In honor of the Democrats convening for their debate tomorrow in Ohio, it's a good time to think about whether Ohio is still a swing state and, if so, how the Democrats could win there in 2020.
To set the table, here's some just-released polling data from Public Policy Polling.
"Trump trails a generic Democrat 48-47 for reelection in the state. Particularly troubling for him is a 51-37 deficit with independent voters. Suburban areas have tended to be a swing vote in Ohio elections but- matching the national trends- they now lean yoward voting Democratic by a 53-40 margin over Trump next year. Trump doesn’t get more than 47% against any named Democratic opponent – he trails Joe Biden 48-46, and he’s tied with Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren at 47% each. Trump only has leads against two of the lesser-known Democratic candidates: he leads both Kamala Harris and Pete Buttigieg 47-43 with 10% of voters undecided in those particular matchups.
Ohio’s return to swing state status is a function of Trump’s unpopularity in the state. Only 47% of voters have a favorable opinion of him, to 51% with a negative one. The ratio is even worse for Trump when it comes to voters who have strong feelings about him- just 38% say they have a ‘very favorable’ opinion of him, to 45% who have a ‘very unfavorable’ opinion of him."
So perhaps Ohio will be kind of swingy this election. But it'll still be quite a challenge for the Democratic nominee to actually win the state. Here's my take.
In 2016, Trump carried Ohio by a solid 8 points. In the two previous elections, Obama had carried the state.
In 2018, Democrats did not fare as well as in several other Rustbelt states. They lost the House popular vote by 5 points and failed to flip any House seats in the state. However, they did gain a net of 5 state legislative seats and succeeded in re-electing Democratic Senator Sherrod Brown by 7 points. But they fell short in their bid to retake the governor’s mansion, where they felt they had a strong candidate in Democrat Richard Cordray.
The Democratic presidential candidate in 2020 clearly has a lot of work to do in Ohio to return the state to its Obama era patterns, while Trump can simply try to replicate, or at least come close, to the voting patterns that brought him a relatively easy victory in the state in 2016. Trump does currently, according to Civiqs polling, have a net positive approval rating in the states, though just barely (+2).
Nonwhites made up 16 percent of Ohio voters in 2016. Most of these (12 percent) were Blacks and they strongly supported Clinton by 88-9 percent. The rest were Hispanic (2 percent) and Asian/other race (2 percent) supporting Clinton 61-33 percent and 46-44 percent, respectively. Unlike Pennsylvania, Ohio white college graduates (29 percent of voters) narrowly supported Trump, 47-46 percent. But his decisive advantage was among white non-college voters, who overwhelming backed Trump by 32 points (63-31 percent).
However, we expect white non-college eligible voters in 2020 to decline by 2 points relative to 2016, while white college graduates should increase by a point. All nonwhite groups in the state should increase by small amounts relative to 2016: Blacks by .2 points and both Hispanics and Asians/other race by .3 points. As in Pennsylvania, these changes are favorable for the Democrats. But, given the hill the Democrats need to climb in Ohio, these underlying changes do not go far—just a percentage point—in tipping the state to the Democratic candidate, if all turnout and partisan voting preferences by group remained the same as in 2016.
Therefore, if Trump can maintain his support among white non-college voters in the state, or close to it, he should be in good shape to carry the state again. Even a shift of 10 margin points against him among white college graduates would still project to a 4-point Trump advantage in 2020.
For the Democratic candidate, even increasing Black turnout and support back to their strong levels in 2012 (they both declined significantly in 2016) would still leave them with a 4-point deficit in the state. The most efficacious change would be to cut Trump’s advantage with white non-college voters, concentrating on white non-college women, where Democrats’ deficit in 2016 was 30 points less than among men. Shaving 10 margin points off of Trump’s advantage among white non-college voters would, by itself, bring the Democratic candidate within 2 points in the state, and replicating Obama’s 2012 performance among this demographic in the state would allow them to actually carry the state, all else from 2016 remaining the same.
In all likelihood, a combination of these changes, at different levels, would be necessary for the Democrats to prevail. Trump, in a sense, just needs to hold serve.