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Ohio has been a bellwether and a battleground: What is it telling us now?

Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump speaks at a campaign rally on Oct. 27, 2016 at the Spire Institute in Geneva, Ohio.
Jeff Swensen
Getty Images
Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump speaks at a campaign rally on Oct. 27, 2016 at the Spire Institute in Geneva, Ohio.

Once upon a time, winning the Ohio vote for president pretty much meant spending the next four years in the White House.

The Buckeye State was The Bellwether State for 14 presidential election cycles spanning six decades. Ohio's choice won the Electoral College in every four-year showdown from Lyndon Johnson's landslide in 1964 to Donald Trump's upset win in 2016.

That streak was the longest of its kind for any state. But even before that extraordinary run began, Ohio had voted for the winner 21 times and for the loser just four times since the Civil War.

Moreover, the winner's victory margin in Ohio was consistently close to the victory margin in the popular vote nationwide, only deviating by about one percentage point on average over the last dozen presidential elections.

The Ohio mojo has even worked when the national popular vote and the Electoral College tally produced different winners. In each case of this happening in this century, in 2000 and in 2016, the candidate winning the popular vote in Ohio lost the national popular vote but won in the Electoral College.

But something happened in 2020. In that year, Ohio gave a solid majority of its vote to then-incumbent president Donald Trump, yet Trump still lost to Joe Biden in the national vote and the Electoral College.

Even more remarkable was the margin of Trump's Ohio win in 2020. The state gave him another 8-point margin of victory, roughly the same as his 2016 margin over Hillary Clinton. Given that Trump was losing to Biden by about 4.5 points nationwide, the resulting gap between Ohio and the nation in terms of these candidates was a stunning 12.5 points.

The Ohio margin and outcome were overshadowed at the time by dramatic events in other states that Biden did manage to wrest from Trump and which were subsequently disputed by Trump and his partisans.

But as the smoke cleared, the Ohio result stood out. How did Trump manage to hold on and maintain a comfortable margin in a state that has long been an Election Night nail-biter?

Perhaps this longtime bellwether state that had seen so many close contests had simply lost its electoral heart to Trump. Or perhaps the state itself had changed so much that it no longer worked as a miniature of the nation.

Either way, the 2024 rematch of the 2020 national candidates is now officially underway, and there may still be much to be gleaned from what's happening in Ohio.

Along came COVID

The 2020 presidential election cycle began with Trump enjoying a typical incumbent edge over challengers from the opposition party. But then came the powerful cross-currents of the COVID epidemic, the resulting sharp economic downturn and a historically divisive campaign. Democrats consolidated their vote behind Biden after he won the South Carolina primary and several big states on Super Tuesday and subsequent Tuesdays in March.

At the time, Ohio Democrats remembered having won the state twice with Barack Obama and twice with Bill Clinton. They liked the national polling that looked good for Biden into the fall of 2020 and thought they even had a shot at reclaiming Ohio on their way to recapturing the White House that year."

They turned out to be right about the national race — but not about Ohio. Biden was able to reclaim several states Trump had won in 2016 in the Great Lakes region — Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin. Trump's share of the popular vote in those three states only declined by about a percentage point on average, but it was enough to flip the national Electoral College. The addition of two Sunbelt states from Trump's 2016 column, Arizona and Georgia, further enlarged Biden's share of the Electoral College.

But the winds that had shifted just enough to move those five states did not prevail in Ohio, breaking its long run as the nation's leading political weathervane.

Was there a force at work that changed those other swing states but somehow skipped Ohio? Had the state changed, or had the country?

Is it Ohio or America?

Ohio has long had a reputation for favoring incumbent presidents seeking a new term. George W. Bush eked out a 2 percentage point win there in 2004 and thereby survived the closest Electoral College vote ever for a reelected incumbent. Had he lost Ohio in either 2000 or 2004 he would not have had the electoral votes to win either time.

More recently, Ohio has been bucking national trends for several cycles, electing Republicans to all six statewide offices and giving the party big majorities in both chambers of the legislature.

