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Which Way Will Ohio Swing In The 2020 Election?

Rep. Steve Chabot, R-Ohio, left, shakes hands with President Donald Trump, right, at a rally endorsing the Republican ticket, Friday, Oct. 12, 2018, in Lebanon, Ohio.
John Minchillo
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Associated Press
Rep. Steve Chabot, R-Ohio, left, shakes hands with President Donald Trump, right, at a rally endorsing the Republican ticket, Friday, Oct. 12, 2018, in Lebanon, Ohio.

The 2020 presidential election could end up being a critical one, not just to the winner of the White House, but also to Ohio.

Buckeye State voters have picked the winning candidate in each presidential contest since 1960 – and no Republican has won the White House without winning Ohio. The question is whether the state will do it again.

There’s a clear trend that’s been developing across the country and in Ohio, according to Kyle Kondik.

“Generally speaking, white voters with a four-year college degree are generally trending more Democratic; white voters without a four-year college degree generally trending more Republican – so kind of white working class voters,” Kondik says. “There are a lot of those kinds of voters in Ohio.”

Kondik, a former reporter who once worked for Democratic former Ohio attorney general Richard Cordray, now edits the political website Sabato’s Crystal Ball at the University of Virginia.

Ohio elections statistics expert Mike Dawson says that Donald Trump beat Hillary Clinton by 8 points here in 2016, scoring big in rural areas with voters with less education.

“It was really stunning to me, just to look at, from the 2016 to the 2012 election, that people with a bachelor's degree or higher – I looked at subdivisions in the top six counties in the state and in the top 50 educated subdivisions, Trump did worse in 49 of the 50, and he did significantly worse in many of them,” Dawson said.

Dawson previously worked for Republican U.S. Senators George Voinovich and Mike DeWine, and runs the website Ohio Election Results.

He says that in 38 counties – 43% of the state – Trump had the best performance of any Republican presidential candidate since 1980. And in 22 counties, Trump had the highest percentage of votes of any Republican presidential candidate since 1856.

A map of Donald Trump's 2016 performance. He had the highest percentage of any GOP presidential candidate since 1980 in 38 counties (dark red) and second highest in 22 counties (lighter red).
Credit Ohio Secretary of State
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A map of Donald Trump's 2016 performance. He had the highest percentage of any GOP presidential candidate since 1980 in 38 counties (dark red) and second highest in 22 counties (lighter red).

Most of those are in Appalachian Ohio.

“It used to be those counties in Appalachian Ohio switched repeatedly because their economic lot in life was not improving. So they want to give the new person a chance,” Dawson said. “They are not switching back and forth. Now they're staying solidly Republican and even becoming more Republican, so I'm not sure the economy is going to have as big an impact in this next election as it has in the past.”

Kondik agreed, saying that’s a shift he’s seeing in American politics.

“People are voting more on kind of these big cultural issues: same-sex marriage, abortion rights and then kind of harder-to-quantify kind of cultural issues, like whether Colin Kaepernick kneels during the ‘Pledge of Allegiance’ during an NFL game – you know, issues of sort of patriotism and national identity,” Kondik said.  “And I think what the president has done is made the Republican Party sort of more of the kind of populist cultural party, which arguably was already, but I think Trump kind of hyper charged that sort of trend.”

Ohio’s electorate is older and whiter than other states, which suggests not only that Ohio is growing more Republican but also that it could lose its status as a key presidential election swing state.

Still, Democrats have touted gains since 2016 in suburban Ohio. They also noted that in the 2018 midterms, Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) won several counties that Trump won two years earlier. During that same election, Republican candidates swept almost every other statewide office.

Dawson said it still looks like a rough road for a Democrat presidential candidate to win Ohio.

“My suspicion is that the race in 2000 and next year will be closer, because I think Trump has come close to maxing out in those rural counties – like I said, he did the best since 1856,” Dawson said. “I'm not sure he's hit the floor yet in the suburban counties. So I think you'll see a closer race. I still think that all things being equal, Trump will win.”

Kondik agreed the path toward a Democratic victory is a hard one, but if it happens, it’ll be a big win.

“I think you'd probably expect Ohio to again vote probably significantly to the right of the nation, again as it did in 2016,” Kondik said. “It doesn't necessarily mean the state is unwinnable for a Democrat. But I think that if a Democrat wins Ohio in 2020, that Democrat will probably be elected in a relative landslide – you know, something like Obama 2008 when he won by about 7 points nationally.”

Kondik predicted in 2016 that if Trump wins, Ohio would vote for him. He also said that, based on history and demographics, Trump would likely do better in Ohio than nationally.

Trump ended up winning Ohio by 8 points, and lost the national popular vote by 2 points – meaning in 2016, Ohio was 10 points more Republican than the rest of the country.