Is Ohio Lost to the Democrats?

As John Russo points out in The American Prospect, a lot of Democrats seem to think so:

“Many Democrats seem ready to give up on Ohio. Michael Halle, who coordinated Hillary Clinton’s battleground state strategy before managing Ohio Democratic gubernatorial candidate Richard Cordray’s campaign this year, told The New York Times that “it was time for Democrats to jettison Iowa and Ohio in future campaigns in favor of Arizona and Georgia.” Clinton campaign communications director Jennifer Palmieri now says that that the Clinton campaign should have spent less time and money in Ohio and spent more in Georgia, Texas, and Arkansas. Speaking from ground zero for Democratic crossover voters in Youngstown, Mahoning County Democratic Chairperson David Betras commented after the midterms that it wasn’t the people who had left the party. Instead, Betras stated, the Democratic Party had left Ohio.”

As has been widely noted, Sherrod Brown was the great exception to a string of Ohio Democratic failures in the last election. The lessons of this to Russo are clear:

“Ohio Democrats cannot count on a strong organizing effort alone to yield victories. They also need the kind of clear message, wide-ranging outreach, and concrete proposals that Brown offered. If Democrats want to reclaim Ohio, they need to recognize that many Ohio Trump voters are also Sherrod Brown voters and vice versa.”

In this context, it’s worth dwelling on the internals of how Brown managed to cobble together a victory in a state otherwise slipping away from the Democrats. Here’s something I wrote awhile ago about how Clinton lost Ohio in 2016 and what it would take to win there in the future.

“It’s all about white noncollege voters. In the Rustbelt troika of Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, the story [of Clinton’s losses] gets muddled because, even though there were big swings among white noncollege voters in these states, they were so close that better performance among black voters could conceivably have turned these states to Clinton.

Not so in Ohio. Not even close. Democrats could completely replicate Obama’s high water performance among black voters in 2012 and still lose the state handily, probably by around 5 points. There is really no way around bettering Democratic performance among white noncollege voters, where the Democrats’ losing margin roughly doubled from 16 to 31 points between 2012 and 2016.

Of course, some may argue that you could achieve the needed improvements among white voters by appealing to the other part of the white population — white college-educated voters. This is theoretically possible but very, very difficult. Start with the fact there were about twice as many white noncollege voters as white college voters in Ohio in 2016, a ratio that is likely to change only slightly in 2020. So to achieve the same effect as a given shift in the white noncollege vote, you need twice the swing among white college voters.

Since Clinton split the white college vote evenly with Trump in the state, that means to neutralize the big white noncollege shift away from the Democrats, you would need to carry white college-educated voters in Ohio by 30 points in 2020. Not gonna happen.”

And indeed that did not happen for Sherrod Brown in 2018. He didn’t carry white college voters by 30 points, only 5 points, which is not too different from how Clinton did in 2016. But his deficit among white noncollege voters was a mere 10 points, vastly better than Clinton did in 2016.

That’s how it was done. Could a Democratic Presidential candidate replicate this winning formula in Ohio in 2020? Well, in the event Sherrod Brown himself gets the nomination, that would give Democrats their best shot. But, failing that, Brown’s playbook certainly provides a good guide for whomever gets the nomination. Indeed, it would be political malpractice to try any other approach if Democrats are genuinely interested in carrying the state in the future.

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Ohio: Another Brick in the Red Wall?

Lacking Sherrod Brown’s secret (progressive populist) sauce, Ohio Democrats will likely keep on losing.