Ohio Is The Bellwether State, But We Don't Do Blow-out Elections

Sep 18, 2016

There is a reason Ohio is called the bellwether of American presidential politics – a reason why it is watched so closely by the political professionals and the pundits every year.

Ohio is a microcosm of America, except in a few demographic categories, such as the percentage of Hispanic population – 17 percent nationwide, only 3.3 percent in Ohio.

What's a bellwether? Well, literally, it is the lead sheep in a herd, the one with a bell around its neck that all the rest follow. In politics, it is a state that sets the pace for the rest of the country. The one that usually gets the result right.

Ohio is that state. Ohio has gone with the eventual winner in 28 of the last 30 presidential elections – that's 93 percent, the highest percentage in the country.

Kyle Kondik is an Ohioan and managing editor of Sabato's Crystal Ball, a widely-read and closely-watched political newsletter published by Larry J. Sabato, director of the University of Virginia's Center for Politics.

Kondik, in fact, has written a book on the subject – Bellwether: Why Ohio Picks the President – which goes into great detail on the historical, demographic and even geographical reasons why Ohio has such a good record of voting for winners in the presidential election.

And Kondik looks at polls now showing Donald Trump with a lead – slim, but not insignificant – and has a theory on why that is the case.

And he looks at polls showing Ohio's incumbent Republican senator, Rob Portman, outpolling Trump in Ohio and starting to run away from Democratic challenger Ted Strickland, to the point where it looks like the national Democratic Party has pretty much given up on Strickland and moved its resources elsewhere in its fight to win back control of the U.S. Senate.

"Demographically, Ohio is more friendly to Trump than most of the other battleground states,'' Kondik told WVXU. "It has high percentage of non-college-educated white voters. And that is Trump's base."

Real Clear Politics (RCP) , a website that daily tracks news and polling around the nation, averaged out the six most recent polls of Ohio voters and has Trump with a 1.7 percentage point lead over Clinton, with Libertarian Gary Johnson taking nearly 9 percent and Green Party candidate Jill Stein about two percent.

There are polls such as the CNN/ORC poll and the Bloomberg Poll which show Trump with a five percentage point lead over Clinton in Ohio.

"He's created cross-over support,'' Kondik said. "He's really done much better than expectations. I don't think Mitt Romney ever, at any point, had a five percent lead in Ohio."

The RCP average is showing Ohio's Senate race slipping away from Strickland and the Democrats. The RCP poll looked at the six most recent polls and has Portman ahead by 13.4 percentage points.

"It's really interesting how far Portman is outpolling Trump,'' Kondik said.

But Portman, has endorsed Trump, but "has kept him at arm's length" and has ran his own campaign – with a sophisticated ground game and considerable help from outside groups.

Strickland runs around calling himself the "45 million dollar man,'' because that is how much he says outside groups, the Portman campaign and the GOP has spent to defeat him.

Once Trump had secured the presidential nomination, the political money people in the GOP began looking at the Ohio Senate race as a toss-up, and the money started to flow into Ohio.

Early in the year, Strickland was leading Portman in the polls. That lead eroded; and now Portman appears to be running away with it.

The presidential race in Ohio, on the other hand, is by no means settled.

Nationally – and here in Ohio – August was a horrible month for Trump; and Clinton took off like a rocket in the polls. September, on the other hand, has been an almost unmitigated disaster for Clinton, with her "basket of deplorables" comment about Trump supporters and the questions swirling around about her health.

She was up in August, down in September. He was down in August, up in September.

Here's the fact of the matter – this momentum is likely to shift several times, both in Ohio and nationally over the next seven weeks, as the debates start rolling out and the battle becomes more intense.

Ohio will be close. That is one thing we can say with reasonable certainty. It almost always is.

Hillary Clinton, Kondik said, can win the White House without winning Ohio.

For Trump, Ohio is much more important. He needs to flip several states that went for Barack Obama in 2012 to find his narrow, winding path to 270 electoral votes – the amount a candidate needs to become president.

And then, of course, there is the tried-and-true old saw of Ohio politics: No Republican has ever won the White House without winning Ohio.

Clinton's problem in Ohio is much the same as her problem elsewhere, Kondik said.

"Clinton has an enthusiasm problem and a young person problem,'' Kondik said. "The young voters, the Millennials – they just aren't excited enough about Hillary Clinton. It doesn't mean they vote for Trump – maybe they go for a third party candidate or maybe some just don't vote. But it is a big problem for the Clinton campaign."

These young voters are the same people who voted for Bernie Sanders in the primary; and who admire the populist senator from Massachusetts, Elizabeth Warren.

So guess what?

Thursday afternoon, the Clinton campaign issues a press release saying Sanders will campaign Saturday in Kent and Akron where he will "lay out the stakes of the election for Millennial voters."

Almost simultaneously came a Clinton news release saying that Warren, too, would be headed to Ohio – at the Archie Griffin Ballroom of the Ohio Union on the Ohio State University campus in Columbus on Saturday, and in Cleveland on Sunday.

Sanders, the press release said, "will emphasize Clinton's plans to support Millennials, including making free community college and debt-free college available to all Americans, protecting access to health care for young Americans, reforming our immigration and supporter DREAMers and their families, raising the minimum wage and protecting our climate."

"He will also urge Ohioans to register to vote ahead of the October 11 deadline,'' the press release said.

The release about Warren pointed out that the Hillary for Ohio campaign released a report saying that 150,000 Ohio students would pay no tuition for a four-year college degree. It would include families with up to $125,000 in income to pay zero tuition at in-state colleges and universities.

Even though the polls have been trending Trump's way lately, it is way too early to put the Buckeye State in the red column, Kondik said.

"These polls may have been conducted at the worst possible time for Clinton,'' Kondik said. "I think it is safe to say that, whatever the outcome, Ohio is going to be close."

Editor's note: Kondik will discuss the election and his new book in an event at 7 p.m. Monday at the main Cincinnati-Hamilton County Public Library downtown. WVXU politics writer Howard Wilkinson will participate in the discussion, which will be moderated by Mark Heyne, host of WVXU's Cincinnati Edition. Kondik also will be on Cincinnati Edition with Wilkinson live from WVXU's studios at 1 p.m. Monday.