It wasn’t so long ago that Ohio was looking like a lost cause for Democrats, after Donald Trump scored a convincing victory there and humiliated the party that had twice carried the state under Barack Obama.
Now, unexpectedly, Ohio looms as a tantalizing opportunity for Joe Biden.
Two prominent polls of the state last month showed the presidential race in a statistical tie. Turnout in the Ohio primary elections in April was higher for Democrats than for Republicans for the first time in a dozen years, evidence of enthusiasm in the Democratic base. And the Trump campaign recently booked $18.4 million in fall TV ads in Ohio, more than in any state besides Florida — a sign that Trump is on the defensive in a state that until recently seemed locked down for Republicans.
With Democratic leaders urging Biden to expand his ambitions to states previously considered out of reach, Ohio offers Democrats the possibility of seizing on suburban gains they have made in the Trump era while restoring parts of the old Obama coalition.
“The definition of Trump being in trouble is that he’s forced to spend $18 million on TV in Ohio and he’s mired in a battle for his life here,” said David Pepper, chairman of the Ohio Democratic Party.
Biden’s argument to Democrats has always been that he can energize Black voters and reverse defections by the white working class. If he were to make good on that promise and carry Ohio, it would reset the national political map.
In a state where decades of deindustrialization have created long-term anxiety about jobs, the reality behind Trump’s unmet promises to restore steel, coal and other industrial sectors through trade wars is also being put to the test — a dynamic that could extend to other states across the Midwest.
“People were looking for someone who wasn’t establishment,” said Tina Comstock, 56, a court employee in suburban Cleveland, explaining Trump’s triumph four years ago. “They thought as a quote-unquote rich businessman, he could do great things for Ohio.”
Comstock, who is married to a factory worker who like her is supporting Biden, said the pandemic has exposed the hollowness of the Trump economy. “If the economy is so great under him, why is everybody so screwed after just a couple of months of this COVID thing?” she asked. “People didn’t have enough money in their savings accounts.”
For all the optimism of Democrats, though, the Buckeye State just might be an illusion in the mists. Not only did Trump win handily in 2016 — by 8 percentage points — but Democrats also fell short in the 2018 midterm elections in Ohio compared with their gains in the “blue wall” states of Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania.
Corry Bliss, a top GOP strategist who has worked in Ohio, said that whatever trouble Trump appears to be in now, the election will turn on how voters feel about jobs and the economy in October. The president, he said, still has the upper hand. “At the end of the day, President Donald Trump will win Ohio,” he said. “It’ll be closer than it was in 2016. The question is, how does that translate to Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania?”
Trump won those states by less than 1 percentage point each in 2016.
Bob Paduchik, Trump’s top adviser for Ohio, said the campaign was spending lavishly there because it had plenty of money to spread around, including in states like Minnesota and New Mexico that tilt blue. “One way you could look at it is, ‘They’re spending money in Ohio, they’re in trouble,’ “ he said. “When you have the kind of resources we have, you can play everywhere.”
It’s also unclear how aggressively the Biden campaign intends to compete in Ohio. It has not reserved any TV ads there, according to the firm Advertising Analytics. Nor has Biden named an Ohio state director, frustrating local Democratic officials. The Ohio Democratic Party is so financially stretched that it sought more than $333,000 from the federal virus relief package to help meet its payroll.
Biden’s advisers say that for now they are focusing on getting to 270 electoral votes, the minimum needed to be president, and they are directing resources to Northern battlegrounds as well as opportunities in the Sun Belt. On Tuesday, the campaign announced a TV ad focused on rising coronavirus cases that will run in Arizona, Florida and — for the first time — Texas.
Ohio’s early success in flattening the curve of virus infections has reversed, with a new spike in hospitalized patients. The state “is sliding down a very dangerous path,” Gov. Mike DeWine, a Republican, warned Wednesday. While the governor enjoys strong bipartisan support for his response to the outbreak, only 4 in 10 Ohio voters approved of Trump’s handling of the virus, according to a Quinnipiac University poll last month.
In the pre-Trump era, when Ohio was a perennial swing state, Democrats’ formula for victory was to turn out Black voters in Cleveland, Columbus and Cincinnati while relying on blue-collar voters in midsize industrial cities. GOP wins ran through the suburbs.
Trump upended both parties’ formulas. Republicans now win large groups of white blue-collar voters while fighting to limit defections from suburbanites, especially women.
Fred Holbein, 63, who is retired from the Navy, is a Trump supporter who endorses some of the president’s racially divisive comments, such as his criticism of NASCAR’s ban of the Confederate flag. “I’m not a NASCAR fan anymore,” he said.
“I think Joe Biden’s had 50 years’ opportunity to do something and most recently had eight years when he was a heartbeat away from the president and didn’t do anything,” Holbein, who lives outside Columbus, added. “I’ve always maintained that the government needs to be run like a business, and Donald Trump is trying to do that.”
In the end, Trump’s chances in the state are likely to come down to whether voters reembrace his anti-China, pro-jobs message of four years ago, ignoring not just today’s record unemployment because of the pandemic but also the president’s unfulfilled promises.
In Trump’s first three years before the pandemic, 14,000 new manufacturing jobs were created in Ohio. The gains represent a leveling off of growth from the last three years of the Obama administration, when Ohio manufacturing jobs expanded by 20,000.
The president’s tariffs on imported steel did not produce a promised boom in U.S. steelmaking in places like Ohio’s Mahoning Valley. And, Trump’s Twitter threats to carmakers did not stop General Motors from closing a huge factory near Youngstown, at a cost of 4,400 jobs.
White working-class Ohio voters, who according to 2016 exit polls were 56% of the electorate, do not appear to be abandoning Trump. The Quinnipiac University poll of the state last month showed Trump with a 21-point advantage over Biden among white voters without a four-year college degree. The margin was only slightly smaller than Trump’s 24-point edge with the same voters in a Quinnipiac poll of Ohio on the eve of the 2016 election.
“They still think he walks on water,” said David Betras, a former Democratic chairman of Mahoning County, in northeast Ohio’s blue-collar epicenter. “You try to explain how his policies have hurt the working man, they say that’s fake news.”