For over a century, Ohio has had a remarkable streak of voting in line with the nation. Why is that?

What do Ohio and a castrated sheep have in common? They both fit the definition of bellwether.

Ohio has an impressive record as a bellwether state. It has voted for the winner of the past 14 presidential elections since 1964. This is the longest bellwether streak of any state. There are many other factors behind the Ohio’s bellwether status.

From 1896 onward, Ohio has voted with the winner in 29 out of 31 presidential elections. However, Ohio was still a bellwether state before 1896, but 1896 was a pivotal election.

The 1896 presidential election was a major realigning election that started a period of Republican dominance in national politics, according to “The Bellwether: Why Ohio Picks the President” by Kyle Kondik.

It is important to note the difference between a bellwether state and a swing state. A bellwether state is one that’s electoral margins align with the nation’s as a whole. A swing state is one that could reasonably vote for either candidate in a presidential election, or those that either party could realistically win.

In close elections, bellwether and swing states are very similar. In a national landslide, however, the winner will likely win bellwether states by large margins.

In a national landslide where the margins in all the states shift toward one of the parties, the bellwether states will likely vote for that party by a large margin because they reflect the country as a whole. However, because of this national shift, some states that usually vote against the winning party will become competitive and turn into swing states.

Ultimately, what makes Ohio a bellwether state isn’t that it votes with presidential winners, but that it votes at a similar margin to the nation as a whole.

Ohio has only deviated from the nation’s margin by around 2.3 points — the lowest of any state — making Ohio arguably the nation’s most reliable bellwether state, according to Kondik.

But why Ohio has this bellwether record is a question to which political scientists have many answers.

Jerry Miller, a professor and associate director of undergraduate studies at Ohio University, says that Ohio’s status as a bellwether is due to its demographics.

“There has been, historically, kind of an assessment that the demographics of Ohio do kind of mimic those of the United States,” Miller said. “When you talk about education, ethnic diversity, religious, economic; those are some of the reasons that Ohio has often reflected, in many ways, the sentiments and the trends across the nation.”

Journalist Colin Woodard says the ultimate ideological dynamic within the U.S. is between Yankeedom – which Woodard argues is more progressive and comfortable with centralized power – and Tidewater – a more conservative and skeptical outlook on centralized power.

Woodard analysis says that Yankeedom began in New England and now manifests itself in the Democratic Party. Conversely, Tidewater began in the South and manifests through the Republican Party. Ohio, however, exhibits elements of both ideologies.

In the aftermath of the American revolution, Connecticut — a Yankee state — claimed and settled northeastern Ohio. From then onward the voting patterns of the two regions have remained “strikingly similar,” according to Kondik.

The correlation between northeast Ohio and Connecticut’s voting records is 0.84; 1 is a perfect correlation. Both regions leaned Democratic.

Kondik also says that a vast portion of the state between the Little Miami and Scioto Rivers was part of the Virginia Military District. Settlers from Virginia, Maryland and Kentucky primarily populated this area, states that Woodard classified as Tidewater or Tidewater allies. This area now votes reliably Republican.

Benjamin LaPoe, the director of the political communications certificate, said the variety of ideology throughout the state is why Ohio is reliably a bellwether.

“It had a pretty large population of individuals that came from a variety of different backgrounds,” LaPoe said. “Just a fairly representative sample of the country as a whole.”

Kondik ultimately attributes Ohio’s bellwether status to its diversity. Unlike Illinois and New York, one city doesn’t dominate Ohio.

Ohio’s three most populous counties (Hamilton, Franklin and Cuyahoga) only cast 28.5 percent of the total vote in Ohio in 2016. Meanwhile, just one county cast 39 percent of Illinois’ vote.

Kondik says the fact that no county in Ohio generally casts more than 10 to 12 percent of the vote not only prevents Democrats from winning the state easily, but helps make the entire state more diverse.

LaPoe added to this: “There’s a lot of different communities … that have different needs, which, again, reflects the nation as a whole.”

Kondik also says the state’s industrial diversity keeps Ohio close to the national average. If Ohio’s economy was dominated by a few industries, then it would be sensitive to changes to those industries, and voters would respond in outlier ways.

Kondik cited Iowa as an example. Iowa usually votes more Republican than the nation and has an economy heavily dependent on agriculture. However, in George H. W. Bush’s eight-point national margin of victory in 1988, his third worst showing was in Iowa because of a Reagan-era farm crisis.

Ohio’s lack of dependence on any particular industry helps prevent outlier results like this.

However, Ohio could lose its status as a bellwether state. While Ohio usually leans more Republican than the nation, it voted for Trump by 5.4 more points than the nation in 2016. This was the biggest presidential deviation since 1932, according to Kondik.

LaPoe said Ohio’s population is aging and becoming whiter compared to the nation — demographics which generally vote Republican.

“In terms of Ohio as a bellwether state, I think that is changing,” said LaPoe.

Nate Silver, the editor-in-chief of FiveThirtyEight, a website devoted to opinion poll analysis, ran an analysis on the 2018 House popular vote. By adding up the Democratic and Republican votes in every House district in every state, he found that 48 of the 50 states voted for the same party as in the 2012 presidential election.

Ohio was one of only two exceptions.

Even in an election in which Democrats won the House by 8.6 points and counting, more Ohioans cast votes for Republican House candidates than Democratic ones.

“It was a tough midterm for many Democrats in Ohio,” LaPoe said.

Even though Democrat Sherrod Brown won his senatorial election, he underperformed most of his polls and won by about the same margin he won by in 2012.

If Ohio were to become a solid, Republican state, it would not be unprecedented.

Kondik points out that in the 26 presidential elections between 1900 and 2008, Missouri voted with the winning presidential candidate 25 times. However, Missouri is now considered to be a solidly Republican state. Trump won the state by 18.7 points in 2016, and its last Democratic senator lost her reelection bid by 6 points.

Whether or not Ohio will go to the way of Missouri in the future and what effect that might have on the state has yet to be seen

Editor’s Note: This story was updated for grammatical clarity. 

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