Sure 2016 was a big surprise, but 2020 has some stunners of its own

By: - November 3, 2020 12:40 am

File photo of early voters at the Franklin County Board of Elections to early vote in 2020. Photo by Marty Schladen, Ohio Capital Journal.

Driving home to Austin from San Antonio in the wee morning hours of Nov. 9, 2016, I was still unable to wrap my head around the fact that Donald Trump had just been elected president. It certainly wasn’t an outcome I had foreseen and I was trying to think through what the next four years would bring as I sloshed north on Interstate 35 through the rain.

I’d spent the night at the campaign headquarters of Will Hurd, then a GOP rising star. He was a young, charismatic former CIA officer who had just gotten himself reelected in what was then Texas’s only competitive congressional district. He also happened to be the only Black Republican in the U.S. House.

I hadn’t thought Hurd would win either — not because of any shortcomings on his part, but because I thought Trump’s rhetoric would drag him down in a heavily Latino district that abuts hundreds of miles of the border with Mexico.

Today, on the eve of the next quadrennial election, I’m shocked at how little I did foresee.

Hurd, who appeared to have a long career ahead of him, announced more than a year ago that he wouldn’t stand for reelection as he criticized Trump’s approach to the border and his lack of outreach to young, minority Americans

I also failed to foresee that I’d return to my native Ohio in 2017. And I couldn’t possibly have imagined that we’d be grinding through a once-in-a-century pandemic at the same time that we’re conducting a historic election.

Another thing I didn’t foresee: That in said election, both Ohio and Texas would be virtually tied in opinion polls just hours before Election Day voting commences.

But there it is. Trump leads Ohio by less than a percentage point, according to the 538 polling average. In Texas as of 3:20 p.m. Monday, the split was exactly one point, 48.5%-47.5% in favor of Trump.

That’s a big shift from 2016, when Trump won Ohio eight percentage points and Texas by nine.

So what happened? 

The states were thought to be on different political trajectories, with Texas becoming younger and more diverse at a faster rate than Ohio. Yet both seem to be in about the same position when it comes to Trump.

“In some ways I’m not surprised,” emeritus Ohio State political science professor Paul Beck said Monday of the Ohio swing. “Hillary Clinton had some really clear weaknesses as a candidate.”

As evidence, Beck pointed to the fact that in different elections, former president Barack Obama, Sen. Sherrod Brown and former Democratic gubernatorial candidate Richard Cordray all have run ahead of Clinton in Ohio’s rural and Black communities.

“A lot of Democrats in those areas just sat it out,” Beck said.

Also hurting Trump among Ohio’s 11.7 million residents is that he continues to alienate women and college-educated whites — and his handling of the coronavirus pandemic is turning off many seniors, who are most vulnerable to the disease.

“His approach to dealing with it is not to deal with it, by and large,” Beck said. “There are a lot of older people who are sequestered, being very careful, very worried about catching the disease and a lot of them are turning away from Trump.”

In Texas, different dynamics seem to have driven the race to a similar place. 

It’s been a minority-majority state since 2006 and in the past Democrats have gotten their hopes up about a partisan flip based on its diversity, relative youth and because an ever higher percentage of its 29 million residents live in cities and suburbs. 

But in 2014, then-state Sen. Wendy Davis used a high-profile fight against a restrictive abortion bill to launch a run for governor. She lost to current governor Greg Abbott by about 20 points, and dealt a crushing blow to Democratic dreams of a blue Texas.

But those hopes rose with a surprisingly strong 2018 run that brought Democrat Beto O’Rourke within three percentage points of incumbent U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, a Republican. Now the Trump factor is accelerating the Texas trend, said one Lone Star State political expert.

“It is a big, purple battleground,” said University of Houston political scientist Brandon Rottinghaus. “All of a sudden, Donald Trump accelerated the Democrats’ ability to rile up their voters.” 

Rottinghaus added that “if Texas goes blue it makes it impossible for Republicans to win the White House.”

In recent months, as relatively scarce polling in Texas tightened, money surged into Democratic candidates’ coffers and into the Biden campaign there, but “my hunch is that it’s probably a little bit too late,” Rottinghaus said.

He predicted that Trump will win Texas by less than three points. But there are other issues of interest to Ohioans. 

For one, Hurd’s House seat is no longer the only competitive one in Texas. In fact, the Cook Political Report rates it and another as “leans Democratic” and three others — including one that Davis is running for — “Republican toss-up.”

The increase in competitive seats might help Democrats’ immediate prospects of keeping the U.S. House, while the race for the Texas House affects those chances over the long term. 

Democrats need to flip nine seats — many in increasingly blue suburbs — to take control of the chamber. That would give them a seat at the table next year as Texas redraws state legislative districts as well as 36 U.S. House districts, 23 of which are now occupied by Republicans.

“I think there’s a really good chance the (Texas) House will flip,” Rottinghaus said.

Back in Ohio, Republican dominance of the Statehouse appears to be too great for Buckeye State Democrats to hold similar hopes. 

But one congressional seat might see a red-to-blue flip. Cook rates the Cincinnati-area contest between Republican incumbent Steve Chabot and Democrat Kate Schroder as the state’s only toss-up. Beck agreed, saying that Chabot is in “real trouble.”

He’s less certain, though, about how much trouble Trump is in here and how close the Buckeye State is to resuming its status as national bellwether. The question is whether Trump’s losses among women, suburbanites and seniors — along with Trump-averse young voters joining the electorate — are enough to overcome Trump’s eight-point margin of four years ago.

“We’re seeing a realignment,” Beck said. “But it’s not a huge realignment.”

I’d make a prediction of my own, but my record over the past four years doesn’t entitle me to one.



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Marty Schladen
Marty Schladen

Marty Schladen has been a reporter for decades, working in Indiana, Texas and other places before returning to his native Ohio to work at The Columbus Dispatch in 2017. He's won state and national journalism awards for investigations into utility regulation, public corruption, the environment, prescription drug spending and other matters.