In this current era of “big data” and election statistics hype pioneered by FiveThirtyEight.com, I figured I’d write about some of the interesting numbers I have seen. Living in Ohio, I also wanted to expatiate on the idea that Ohio’s bellwether status may be on the verge of expiration. For the popular vote, I am using the Cook Political Report’s Popular Vote Tally. For Ohio, I suggest two books: Buckeye Battleground from University of Akron and The Bellwether from Ohio University. I mostly extend my ideas from these two books.
What’s a Swing State?
A swing state must do two things: 1) consistently choose the presidential winner and 2) consistently be close the national popular vote. Ohio for 200 years has been both in presidential elections. As a relatively large state, winning it often determines the electoral college winner. For a century, this meant choosing a presidential candidate from Ohio (birthplace of 8 presidents) but since the death of President Harding in 1923, this has just meant winning the state electorally.
The simplest way I explain why Ohio is a swing state is because Ohio represents different parts of American in one state. The north is Northern and the south is Southern to put it roughly. Buckeye Battleground divides the state into 4 quadrants with Columbus in the middle.
Northeast Ohio (Cleveland/Akron/Canton/Youngstown) was settled by people from New England. Specifically it was part of Connecticut’s “Western Reserve.” It was industrialized early on and has many similar characteristics to the American Northeast (industry, unions, immigrant Catholics, and African-Americans who moved from the South). The original Western Reserve counties in fact still match the presidential vote results in Connecticut within a point or two since the 1890s.
Southeast Ohio is Appalachian and similar to West Virginia. It has the smallest population and is poor, rural. and Scotch-Irish in ancestry. Northwestern Ohio is heavily German and is similar to Indiana but also has a large automobile industry in Toledo which is very close to Detroit. In fact the bellwether county for the state, Ottawa County, is in this area.
Southwest Ohio borders Kentucky and has Cincinnati which has been very Republican for over a century. It is home to the Taft family, Macy’s, and Procter and Gamble. This area is the most conservative part of the state and balances the liberal orientation of the Cleveland metropolitan area. Columbus, the only major city in central Ohio, has gone from Republican to Democratic over the last twenty years and is home to Ohio State University but has Republican suburbs.
Nothing Special Here
Ohio is uniquely characterless due to the lack of a single city or industry dominating the state. Cincinnati lead the state in population in the 1800s then Cleveland led in the 1900s and now Columbus has the most people. None of the cities dominate the state the way Boston, New York, Philadelphia, or Detroit dominate their respective states. In the economy, the Buckeye State does a little bit of everything.
Ohio makes cars (but not as many as Michigan), Ohio has insurance (but not as much as Connecticut), Ohio has banks (but not as much as New York), Ohio has coal (but not as much as West Virginia), Ohio makes steel (but not as much as Pittsburgh did), and Ohio has farming (but not as much as Indiana or Iowa). Nothing stands out.
As you can guess, winning the state means a balancing act between the different regions. Democrats need blowouts in the Northeast and need to squeeze votes out in the Southeast and Northwest (and these days Columbus) to win while Republicans aim to unite the Southwest and Southeast (and as much of the Northwest) against Greater Cleveland. It really is Cleveland against the world.
No Longer Swinging
But alas, Ohio has not been doing so hot for the last few decades. Deindustrialization and the death of coal and the car industry has hurt the state while new industries do not seem to pop up anywhere outside of Columbus. Ohio has been losing electoral votes and congressional representation to southern and western states for years now. Ohio used to have 23 electoral votes in 1900 while Florida had 4; now Ohio has 18 and Florida has 29.
I see Ohio as the perfect twentieth century swing state but Florida as the perfect twenty-first century swing state. Ohio’s Hispanic population is negligible, and Ohio has very few immigrants nowadays unlike in 1900. No part of Ohio resembles the American Southwest. I had a feeling that in the era of Trump’s calls for building a border wall with Mexico that this would cause a large divergence from the Southwest. Mexicans/Mexican-Americans in the United States live in the four border states and not really in the Midwest outside of Chicago (I find the blanket term “Hispanics” not to be useful politically or practically). The small Hispanic population in Ohio tends to be Puerto Rican which would not face threats of familial deportations. Without an appreciable Mexican population, Ohio was bound to diverge significantly from Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada, and even Texas.
Trump Comes to Youngstown
Donald Trump blew Ohio out of the water. He won Rust Belt towns like Warren, Ashtabula, Canton, Lorain, and even Dayton. Hillary Clinton lost counties that even John Kerry won in his 2004 defeat. He almost won Youngstown and apparently won the majority of union members.
His margin of victory of 8.5% diverged bigly from the national popular vote which Hillary actually won by 1.6% (not yet finalized). Hillary was closer to winning in all the other swing states she lost except for Iowa (9.4%). Arizona (3.6%) and Georgia (5.2%) were much closer than Ohio, and the Texas margin was only 9.1%.
Which state actually came close the national popular vote? Minnesota (1.5%) almost got it exactly right while New Hampshire (0.4%) and Nevada (2.4%) bordered a little above and below the national margin. Florida (1.2% for Trump) was much closer than Ohio.
With the archaic Electoral College system now breaking twice in 16 years (and a near-miss in 2004), there is now a divergence between Ohio’s record picking the electoral “winner” and the popular vote winner. From 1900 to 1996, Ohio chose the popular vote winner correctly every time except in 1944 and 1960. Since 1997, it has a 3-2 record.
For now, Ohio still chooses the president but not the winner. At this rate, it soon won’t choose either.