“Ohio, Ohio, Ohio.” That was the early 2004 Election Night mantra of venerated NBC newsman Tim Russert, who accurately predicted that the Buckeye State would be the linchpin in the hotly contested presidential race that year between President George W. Bush and his Democratic challenger, then Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry. And once again, Ohio is a battleground in the race for the White House.
The last time Ohio failed to cast its ballots for the Oval Office winner was in 1960, when it sided with Republican Richard M. Nixon over Democrat John F. Kennedy who went on to prevail in one of the closest presidential elections of the 20th century. In 2012, President Barack Obama won Ohio over Republican Mitt Romney 51-to-48 percent, making it the state with the third narrowest margin of victory that year. Only Florida (Obama by one percentage point) and North Carolina (Romney by two points) were closer.
This year, Republican nominee Donald Trump probably needs to put Ohio and its 18 Electoral College votes in his column on November 8, in order to capture the White House. If former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton can thwart him, she’s very likely the next president.
In 2012, Obama won 17 of Ohio’s 88 counties. Outside of Athens County in southeast Ohio, which is dominated by Ohio University and Hocking College, he won only three other counties in the southern half of the state: Franklin, home to the state capitol of Columbus and Ohio State University; Hamilton, which contains Cincinnati; and Montgomery, Dayton. The remaining 13 counties that Obama carried were in the industrial northern portion of the state that includes the metropolitan areas of Akron, Canton, Cleveland, Toledo and Youngstown.
The Democratic path to victory starts in Cuyahoga County, home to Cleveland, where Republicans held their national convention this year. The county is a Democratic bastion as Cleveland.com’s data analysis editor Rich Exner ably documented for the 2012 presidential election when Obama won the Cuyahoga with more than 69 percent of the vote, despite relatively lower turnout in core Democratic precincts. Obama carried Cuyahoga by some 256,000 votes and his statewide margin over Romney was 166,214.
Clinton not only needs to carry Cuyahoga by a wide margin, but also to duplicate Obama’s success in Franklin, Lucas (Toledo), Mahoning (Youngstown) and Summit (Akron). Those four counties gave Obama a margin of about 273,000 votes. Franklin is where Clinton is best positioned to match or even improve on Obama’s margin of 130,000 votes. Columbus, with a population of more than 850,000, grew by roughly 63,000, a healthy eight percent increase, in the first half of the decade according to the U.S. Census Bureau. It is now twice as large as Cleveland and drawing the kind of college-educated workers who appear to be trending towards Clinton over Trump.
The challenge for Clinton—and the opportunity for Trump—is whether she can maintain Democratic margins in the strong Obama blue-collar counties like Lucas, Mahoning and Summit. Two other blue-collar counties where Trump could make inroads are Stark (Canton) and Trumbull (suburban Youngstown). These are areas that have been hard hit by the decline in manufacturing and where the GOP nominee’s aggressive opposition to trade deals and his promise to come to the aid “forgotten” Americans could resonate with and older blue-collar workers. Trump will fare well in the state’s traditionally Republican rural counties and if he can persuade working class Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents in these industrial communities to vote Republican he would be well positioned to carry Ohio.
But in order to do that he’s going to have to maintain the support that GOP candidates traditionally claim in the suburban counties outside of Cincinnati, Columbus and Cleveland. While Columbus fuels Democratic margins in Franklin County, Romney carried all the surrounding suburban and exurban counties. His advantage over Obama in nine of those counties, Delaware, Fairfield, Knox, Licking, Madison, Marion, Morrow, Pickaway and Union, amounted to more 73,000 votes, offsetting more than half of Obama’s margin in Franklin.
The state ranks 36th nationally in terms of college-educated adults, with just over one quarter of those aged 25 years or older attaining at least a bachelor’s degree, according Census figures. Overall, that makes the state a bit more challenging for Clinton. But in Delaware County outside of Columbus, just over half the adults are four-year degree holders—the highest percentage in the state. Clinton may not carry Delaware, but she is poised to make inroads in this suburban county where more than three-out-of-five voters cast ballots for Romney in 2012.
Even more important than the crabgrass frontier around Columbus are the vote-rich Republican suburban and exurban counties of Cincinnati. Butler, Clemont and Warren gave Romney a 120,000-vote margin over Obama, more than offsetting the president’s 26,600-vote advantage in Hamilton. Moreover, Romney won roughly two-thirds of the vote cast in these three GOP strongholds. Trump can’t afford to suffer much erosion in these suburbs either, or that will offset the potential gains he could make in Ohio’s blue-collar counties.
While the outcome in Ohio will be largely determined by which side gets its base to the polls, there are three bellwether counties that bear watching on Election Night for clues about what might happen statewide: Lake, Ottawa and Stark. In the past 13 elections, the candidate who won Ohio was also the victor in each of these counties at least 11 times. Moreover, the winner’s statewide share of the vote was within two percentage points of his share in each of these counties in every one of those 13 elections.
Lake slipped up in 2012, giving Romney a narrow 50-to-49 percent win over Obama, who carried this suburb of Cleveland in 2008. With its touchscreen voting machines, Lake is usually one of the earliest counties to report its vote totals on Election Night. If Clinton manages a win here, that could foreshadow inroads for her in other suburban counties later in the evening as Ohio’s votes are tallied.
Stark is a blue-collar battleground: Obama defeated Romney by a mere 851 votes here in 2012. The last time Stark’s voters got it wrong was in 2004 when they sided with John Kerry over George W. Bush in 2004. Since 2000, Stark has lost roughly one-third of its goods producing jobs and if Trump is winning there, it could be a good sign for him in other aging manufacturing counties.
Ottawa County is east of Toledo and rests on the shores of Lake Erie. Its economy is a mix of farming and relatively small manufacturers. The biggest employer in the county is the Davis-Besse nuclear power plant. The voters here have a reputation for getting presidential races right, and some see them as a microcosm of not just Ohio, but the nation. Ottawa’s voters have gone with the statewide winner in all 13 of the last 13 elections. The last time they got the national presidential winner wrong was in 1944 when they, along with the rest of the state, sided with Thomas Dewey over Franklin D. Roosevelt.
Ottawa County is also the home of Robert Putnam, the Harvard social scientist who wrote Bowling Alone, a modern classic work examining the decline of civil society in America. More recently, he has written Our Kids, a book on the fading American dream and the challenges of restoring it. The book draws on Putnam’s growing up in Port Clinton.
The presidential election results from Ottawa County might find a chapter in subsequent editions of Putnam’s latest book and the winner there could well be setting the tone for public policy for the next four years.
James A. Barnes is a senior writer for Ballotpedia and co-author of the 2016 edition of the Almanac of American Politics.