By Edward McClelland

“That’s right, ladies and gentlemen! Let me repeat it! The Buckeye State of Ohio has just put its twenty-five votes into the Democratic column! It’s 9:30 a.m., eastern standard time, this Wednesday, November the third, nineteen hundred and forty-eight, and Harry Truman has just been re-elected President of the United States!” – Thomas Mallon, Dewey Defeats Truman

There are certain places every politician with national ambitions wants to be seen. Iowa in January. Martha’s Vineyard in the summer. And Ohio, in the autumn of a presidential campaign.

“The TV ads are pretty relentless, and the news coverage is pretty constant, too,” says Sage McMillan, an office manager and devoted Democrat from Mentor. “Obama came to the high school in Mentor, just a half-mile away. I couldn’t get tickets. We get a lot of phone calls from the Democrats, asking if you early voted, and a lot of polling, and push polling, maybe five times a week. My husband actually turns off the ringer. I looked at the Plain Dealer online, and I guess I got cookies from that, as someone who is an Ohio voter. When I went to, there was a Romney ad.”

No Republican has ever won the presidency without carrying Ohio.

Ohio gets so much love – welcome or not – from the political parties because it’s the bellwether state in American politics. Ohio has voted for the winner in the last thirteen presidential elections, the longest such streak in American history. The last candidate to win without carrying the Buckeye State was John F. Kennedy, in 1960.

In 2012, Barack Obama, Mitt Romney, and their political surrogates spent $54 million on television ads in Cleveland, making it the second-most expensive market in the nation, after Denver, whose reach covers parts of three states. That October, Romney spent four days barnstorming through Ohio behind an ad in which he pitched himself to the state: “The question Ohio families are asking is ‘Who can bring back the jobs?’” The Friday before the election, he spoke to 25,000 voters in West Chester, a Republican exurb of Cincinnati. On election eve, he showed up in Columbus. But Romney was outhustled by Obama, who had spent more than a year building an organization whose volunteers went door-to-door hunting down Democratic voters, even in the most rural Republican counties, but especially in Cleveland, Columbus, Dayton, and Cincinnati, where Democrats are concentrated. Ohio Democratic Party chairman David Pepper called the Obama for America campaign “a person-to-person, incredible effort…the model for winning Ohio.”

“Years from now, nobody will study the presidential election of 2008 as anything special,” says Mark Weaver, a Republican consultant in Columbus. “Any Democrat could have won: the Republican brand was tarnished. The election that will be studied is the 2012 election: we had this very odd circumstance where Mitt Romney wins his base and independents, yet Barack Obama wins. Barack Obama is able to find voters who did not vote in 2008. He had to increase his base. You do that by going to traditionally Democratic neighborhoods and finding voters. You can mail people, you can phone people, you can air ads, but nothing has the effectiveness of a person with a clipboard. Because they were set to lose the independents, they used the rise of data to make this more efficient.”

In his concession phone call, Romney supposedly told Obama, “You did a great job getting out the vote in places like Cleveland and Milwaukee.”

In 2008, Obama won Ohio independents 52%-44%. In 2012, he lost them 53%-43%. He also lost Ohio’s male voters, after winning them in 2012. But the Obama campaign turned out 70,000 more African-American voters than in 2008, increasing the president’s margins in Cleveland, Columbus, Youngstown and Warren, and enabling him to squeeze out a three-point victory over Romney.

President Barack Obama helps spell out "Ohio" with the Weithman family, Rachel, 9, Josh, 11, and mom Rhonda, in their home in Columbus, Ohio [credit: White House (Pete Souza), Public domain

President Barack Obama helps spell out “Ohio” with the Weithman family, Rachel, 9, Josh, 11, and mom Rhonda, in their home in Columbus, Ohio [credit: White House (Pete Souza), Public domain

This time around, the Republicans are determined to get a head start on the Democrats in Ohio. Not only are they holding their nominating convention in Cleveland, they’re holding the first Republican presidential debate there, too, on August 6. The road to the party’s nomination will begin and end in Cleveland.