But much of the new Republican advantage in the state has come in the Trump era. To some degree, Trump's win in 2020 and again in this past week's Ohio primary simply demonstrated his persistent appeal in the state.

Even without incumbency, Trump has maintained a higher approval in Ohio than he has nationally since leaving office, and the most recent polls show him leading Biden in a rematch by double digits.

Moreover, a candidate for the U.S. Senate in Ohio, political newcomer Bernie Moreno, won his primary easily this past week over two other Republicans who were far better known figures in the GOP establishment. Most observers attributed Moreno's dominant win to his endorsement from Trump. That too was a kind of continuation, as Trump's endorsement had also been key to the 2022 nomination and election of J.D. Vance to the state's other U.S. Senate seat in 2022.

How much is Trump?

Trump's run of popularity in the region can also be seen in a larger context. Ohio's population population growth has lagged the rest of the country over the past half century. Ohio had 25 electoral votes when it went for Richard Nixon in 1960. This fall it will have just 17, a decrease of about a third.

The decline in relative population has tended to make the state demographically older and whiter. And those categories usually tend to favor Republican candidates for office. The change is important in Ohio because the state was long regarded as a microcosm of the nation as a whole. In statistical terms, it "looked like the country" in terms of race, the urban-rural divide and the mix of industries and occupations.

That resemblance was often noted when observers called the state the ultimate bellwether. And a case could be made that Ohio subsumed many of the elements of the American polity: farmland and industrial cities, college towns and factory towns, sprawling suburbia and a swath of rural southeastern counties in many ways akin to neighboring West Virginia.

It may be that other changes in Ohio can be glimpsed in the issue priorities of Ohio voters. Media interviews before and during the recent primary showed Ohioans concerned about the inflation issue and other economic matters, as voters are nationwide. But many also focused on immigration, or "the crisis on the border" as it is often called by Republicans in Congress and in the media.

Although Ohio is far from the border in question, the issue has been nationalized to great effect. And one poll from the group called Third Wayshowed Democrats in 2022 were at a 24-point disadvantage to Republicans on "immigration and the border."

Because of all these factors, Ohio has become a symptom in the dire prognosis some observers are making for the current Democratic Party. Ruy Teixeira, a demographer and scholar who calls his Substack newsletter "The Liberal Patriot," has been a critic of what he calls the party's leftward drift in recent decades – especially on social issues.

He cites Gallup Poll data showing the percentage of Democrats self-identifying as "liberal" had more than doubled since 1994, going from 25 to 54 percent.

Rising academic liberals

Teixeira also notes that this change has occurred as the party has increasingly become the home of voters who have at least a four-year college degree. Indeed, large-sample polls by the Pew Research Center covering the period since 1994 show the percentage of such voters who called themselves Democrats or said they leaned toward Democrats grew from 42% to 57% before the 2020 election. The same polling found those in this group identifying with the GOP or leaning that way fell from 50% to 37%.

The emerging dominance of those with college degrees has changed the mix of social attitudes in what was once the blue-collar party, leading candidates who want to win primaries to take policy positions more popular on campus than among the rural or urban working class.

"That deeply affects the image of the party at election time," says Teixeira, who worked for years at the left-leaning Center for American Progress but has more recently relocated to be a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.

Even after Democrats did better than expected in the 2022 midterms, and even after the overturning of the Roe v. Wade guarantee of abortion rights, Teixeira warned that the hard turn to the left on cultural issues was costing the party.

In a Washington Post column in January 2023, Teixeira wrote that "More voters now think Democrats have moved too far to the left than think Republicans have moved too far to the right."

If true, that portends dire things for Biden and his party — and not just in Ohio.

Teixeira's column said "the cultural left ... has managed to associate the party with views on crime, immigration, policing, free speech and, of course, race and gender that are quite far from those of the median voter."

Known for the influential book he co-authored with John B. Judis in 1992 (The Emerging Democratic Majority), he is now the co-author with Judis of a sequel titled Where Have All the Democrats Gone?

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Ron Elving is Senior Editor and Correspondent on the Washington Desk for NPR News, where he is frequently heard as a news analyst and writes regularly for