 young voters will be voting for the first time and most are likely to vote Democratic. As Amy Walter notes in the Cook Political Report, demographic changes together with the president’s low job approval rating in Ohio should make Republicans “worried” about Trump’s growing weakness in the state.
Compounding these demographic changes have been the declining socioeconomic conditions in Ohio. The Trump tax cuts did not lead to substantial job growth and rising wages. Although the national economy had strengthened modestly in recent years—until the pandemic—growth in wages and jobs has been slower in Ohio. A study issued just this week from the Century Foundation, Policy Matters Ohio, and the Groundwork Collaborative documents that while the number of manufacturing jobs has increased (by less than 1 percent) nationally during Trump’s term, in Ohio, Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin, they’ve actually declined. Poverty rates are also up in both urban and, more recently, suburban parts of the state. Some rural areas have seen “unprecedented” unemployment, even as Republicans brag that the economy is booming in Ohio.
These economic trends have been exacerbated by the COVID-19 crisis. One in five workers in Ohio have applied for unemployment since April—a rate that likely does not include all of those who’ve lost their jobs, since many have reported filing difficulties or are self-employed or independent contractors. Many of those eligible for the extra benefits provided by last spring’s stimulus package experienced late payments.
No wonder Trump’s inflated references to the improving economy are falling on deaf ears. The contrast between his claims and people’s experiences may help explain why Trump’s approval rating among Ohio voters has dropped by 15 percent since his election and currently stands at 46 percent.
In 2016, despite questions about Trump’s own morality and his lack of serious engagement with religious life, religious conservatives embraced him. They believed that he would curb abortion, support religious liberty, appoint conservative judges, protect Israel, and pull back transgender rights. He has delivered on many of these issues, as his nomination of Amy Coney Barrett has again made apparent.
Yet, Trump has been losing support among evangelicals, and some in Ohio feel that they have been “too easily bought.” Phil Heimlich, a member of Cincinnati’s influential Crossroads Church, one of fastest-growing churches in the nation, believes that “Trump’s violations of biblical teachings on sexual immorality, immigration, and fiscal responsibility” outweigh his support for checking abortion. Christian beliefs go beyond any single issue, and some evangelicals are troubled by the insincerity of Trump’s Christian values and his lack of commitment to honesty and decency.
And Ohio’s religious landscape is changing. Church attendance in the state is considered average compared to other states—and it is dropping. Millennials and Generation Z are decidedly more secular in their beliefs than their parents. That might not serve Republicans well in Ohio. Less-religious voters may not support the party’s legislative efforts to expand religious expression in public schools and to accept answers on state proficiency exams that align with creationism rather than established science. Many are increasingly troubled by deeper religious incongruities in Trump’s policies.
Finally, schisms within the Ohio Republican Party have undercut support for Trump in his own party. After the 2016 election, Trump and his supporters ousted Ohio’s most successful Republican chairperson, Matt Borges. While Borges had not worked against Trump, he had supported former Ohio Gov. John Kasich in the bitter 2016 Republican presidential primary. He also provided cover for other Republicans who withdrew their endorsement of Trump in the final stages of the 2016 election.
That conflict has continued to fester as Trump supporters took over the Ohio Republican Party, led by a new chairperson, Jane Timken, and Rep. Jim Jordan. Ohio Republican officeholders, like Gov. Mike DeWine and Sen. Rob Portman, have tried to remain at arm’s length from the more radical Trump wing of the party.
But the conflict has resurfaced with John Kasich’s critiques of Trump and endorsement of Biden, with Borges now working to unseat Trump, and a newly emerging organization, Operation Grant, which was established in July 2020 by the Lincoln Project and other anti-Trump Republicans. The organization (named after Ohio native Ulysses Grant) has been holding events around the state that feature a cadre of Republican former elected officials, military and religious leaders, and small farmers. As “bona fide conservatives and Republicans,” their stated goal is “to assure the defeat of President Donald Trump and Trumpism.”
According to Operation Grant organizer David Little, Operation Grant has attracted moderate Republicans, who in recent weeks have contributed over $30,000 to the group. The project is also attracting media attention in Ohio and international papers.
Given past performances, many Democrats in Ohio have lacked confidence in the national and Ohio Democratic parties. Their skepticism only intensified when the Democratic Party chose not to include Ohio as a battleground state and limited its media buys to the Youngstown and Toledo counties bordering on Michigan and Pennsylvania, while largely ignoring the rest of the state.
But when polls in recent months showed that Ohio was competitive, the party increased its spending. Local ground games finally emerged, led by local Democratic parties. Cuyahoga County (which includes Cleveland) does not have an on-site Biden campaign coordinator, but local organizers have increased online, text, and telephone contacts there dramatically, with special emphasis on absentee voters and people who are registered but have not voted in recent elections.
All these changes—demographic shifts, the struggling state economy, the shrinking share of religious conservatives, and the deep schism within the Ohio Republican Party—have cost Trump a good part of his base in Ohio. It isn’t so much that Biden is winning Ohio. It’s that Trump is losing it.
Democratic Senator Sherrod Brown’s claim that Ohio is still contested political territory is proving to be true. The Democratic Party is once again viewing Ohio not as a red state but as a purple one. And without Ohio, it will be difficult for Trump to win the presidential election.
John Russo, Kalmanovitz Initiative for Labor and the Working Poor
This piece originally appeared in The American Prospect.