“As goes Ohio, so goes the presidential race,” Republican National Committee chairman Reince Priebus told Fox News, in announcing Cleveland as the convention site. “It’s something we’re committed to as a national committee. We’ve got a full-time field staff in Ohio. We’ve got full-time offices in Ohio. This is something that historically, unfortunately, our party’s only been involved in in the last five months of the campaign. I think it’s been terrible for our party.”

No Republican has ever won the presidency without carrying Ohio. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the party had this so well figured out that from Reconstruction to the Great Depression, six out of the seven Republicans who entered the White House by election were Ohioans: Ulysses S. Grant, Rutherford B. Hayes, James A. Garfield, William McKinley, William Howard Taft, and Warren G. Harding. Now, they’re figuring it out again.

Mondale had to win everything in the industrial crescent along the Great Lakes. If they took a single high-yield state away from him, he was finished …. Ohio was twenty-three electoral votes. Ohio could be the ball game.” – Peter Goldman and Tony Fuller, The Quest for the Presidency 1984

Which begs the question: Why oh why oh why-oh, why does every president have to win Ohio?

“The simple explanation is that of all the big states that matter in the Electoral College, Ohio is the closest to being a microcosm of the country,” says John Green, a professor of political science at the University of Akron, who has identified “Five Ohios,” each with its own voting patterns.

“The voters in Ohio look very close to the national electorate,” he says. “Ohio, in geographic terms is diverse. Northeastern Ohio looks like the northeastern United States – New York and Pennsylvania. Cincinnati looks like the South. Southeastern Ohio looks like Appalachia. Toledo looks like Illinois, Indiana, and Michigan. If you look at Columbus, it looks like the growing cities of the west: Denver, Sacramento.”

In his book American Nations, author Colin Woodard divides North America into 11 cultural regions. Three of them – Yankeedom, the Midlands, and Greater Appalachia – cut across Ohio, each containing a roughly equal share of the state’s population. The Western Reserve, settled by moralistic, highly educated New Englanders who established Oberlin College, Case Western University, and the Cleveland Symphony in their attempt to build a shining city on the Flats, is part of Yankeedom. It’s the most liberal part of Ohio, a tendency reinforced by Slavic immigrants who battled to establish labor unions in the steel mills. Southeastern Ohio is part of Greater Appalachia, a region of Scots-Irish backwoodsmen intemperate both in their fundamentalist Protestantism and their love of guns. Greater Appalachia has traditionally mistrusted both the aristocrats of the Deep South and the social engineers of Yankeedom. During the Civil War, southern Ohio was the soft underbelly of the Union, peopled with Confederate sympathizers known as “Butternuts.” Their leader, Rep. Clement Vallandigham of Dayton, was so outspoken in his opposition to the Civil War that President Lincoln had him arrested and deported to the Confederacy.

“For Appalachian Midwesterners it was the meddlesome Yankees who represented the greatest threat to their ideas of individual freedom,” Woodard writes. “As a result, Borderlander-dominated regions solidly supported the Deep Southern-led Democratic Party through the civil rights era. As Kevin Phillips has observed, ‘Butternut Democrats did not care much about slavery, but they could not stand the Yankees.’ Their political representatives railed against Yankee efforts to use the federal government to impose their morals on the other nations.”

Because of these historical antipathies, it’s inevitable that if the Lake Erie counties vote one way, the Ohio River counties will vote the other. Ohio is a battleground state because it contains cultural regions that have been at odds with each other almost since the founding of the republic, and who are an opposite sides of the current Red-Blue divide. In between these warring sub-nations are the Midlands, originally peopled by German-speaking Pennsylvania Dutch seeking farmland in the Midwest. In Ohio, the Midlands contain both Toledo and Greater Columbus. It’s America’s quintessential swing region, leery,” writes Woodard, “of both meddlesome, messianic Yankees and authoritarian Dixie zealots…a truly middle-of-the-road American society and, as such, has rarely sided unambiguously with one coalition, candidate or movement. When it has – for FDR in the 1930s, Reagan in the 1980s, or Obama in 2008 – it has been at a time of profound national stress and in reaction to perceived excess.” That’s why the central part of the state is Ohio’s Ohio, a band of swing counties within a swing state.


