Republicans were premature to count Ohio as safe for Trump. His struggles there don’t bode well for winning industrial swing states and a second term.

President Donald Trump is currently struggling in Ohio, suggesting his path to a second term may be very difficult. No Republican has ever won the White House without Ohio, and only twice since 1896 has a Democrat become president without it. Trump himself has proclaimed that “you can’t win unless you win the state of Ohio.”

In the Great Lakes Poll of Ohio in March, Trump led Joe Biden 47% to 43%. But a month later, he trails the former vice president 45% to 44%. Support for Trump’s handling of the coronavirus crisis has dropped from 58% to 50%, and his favorability rating has dropped from 47% to 43%. Trump’s weakness in the Buckeye State is significant as many have considered Ohio safe territory for Trump in 2020. 

Changing demographics, Trump’s 8-point margin of victory in 2016 and a strong showing among Ohio Republicans in 2018 led Priorities USA, one of the largest Democratic super PACs, to downgrade Ohio’s status to a second-tier target.

Trump has no lock on Ohio

Scott Jennings, a Republican strategist who ran Mitt Romney’s Ohio campaign in 2012, suggested that Trump has “taken Ohio off the table for 2020.” Trump’s performance in the state ran well ahead of his performance nationally. And while he was able to also flip Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania from blue to red in 2016, the margins in those states were just 1 percentage point or less. 

Election analyst Dave Wasserman suggested recently that Ohio and Iowa would be irrelevant this year as they are unlikely to be tipping point states. This would represent a major change for a state that has been among the most prized in presidential elections.

That Trump is doing so poorly in a supposedly a “safe” state for him should be very concerning to Republicans. Having to expend resources in a state that should have been a lock means having fewer resources to deploy in other states that aren’t as demographically favorable. 

Moreover, Trump has few paths to an Electoral College majority if he loses Ohio. If a state like Ohio is at risk, the president may very well lose in a landslide across the country.    

Biden’s rise in Ohio relative to Trump is just one sign of that the state is competitive. Although a majority approve of Trump’s handling of the economy (56%), almost all Ohioans (94%) are concerned about the effects of COVID-19 on the economy, including 68% who are worried about their personal finances. These numbers should be concerning for any president seeking reelection.

It’s not the economy, stupid: In four top 2020 battlegrounds, it’s Donald Trump.

Health care is another area of trouble for Trump. In addition to the considerable decline in approval for his COVID-19 response, only 44% of Ohioans approve of how he’s handling health care policy while 50% disapprove. Although concerns over the economy and public health abound, 7 in 10 Ohioans agree that public health is more important than the economy — compared to roughly 1 in 10 who agree that the economy is more important than public health. This makes Trump’s weakness on health care that much more significant.

Joe Biden has touted his ability to bring people together and unite the country. This is a message that will find an audience in Ohio and other states in the industrial Midwest. In our first Great Lakes Poll, we found 46% to 50% of Independents in Ohio, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and Michigan agreed that the Republican Party had drifted too far to the right and 47% to 53% of Independents agreed that the Democrats had gone too far to the left.

Biden has Midwestern appeal

The Democrats’ coalescence around Biden may serve as a reflection of the party’s last successful presidential candidate — Barack Obama. Last November, Obama warned Democrats not to sacrifice a winning candidacy for an ideologically pure candidacy. Perhaps thinking of voters in places like Ohio, Obama argued that average Americans do not align “with certain left-leaning Twitter feeds or the activist wing of our party.”   

Biden’s moderate positioning helps him in states like Ohio. His message to return to normalcy and calm plays well to its moderates. Likewise, disdain for Trump will turn out liberal Democrats to cast votes against the president. Negative partisanship has been a major factor in voter turnout in contemporary elections. Although purists took exception to Obama’s warning, ultimately, presidential races are contests to win swing states, not the soul of a party. 

Joe Biden’s Trump card: Death, disease and economic pain are real. They can’t be spun.

In 2008, Barack Obama won more votes in Ohio (2,940,044) than Trump did in 2016 (2,841,005). While Trump increased his vote totals relative to Romney in 2012 and John McCain in 2008 by 179,000 and 163,000 votes respectively, Clinton underperformed relative to Obama’s 2008 total by more than 540,000 votes.

While a small percentage of Obama voters moved to Trump in 2016, there would appear to be a relatively large chunk of former Obama voters who sat out the 2020 election. For Democrats to recapture the state, it will be vital for them to energize these latent voters. Biden’s campaign message and selection of a running mate are ways he can mobilize the Obama coalition. And Trump himself will motivate some Democrats to support Biden. 

Without Ohio, it is hard to imagine Trump winning a second term. That the state appears to be in play should be a warning sign for Republicans across the country. 

Robert Alexander, director of the Institute for Civics and Public Policy at Ohio Northern University, is author of “Representation and the Electoral College.” David B. Cohen, assistant director of the Ray C. Bliss Institute of Applied Politics at the University of Akron, is co-author of “Buckeye Battleground: Ohio, Campaigns, and Elections in the Twenty-First Century.” Lauren Copeland is an assistant professor and associate director of the Community Research Institute at Baldwin Wallace University. Follow them on Twitter: @onuprof, @POTUSProf and @laurencopeland0  

Autoplay

Show Thumbnails

Show Captions

Read or Share this story: https://www.usatoday.com/story/opinion/2020/05/01/donald-trump-ohio-struggles-bad-omen-republicans-column/3058219001/