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Presidential Candidates Can't Leave Bellwether Ohio Alone

Kyle Kondik photo


In the last two weeks, Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton and their top surrogates have made nearly a dozen campaign stops in Ohio – reaffirming the Buckeye State’s place as a crucial swing state in presidential politics. WKSU’s M.L. Schultze sat down with the author of the new book “The Bellweather: Why Ohio Picks the President” to talk about how Ohio came to play that role, and whether it’s likely to continue past 2016.

Kyle Kondik is managing editor of the influential political newsletter “Sabato’s Crystal Ball.” But he got his start as a political reporter in Northeast Ohio, and has continued to watch the outsized role it plays in presidential campaigns.

He notes what distinguishes Ohio’s as a swing state is that it’s actually an amalgam of states: The north was settled by Connecticut Yankees, the  center by the Mid-Atlantic states and the south by Virginia. In that way, he says, the nation’s 17th state was the first modern state.

Kondik will appear at the Akron Press Club luncheon tomorrow, the Stark County District Library Sept. 21 and Tri-C’s Western Campus Theatre Sept. 22.

“And then as the nation changed, Ohio changed. So when you had a big influx of German and Irish immigrants, Ohio got an average number of those folks. And African-Americans started moving up north, Ohio ended up having a decent sized African-American population.”

And then came the 20th century, when Eastern European and Italian immigrants headed to the U.S. – and Ohio – for blue collars jobs. President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal sold well to those immigrants, and areas they settled – such as Cuyahoga – went Democrat and remained that way.

No bellwether within the bellwether
Kondik says reporters looking for that single bellwether county in this bellwether state may be disappointed.

“The one that comes closest is Stark, which is where Canton is… However, no Ohio county votes closer to the national average than the state does as a whole.”

"Every four years, Ohio voters end up speaking for more than just themselves, whether they realize it or not." -- Kondik in "The Bellwether"

Kondik says that’s in part because no single county or cluster of counties dominates. “And also, Ohio doesn’t have a dominant industry. It has a lot of important industries. But it’s not like a coal state, like West Virginia is, and coal isn’t part of its political culture. It has a lot of agriculture, but it’s not politically known as an agriculture state.

“So politicians don’t come to Ohio with niche issues, I don’t think. Politicians come to Ohio with a nationalized message, which makes sense because I think Ohio is a good reflection of the nation.”

All that said, Ohio and the nation have evolved since 1896, when Ohio first to its bellwether standing.

“William McKinley … wins nine of the 10 most populist counties. The two most Democratic counties in Ohio were Holmes County, which is Amish country and Mercer County, which is a very Catholic county and mostly rural.

“You got to 2012, Obama carried nine of the 10 most populist counties, and the two most Republican counties were Mercer and Holmes.

“So a lot of the component pieces in the state have changed quite dramatically, and yet those changes all kind of tend to cancel themselves out so the state has remained pretty tightly tethered to the national average.

What’s coming n 2016?
Kondik says it could be “a little bit different… Donald Trump has shown immense strength amongst kind-of white, working-class people – whites without a college degree. There are a lot of those kinds of people in Ohio, particularly in Appalachia Ohio and the Mahoning Valley.

“The flip side is that Trump has also shown unusual weakness for a Republican amongst college-educated whites, and there are a lot of wealthy suburban Republican counties in Ohio that typically vote Republican – places like Medina County, Geauga County. Republicans need to get a lot of votes out of those places in order to win the state.

The bottom line?
“The question I have about Ohio is, there might be lot of change, but does the overall statewide result change all that much?”

Kondik also notes that Ohio has grown older and whiter than the nation overall – so one big question for 2016 is whether it will remain the bellwether in 2020.

M.L. Schultze is a freelance journalist. She spent 25 years at The Repository in Canton where she was managing editor for nearly a decade, then served as WKSU's news director and digital editor until her retirement.