2012 U.S. Presidential election results in Ohio by county [credit: Ibagli, via Wikimedia Commons

2012 U.S. Presidential election results in Ohio by county. Red = Romney, Blue = Obama [credit: Ibagli, via Wikimedia Commons

In America’s westward migration, other states – particularly Pennsylvania, Indiana, and Illinois – collected pockets of Yankees, Midlanders, and Appalachians. But nowhere do they co-exist in such balance as Ohio.

“It is odd that those sort of settlement patterns from the 19th century would still be influential in 2016, but they still are,” says Bill Binning, a professor of political science at Youngstown State University and former chair of the Mahoning County Republican Party.

Ohio’s historical voting patterns still hold true, with one twist. Statewide, all the cities are Democratic, due to white flight and the party’s identification with urban values. Cincinnati, the Republican cradle of the Taft Dynasty, voted for Obama. So did Columbus and Dayton. It’s in the suburbs where the regional differences show up. The counties surrounding Cincinnati gave Romney two-thirds of their votes. But Obama swept northeast Ohio. As Woodard writes, “When the Republicans became champions in the fight against civil rights, Yankee-dominated states and counties in the Midwest flipped en masse to the Democrats…The outlines of the Western Reserve are still visible on a county-by-county map of the 2000, 2004, or 2008 presidential elections.” (Obama lost Sage McMillan’s Lake County by less than a percentage point, after winning it in 2008.)

“To win Ohio, Republicans have to win big in exurban areas,” Weaver says. “We’re going to win big in the western part of the state, and we’re going to lose in Cuyahoga County. The election will be decided in the exurbs.”

“We’re going to make another projection now: we project that Bill Clinton will be the next president of the United States. We project that Ohio has gone for Governor Clinton. Let’s take a look at the big board. We go from 265 electoral votes up over the 270 number. There are 21 electoral votes in Ohio. President Bush won it in 1988. Voted for a Democrat only twice since 1952, has Ohio, and last voted for Jimmy Carter in 1976.” – Peter Jennings, ABC News, November 3, 1992

Ohio’s electoral vote has been waning for a half century. In the last census, the state lost two more votes, dropping from 20 to 18. Yet because of other political trends, Ohio’s influence on presidential elections increases even as its population shrinks, surpassing that of much larger states. Throughout the 21st century, the nation has divided itself into Democratic blue states and Republican red states, which vote for their party’s nominee no matter who it is. Since 2000, only ten states have broken from the pattern; Ohio is the second largest, after Florida.

“If you think about recent elections, with the way Republican states have gone, with the mountain states going more Democratic, the Republicans can’t see a road to 270 without Ohio,” Binning says.

Ohio isn’t just important because its electoral votes are crucial to a winning total; it’s important because a campaign that appeals to Ohio’s diverse electorate will succeed nationwide.

“If you were to boil America down to one state, it would look like Ohio,” Pepper says. “We have the big cities, rural, North, South. When you run the rigors of winning Ohio, you are going through what it takes to win the country.”

Earlier today, I spoke to President Bush, and I offered him and Laura our congratulations on their victory…I would not give up this fight if there was a chance that we would prevail. But it is now clear that even when all the provisional ballots are counted, which they will be, there won’t be enough outstanding votes for us to be able to win Ohio. And therefore, we cannot win this election.” – John Kerry concession speech, November 3, 2004

So what will Cleveland do for the Republicans? And what will the Republicans do for Cleveland? The city lobbied hard for the convention, putting together a Cleveland 2016 Host Committee – backed by Democratic Mayor Frank Jackson – that offered the Quicken Loans Arena and $60 million in funding, while reminding the Republicans they gotta carry Ohio. That helped the city beat out Dallas to win its first convention since 1936, when the Republicans nominated FDR landslide victim Alf Landon at the Public Auditorium.

