Ohio Counts

The Swing State That Would Be Kingmaker

  • Why it matters

    Why it matters

    If Hillary Clinton can win in Ohio, many say it would almost certainly put an end to Donald Trump’s bid for the U.S. presidency.

  • Facts


    • Even though this year there are more contested states than previously, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Florida are often seen as the three quintessential swing states in national politics, that indicate who’s going to win.
    • Hillary Clinton and the Democratic Party have focused on younger, urban and African-American voters in the state while Donald Trump and the Republicans have been pitching to older, rural, white voters.
    • The most recent polls in Ohio suggest the race is too close to call, with leads for either candidate well within the margin of error.
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Campaign 2016 Ohio Early Voting
Too close to call: Early voters in Columbus, Ohio. Source: AP

Judging by Hillary Clinton’s schedule, Cleveland has a special place in the U.S. presidential candidate’s heart. She’s been traveling all over the country, and now, just before the election, she has been to the industrial city in Ohio’s north twice, in one weekend.

On Friday evening she was onstage in front of a packed house in the University of Cleveland’s gymnasium, with the pop singer Beyoncé and rapper Jay-Z, icons of the U.S. music scene.

The audience was mainly young African Americans, just as Ms. Clinton’s campaign team had hoped. The city is predominantly African-American and is considered safe territory for the Democrats. But Ms. Clinton is afraid that come election day, many people will stay at home because there are no African American candidates on the ballot paper.

The Clinton camp is trying to use star power as leverage to get voters off the couch. When she returned to Cleveland two days later, she took to the stage with basketball legend LeBron James, a local hero.

The Democrats need a high voter turnout in cities like Cleveland to counterbalance their weakness in the rest of the state. The balance between town and country, worker and farmer, makes Ohio a swing state.

Ohio is considered a particularly important swing state. In every presidential election since 1964, Ohio has voted for the victorious candidate. “Where Ohio goes, that’s where the country goes,” people around here say proudly.

“Trump will negotiate better contracts. And if he can't, then he'll punish China and Mexico with import tariffs. ”

Steve Hanson, Self-proclaimed Trumpocrat

Of course, the Republicans are also hoping to secure Ohio’s 18 electoral votes. It was in July in the Quicken Loans Arena, where LeBron James dunks for the home team, that the Grand Old Party chose Donald Trump as their candidate. Cleveland also represents the hopes many conservatives have that they can lure an important voter group away from the Democrats: disaffected white, working class people, who reject free trade and globalization.

Steve Hanson is on the lookout for them. In the last month, the 48-year-old owner of a household goods store in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, has been on the road in Ohio looking for “Trumpocrats”.

That’s the nickname he’s given for a group of former Democratic voters who believe that Mr. Trump is the best option for the little guy.

“When Bill Clinton signed NAFTA, he practically gave up on towns like Cleveland, Youngtown and Toledo,” Mr. Hanson said. Like many others, Mr. Hanson blames the collapse of Ohio’s industry, and the associated job losses, on the free trade agreement with Mexico and Canada.

Tens of thousands were once employed in the Cleveland steelworks and the Ford factory on Highway 71 provided 15,000 jobs. Today Ford needs only a tenth of the workforce it once did. Since the 1950s, Cleveland has lost half of its population.

“Trump will negotiate better contracts,” self-proclaimed Trumpocrat Mr. Hanson said. “And if he can’t, then he’ll punish China and Mexico with import tariffs.”

He said that on his tour through the weak industrial heart of the U.S. he’d spoken with dozens of people – “and not just white folks.”

“They’re all tired of hearing about political correctness rather than about jobs,” he said. Mr. Hanson said that people are angry because they were all promised the American dream. To earn it, all they had to do was work hard. “But where is it now?”

Mr. Trump’s popularity among the white working class is a threat to the Democrats. Mr. Hanson’s Trumpocrats remember the Reagan Democrats of the 1980s: people who had long backed the Democrats but who gave the populist Republican two landslide victories. Ohio voted for Reagan, as did other Midwest states which had been considered reliably blue, like Michigan, Minnesota or Wisconsin.

Mr. Trump’s standing in these states is better than that of Mitt Romney four years ago and he believes he has them in the bag. On Sunday, the billionaire appeared in Michigan and Minnesota.

When Hillary Clinton spoke for the second time in Cleveland, she acknowledged voters’ anger and frustration. “I see it, I hear it, sometimes I’m the subject of it. I get it,” Ms. Clinton said. “But anger is not a plan. Anger is not going to get us new jobs with rising incomes that will create a strong, thriving middle class.”

She promised investment in roads, bridges and railways. Then she launched a direct attack on Mr. Trump, saying he built his skyscrapers out of steel imported from China.

In the latest polls Mr. Trump was three points ahead of Clinton in Ohio. However, the Republican establishment in the state hate Mr. Trump more than party officials in almost any other state. John Kasich, the governor of Ohio, competed with Trump for the presidential nomination. He was a no-show at the Republican National Convention where Donald Trump accepted his party’s nomination, and he has said he won’t vote for Mr. Trump in the election.

His party ally, Senator Rob Portman, has taken a less principled stance. The thin, white-haired Republican wants to secure a second term in his senate seat on Tuesday. After much hesitation he got to know Mr. Trump, but then later withdrew his support. Ultimately the 60-year-old’s see-sawing is likely to do him damage, as is his role as a free trade negotiator in the Bush administration. But Mr. Portman is in the right place. In polls he’s 15 percentage points ahead of his opponent, Ohio’s former governor Ted Strickland.

Mr. Portman’s strategy is to keep his eyes on his opponent, not on Trump. At an appearance in the small town of Bellafontaine, he emphasised his own ability to make compromises with Democrats in Washington and criticized Mr. Strickland’s economic policies as governor. He made no mention of the Republican presidential candidate. In the end of course, both he and Mr. Trump may well win in Ohio.

If Ohio shows observers one thing, it’s this: The Democrats don’t understand their electoral base any more and the Republican party is split between pro- and anti-Trump wings. “Where Ohio goes, the country follows.” That is likely to hold true, no matter who wins this election.

Handelsblatt correspondent Alexander Demling is in Cleveland for the election. To contact the author: demling@handelsblatt.com

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