Then-U.S. President Donald Trump and former Vice President and Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden speak during the first presidential debate at the Health Education Campus of Case Western Reserve University on September 29, 2020 in Cleveland, Ohio. (Photo by Morry Gash-Pool/Getty Images)
Joe Biden is hoping one last push on the penultimate day will break the deadlocked tie.
Donald Trump, focusing his final days elsewhere, is hoping a favorable track record will be enough to give him another Buckeye State win.
Ohio may not be the center of the political universe in 2020, but it remains a place that could mark the difference between presidential victory and defeat.
Polls declare Joe Biden and Donald Trump to be tied in Ohio at an even 46% apiece. In years past, this would mean a flurry of campaigning in Ohio by both candidates in the few weeks leading up to Election Day. There will be one stop here on Monday, with Biden’s campaign announcing he is headed to Cleveland.
For the most part, though, much of the candidates’ last-minute campaigning has targeted other battleground states like Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin. The contenders have asymmetrical paths to 270 electoral college votes. With polling leads for Biden in numerous Midwestern states — and evidence that Trump 2016 wins like Texas, Georgia, Arizona and North Carolina are in play — the Democrat’s campaign sees paths to victory that do not require winning Ohio. That’s not the case with the incumbent.
“Ohio is required for Trump,” said David Niven, a political science associate professor at the University of Cincinnati. “Ohio is running up the score for Biden.”
Though Ohio is critical to his reelection chances, Trump has only visited here once in the past month. His campaign canceled TV advertising buys here in October and recently relocated a top Ohio advisor to Pennsylvania.
Both Niven and Kyle Kondik, a political analyst for the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics, suggested these decisions reflect the current electoral college landscape.
Ohio went for Trump over Democratic challenger Hillary Clinton by 8 points in 2016. If Trump has to devote major resources and time to Ohio, the two believe, that may spell doom for a number of corresponding states in the Midwest and elsewhere. So Trump is focused elsewhere, seeking to win other tough battlegrounds while hoping Ohio remains in his corner.
“(Trump) needs Ohio so badly he almost can’t afford to fight for it,” Niven said.
The Ohio map
Looking back to four years ago, Niven pointed out the exit polls were brutal for Clinton in Ohio. While women nationwide backed her over Trump by 13%, that margin in Ohio was just 3%. She lost every age group above 29 years old. White voters overwhelmingly supported Trump, including college graduates and non-graduates alike.
“Her loss was not a loss of one thing,” Niven said, “and what made Ohio competitive this year is Biden has very effectively brought back to the fold members of the old Democratic base.”
This includes union households — Biden campaigned at a Toledo union hall a few weeks ago — and white college-educated voters. Biden has also broadened the age range and polls much better than Clinton did among seniors, which Niven said may have in part to do with Trump’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic.
Kondik, an Ohio native who authored “The Bellwether: Why Ohio Picks the President,” said Biden’s better polling among white voters is the big story of the 2020 campaign. This suggests he may fare better in Appalachian parts of the state and in suburbs, where Trump is believed to have lost ground since 2016.
The trouble for Biden, Kondik noted, is an 8% margin from the last election is “a lot of ground to make up.” Kondik said a turnaround like that will require bigger margins toward Biden in population centers like Franklin and Hamilton counties along with making inroads in Trump-leaning counties like Butler, Delaware, Lake and Warren.
What’s the bellwether county of the bellwether state? Kondik has his eye on Wood County in Northwest Ohio, home of Bowling Green State University. This has been a popular campaign stop for candidates in years past; back in 2012, all three presidential contenders visited Bowling Green in a span of a few months.
Reason for Trump optimism
There is some data that points toward Trump carrying the Buckeye State again this year.
Dave Wasserman, a forecaster for the Cook Political Report, recently tracked all of the polling in swing states from the 2016 and 2018 elections. Wassermen looked at how the pre-election polling compared to the actual election results for president, senate and governor.
Some states had barely any difference between the polls and the election results. For most others, the difference was just a few percentage points in either party’s direction.
Of the 12 states tracked, though, Ohio had the biggest margin between polling and eventual results. Wasserman found the election results leaned more than 5% toward Republicans than what polls had indicated.
That trend may not carry into this year’s election. But Wasserman does suggest that Biden may be more likely to “break through” in other toss-up states than in Ohio.
The two campaigns have been relatively active in the Buckeye State in 2020, this Ohio Capital Journal map of campaign stops shows:
The Trump campaign is emphasizing the economy’s strength before the pandemic hit, with promises that it will rebound again with another term. Such was the major theme at Vice President Mike Pence’s recent visit to Columbus as he spoke in front of workers in hardhats who held signs saying “Jobs! Jobs! Jobs!”
Trump and his surrogates have emphasized the president’s work on trade, the return of college football and the rebuilding of the U.S. military. Trump has touted his response to the pandemic — with help from Gov. Mike DeWine — and believes the country is “rounding the corner,” a contrasting message than the one given by the Ohio Department of Health as this state continues to set new records for cases and hospitalizations.
Biden’s message is often more intangible as he has characterized the campaign as being about the “soul of this nation.” He has talked up his and President Barack Obama’s work to support the auto industry a decade ago.
Biden has also underscored a contrast in his pledged approach to the virus. As Trump has hosted large-scale rallies with no social distancing and few wearing masks, Biden’s in-person events have involved supporters remaining in their cars or sitting apart from one another.
It has been a long presidential campaign season in Ohio, which has involved two debates here, a brief run from Congressman Tim Ryan of Niles and a primary election carried out by mail early on in the pandemic.
In large part because of that pandemic, with many Ohio voters sending in ballots by mail once again, we may not know which candidate won the state for several weeks. Either way, the 2020 election in Ohio looks to be a close one.
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