Obviously, the Republican nominee hopes to introduce himself to a must-win state – and convince voters that Ohio’s concerns are his concerns. Mitt Romney failed to do that. In 2008, as General Motors and Chrysler were begging Congress for help, he wrote an The New York Times op-ed entitled “Let Detroit Go Bankrupt.” Obama never stopped trying to win Ohio. One of his first acts in office: bailing out the auto industry, which has outposts in 82 of Ohio’s 88 counties, from small parts suppliers to the massive GM assembly plant in Lordstown. During the campaign, Obama announced a $30 million grant to open a manufacturing innovation center in Youngstown.

Both sides were courting the Buckeye State with all their might. A week earlier, the president had enlisted Bruce Springsteen to the cause, sending him to Parma for a gig with Bill Clinton. Now Romney tried to match the Boss and the Big Dog with a celebrity of his own: Meat Loaf.

“What Mr. Loaf lacked in glamour, he made up for with enthusiasm. Dressed in a tentlike black tunic, he exhorted the crowd, ’We need Oooohiiiiiioooo!’ Backstage, the Meat pumped up Romney in true Bat Out of Hell style. ’I hate to say this, but I mean it with all my heart. If you don’t win this election, we’re fucked.’

“For Romney, the election more or less came down to carrying Ohio. The analysis that Messina had given Obama in August was now clear: every one of Romney’s plausible roads to 270 ran through that state.” – Mark Halperin and John Heileman, Double Down: Game Change 2012

Dan Moulthrop, CEO of the City Club of Cleveland, which has invited most of the Republican candidates to its podium, thinks Cleveland will offer an ideal backdrop for a party that constantly needs to prove it cares about struggling Americans.

“There’s something about the resilience that Cleveland has that Dallas doesn’t have,” Moulthrop says. “Cleveland represents a city that’s had a tough time in every recession. We’re Baltimore and we’re Ferguson, and we haven’t had the riots. We’re Washington, D.C., schools without the fractious leadership.”

[blocktext align=”left”]“If you were to boil America down to one state, it would look like Ohio. “We have the big cities, rural, North, South. When you run the rigors of winning Ohio, you are going through what it takes to win the country.”[/blocktext]Will it help them win Ohio? Maybe not. The Republicans have a practice of holding their conventions in enemy territory: Tampa in 2012, St. Paul in 2008, New York in 2004, Philadelphia in 2000, San Diego in 1996. The last time they convened in a state they went on to win was 1992, when George H.W. Bush was re-nominated in Houston.

Cleveland is obviously hoping for an economic boost from the tens of thousands of visitors a convention draws. The Host Committee expects the RNC to bring $200 million worth of business to northeast Ohio, while simultaneously wiping out decades of jokes about burning rivers, losing sports teams, and Dennis Kucinich’s presidential campaigns.

“National political conventions are the Super Bowl of meetings and conventions,” says Dan Gilbert, President & CEO of the Cleveland 2016 Host Committee. “Visitors will be able to experience and enjoys the results of a $2.7 billion revitalization of our visitor-related infrastructure system that epitomizes the development of our city as a destination for both business and leisure travelers – from five new downtown hotels to the transformation of our primary downtown gathering space – Public Square – into a vibrant central city green space. Hosting the 2016 Republican National Convention is an incredible opportunity for Cleveland to take pride in what we have built and connected – and for the rest of the world to rediscover our city.”

But what about after they leave? Will the Republicans take away any lessons from Cleveland, which had the nation’s highest foreclosure rate and passes the title of America’s Poorest City back and forth with Detroit? They’ll have to address those issues, although they may do so in ways that Clevelanders disagree with. The American Enterprise Institute, a free-market think tank, is holding a pre-debate forum on how conservative economics can lift people out of poverty.

“It is a chance for the Republicans to explain what their policies would do for people in poverty, workers, people in manufacturing, people who have been left out of the economy,” says Amy Hanauer, of Policy Matters Ohio. “Deindustrialization, the foreclosure crisis, tax-cutting mantras – these are things that really hurt Cleveland.”

