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Right of way: Ohio’s shifting electorate

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The Ohio polls closed Nov. 8 at 7:30 p.m. Approximately 90 minutes later, the results were in. The state, long considered a bellwether of the presidential election, had gone red.

By the following morning, Donald Trump was declared the president-elect, and Ohio’s status as an election indicator was secure.

But that wasn’t where the story ended.

Unlike in past years, Ohio didn’t receive continuous attention from the rest of the country during the election cycle.

Early polls showed the state strongly leaning toward Trump, contributed in part to its large population of white, working-class voters, the very core of Trump’s support. Unlike other swing states in which Trump won by a small margin that was split by third-party voters, Ohio’s Republican leanings were far more pronounced.

“The main difference is Trump won (Ohio) by a margin that was big enough,” David Niven, a political science professor at the University of Cincinnati, said. “It simply didn’t matter how many third-party votes there were compared to a place like New Hampshire, where you could take the third-party votes and easily change the outcome.”

While split-vote states like Florida attracted plenty of attention, so did some states with surprise outcomes. Particularly, the focus shifted to “typical blue states that ultimately went red: Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania.”

“Those states have not gone red since the 1980s,” said David Cohen, who holds a Ph.D. in political science and teaches at the University of Akron. “That was a huge surprise, and it’s one of the reasons why when pollsters looked at the electoral map, they thought the path to victory for Trump was nearly impossible. But those states broke tradition, and that was really the key to election night.”

However, the Buckeye State remained a popular campaign stop due to its 18 electoral votes, and visits to the state picked up toward the end of election season for both camps. Clinton’s rallies in Cleveland in the final days of her campaign attracted celebrity guests like Beyoncé and Lebron James.

A significant amount of money was also poured into advertising in Ohio. Combined, the two campaigns were estimated to spend around $60 million in TV advertising in Ohio alone.

But with Ohio’s large favor toward Trump, Niven isn’t sure the spending was necessary.

“I think it’s fair to say that nobody knew anything,” Niven said. “That includes the two campaigns. Because if they had appreciated the direction Ohio was going, the candidates wouldn’t have even come here, and they wouldn’t have bought any TV ads. They would’ve moved to Michigan and Wisconsin. So it wasn’t just the media that got this wrong. The candidates that were running for president themselves got this wrong.”

While Ohio’s outcome was more predictable this year than in previous elections, what was not predicted was that Ohio’s choice would align with that of the nation’s. Still, it is uncertain if Ohio will remain a bellwether going forward.

With the ongoing shift in the Republican Party that includes more white, working-class voters, Ohio is positioned to shift further to the right than ever before. Not only does this affect its long-standing swing state status, but this change also does not bode well for Democrats in the near future.

“If the Republican Party stays in this mold, it really does help the Republicans win and hold Ohio because we’re not a perfectly diverse state and we’re not a terribly well-educated state, and that is very much the base of Donald Trump’s movement,” Niven said.

Ohio’s changing ideology not only affects the presidential cycles, but the coming political seasons as well. Ohio’s significance during presidential elections strengthens the state’s Democratic and Republican bases during midterm elections as well. Those advantages may not extend to the 2018 midterm elections, according to Niven.

“The problem for Ohio Democrats is that they rely on the wave of presidential turnout to create a viable state-wide party,” Niven said. “They bank on the idea that a huge tide of voters comes in with the presidential election, and it didn’t happen in 2016. That has to send a real shiver through the Ohio Democratic Party because are those voters going to come out for them in 2018? They can’t really win without them.”

While these factors could change Ohio’s role in future presidential elections, Cohen said it’s likely the state will still hold some importance going forward.

“Even though (Ohio) is a little right-end and little less educated than the rest of the country, I think it’s going to continue to be a very important battleground state for at least the next couple election cycles,” Cohen said.

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