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The Waning Influence of Ohio as a Swing State

What’s the matter with the Buckeye State?

By Jared Keller


(Photo: Jeff Swensen/Getty Images)

If the polls are to be believed, this election is Hillary Clinton’s to lose. The New York Times gives the former secretary of state an 85 percent chance of victory over Donald Trump, while Nate Silver’s FiveThirtyEight forecasts a 71.4 percent chance of taking the White House. According to Politico’s battleground state tracker, Clinton holds a slim margin over Trump in nine out of the 11 big swing states, including a 6.2 point lead in both Michigan (where both candidates took their final swipes at one another on the eve of Election Day) and Wisconsin, the latter of which hasn’t voted for a Republican since 1984.

Between Ohio and Iowa—the two battleground states leaning toward Trump—Ohio may pose the biggest conundrum for political analysts. Ohio, which currently wields 18 electoral votes (compared to fellow Trump-leaner Iowa’s six), has picked the president of the United States in every election but two since 1904, according to CBS News. Should Clinton win the White House without the Buckeye State, she’d be the first Democrat to do so since John F. Kennedy in 1960; for Trump, a similarly constructed victory would be a historic first for any Republican candidate. As goes Ohio, political history tells us, so goes the nation.

For just the third time in more than a century, that may not be the case. Despite FiveThirtyEight’s forecast of a 35.4 percent chance at victory for Clinton in Ohio, victories for the former secretary of state in contested states like North Carolina (with her 55 percent chance of grabbing the state’s 15 electoral votes) and Florida (55.1 percent for 29 electoral votes) could make a victory in Ohio all but irrelevant in terms of campaign calculus.

So what’s the matter with Ohio? Once a bellwether demographic microcosm of American national attitudes and politics, Ohio “has not fallen into step with the demographic changes transforming the United States, growing older, whiter and less educated than the nation at large,” the New York Times’ Jonathan Martin observed, perhaps displacing the symbolic import of the Midwestern battleground for pollsters and pundits.

“As the place where Appalachia meets the Midwest, and where industrial centers arose not far from a vast farm belt, Ohio has prided itself on being a version of America writ small,” Martin wrote. “But even some of the state’s proudest boosters acknowledge that Ohio, which is nearly 80 percent white, is decreasingly representative of contemporary America.”

But despite this demographic shift, Democrats saw significant gains in counties throughout Ohio between 2004 and 2012. And as Trump has solidified his white, working-class base in the state over the course of the 2016 campaign, shouldn’t this trend of deepening partisanship make the state even more contested?

The answer might be a bit simpler: Ohio simply isn’t worth as much as it used to be. The state’s voters in the electoral college have declined from a high of 26 in 1964 to a low of 18, per 270ToWin, the fewest votes since 1828. Ohio still wields outsize influence, certainly, as the pool of “safe” states that are locked in for one party or another has only expanded since 1992. But the demographic changes wracking state politics have led to a declining population, robbing Ohio of both congressional districts and electors — a trend likely to continue through the 2020 election, according to the Cleveland Plain-Dealer.

The 2016 campaign has already upended national expectations on everything from political norms to electoral math, but one of its most enduring consequences of the race may be the end of Ohio as a sociopolitical mood ring for a nation obsessed with forecasts and predictions. As seventh in the electoral college, Ohio will certainly remain a battleground state for years to come, but its days as an election day darling may be nearing an end.