It’s worth remembering, though, that Ronald Reagan accepted his nomination in Detroit. Reagan’s attitude toward urban America ranged from blithering indifference to scapegoating the inner cities for America’s social ills. By the end of the decade, Detroit had lost nearly 20 percent of its population and was so awash in crack it inspired the movie New Jack City.


Republicans, meet Cleveland. Cleveland, meet the Republicans. Have a nice week together next summer, but don’t expect too much from each other.

Oh, and Ohioans? If you don’t like politics, turn off your telephone, your TV, and your computer, nail your mailbox shut, and ignore your doorbell next October. Because the candidates are going to beg for your vote just as relentlessly as they did in 2012. In fact, 2016 may be worse: to match the Democrats’ data-driven campaign, Republicans are holding a debate day “Buckeye Boot Camp” for volunteers at the House of Blues, and hiring 200 field organizers, each responsible for badgering 8,000 to 12,000 Republican-leaning voters.

“Ohio,” says Weaver, “will continue to be ground zero in presidential politics.”

* * *

WHO STANDS A CHANCE? [2015 edition]

Since Ohio is the key to the presidency, it stands to reason the parties would want to nominate a candidate who can win there. We asked two Ohio political experts, John Green of the University of Akron, and Bill Binning of Youngstown State University, to handicap some of the major candidates’ chances in the Buckeye State.

Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush (R)

Green: “His brother and his father both won Ohio, so the Bush name is pretty good. The problem that Bush might face is there might be a lack of enthusiasm from the conservative wing.”

Binning: “The Bushes have been very popular here over the years. I don’t know whether that’s inheritable.”

Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton (D)

Green: “Her husband won Ohio twice. He won it with Ross Perot on the ticket. She’s more of a centrist Democrat. She has experience. There is the gender issue. A lot of older women who grew up in the women’s movement are very excited.”

Binning: “Hillary is very popular in Ohio. The Clintons have been very popular in Ohio. Bill’s been very popular in Ohio. I think that’s an inheritable benefit she enjoys.”

Texas Sen. Ted Cruz (R)

Green: “He would rouse the conservative base.”

Binning: “Hard to say how they take to Southerners and the hard right.”

Ohio Gov. John Kasich (R)

Green: “Ohio could be valuable for Kasich nationally. A lot of people are thinking Kasich would be a great vice presidential nominee. Most people I talk to believe that if Kasich were on the ticket, Republicans would carry Ohio.”

Binning: “I would think the ticket would want him.”

Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul (R)

Green: “Rand Paul is from a neighboring state. That helps him in Cincinnati and the Appalachians. He’s libertarian. That isn’t as big in Ohio as the more traditional conservatism, traditional liberalism.”

Florida Sen. Marco Rubio (R)

Green: “Marco Rubio has a pretty good chance in Ohio. Being of Hispanic background helps Rubio nationwide. I think many of his positions could be very competitive here, such as expanding trade. The growing part of Ohio’s economy has a good impression of international trade.”

Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders (D)

Green: “The liberals in Ohio would just be ecstatic, but I think Senator Sanders in a general election would have some problems, because a lot of voters are very moderate.”

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R)

Green: “Scott Walker has a pretty good chance, because he comes from a state very much like Ohio. His handicap is that his policies have targeted labor unions.”

Binning: “His anti-unionism is going to be popular in a Republican primary, but I think that issue could stir the unions in Ohio.” (In 2011, Ohio voters overturned Senate Bill 5, which would have limited the ability of public employees to bargain collectively and strike. The veto referendum passed 62%-38%, carrying all but five counties.)

Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D)

Binning: “There’ll be problems there. The Democratic vote is not particularly liberal. The older voters are socially quite conservative. That’d be problematic for her. Obama was able to overcome that by turning out young voters and minority voters. I don’t know if Elizabeth Warren could do that.”

Edward McClelland is the author of Nothin’ but Blue Skies: The Heyday, Hard Times and Hopes of America’s Industrial Heartland.

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