IIn such a large, diverse nation, it’s often difficult to see what really matters to people. For this reason, key states have traditionally been identified as crucial to understanding American dynamics. Iowa was selected as the first pre-1968 caucus state because the Democratic Party felt the caucus system could benefit them in analyzing voter sentiment. New Hampshire has long held the first primary in the presidential nomination process for similar reasons. In recent years, targeted swing states have become the battlefield for the focus of political polls and massive spending by political parties to determine which policies and plans appeal to the general electorate.
One of those states, Ohio, has long played a role in national politics. Seven presidents were born in Ohio, followed by Virginia’s eight. The state is now the seventh largest in the country and has always had a mix of rural and urban voters, making it more representative of the country as a whole.
Every president who took office between 1960 and 2020 won the state of Ohio. In 1960, John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon were virtually tied in the popular vote, with Nixon carrying Ohio but losing in the electoral college. Before that nail biter, you have to go back to 1944, when Thomas Dewey lost in a landslide in Franklin D. Roosevelt’s fourth election victory. In 2020, Joe Biden became the first candidate in decades to win the presidency without carrying Ohio, joining Grover Cleveland, who did it twice, FDR and JFK as the only Democrats since the Civil War to do so.
Still, the 2020 election wasn’t a total surprise in that regard. In recent years, Ohio’s political role as a swing state has waned: It’s transformed from the quintessential “purple” state that voted twice each for Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama, to a state that’s solid “red” and voted by large numbers for Donald Trump in both 2016 and 2020.
This divergence is not easily explained by studying the state’s racial, religious, and educational demographics. “Ohio is older, whiter and less educated than the rest of the country,” recently claimed David Niven, a professor of political science at the University of Cincinnati. “That’s why it’s redder.” But that’s not really true. Ohio remains similar to its neighbors Michigan, Indiana, and Pennsylvania in the white percentage of its population. The same is generally true for GDP per capita wealth and tertiary education status. Curiously, Ohio is actually significantly younger than these states per capita, bucking the demographic trend.
Given these factors, what happened? Why is Ohio a current outlier?
There are many theories, and certainly demographic factors play a role. For example, over the past generation there has been a slow, steady migration of white workers away from the Democrats as the higher-educated bloc has moved toward them. The claim that Ohio has gotten older and whiter is a common argument, but as mentioned above, it doesn’t hold up when compared to neighboring states.
In the absence of significant evidence of racial or age differences, the main factor remains this: Ohio, in general, has had extremely competent, centrist Republican leaders for the past 15 years. While the GOP’s history in the years following George W. Bush’s departure from the stage has been turbulent across the country – tea party activism, opposition to Obamacare, a split in the Republican Party consensus after two losses to Obama with the nominations by John McCain and Mitt Romney, followed by the rise of Trump and the MAGA faction, etc. – Ohio was largely run by a centrist state party, for better or worse.
John Kasich succeeded centrist Democrat Ted Strickland as governor in 2011. Kasich was clearly the definition of a centrist. Despite professing to be a Tea Party Republican, he was willing to expand government. This even included unilaterally expanding Ohio’s Medicaid program to participate in Obama’s Affordable Care Act, which he did largely without state party support. He led a government that in many respects was to the left of the national Republican Party, with less conservative positions on abortion, crime, and spending than most Republicans. As governor, he was legally required to balance the budget, but Kasich supported tax cuts and controlled spending.
Republican Mike DeWine succeeded Kasich as governor. DeWine has one of the longest political resumes in Ohio history. DeWine began his career as a prosecutor before being elected to the Ohio State Senate. He then served as a member of Congress from 1983 to 1991, became lieutenant governor of Ohio under Governor George Voinovich from 1991 to 1994, was elected to the Senate from 1995 to 2007, and then became Ohio’s 50th attorney general from 2011 to 2019. After his election in the governorship in 2019, DeWine faced one of the most complex issues the state has faced in its history: the coronavirus pandemic. Overall, he received high marks from the public for his actions.
None of this is to say that Ohio Republicans were perfect, or even that conservative. Kasich has been heavily criticized for the state’s spending on Medicaid after expansion. DeWine has been criticized by many on the right for taking a cautious approach to opening up the economy after the coronavirus pandemic began. Sen. Rob Portman (R-OH) could also be added to this discussion. A centrist member of the Bush administration, he was a staunch fiscal conservative who never joined the Trump train. Over the years, Portman veered left on some social issues such as marijuana legalization and gay marriage, ending his career as a senator by criticizing the more extreme parts of the GOP.
This favoritism for left-wing Republicans has long appeared as an opening for Democrats. In 2012, Obama and longtime Senator Sherrod Brown (D-OH) dreamed of coloring Ohio a deeper purple or blue. Obama’s two state victories were a resounding affirmation of Ohio’s status as the premier swing state. And as late as this summer, Democrats were arguing that Ohio was back in the game, not just for the Senate race between Rep. Tim Ryan (D-OH) and Republican JD Vance, who ultimately won by the same margin as Trump in the year 2020, but that Democrats could eventually compete statewide and run for the Ohio election list in 2024. Derrick Clay, the former political director of the Democratic Party’s campaign committee, said in an interview earlier this year that Ohio had been a swing state for a long time, and the same trend was visible this time. Although that didn’t work for the Senate race, Democrats were actually able to keep three key congressional districts in the state, showing that Ohio is far from being a politically unified red.
However, Ohioans seem to value centrist, steadfast leadership, perfect or not, and have chosen to reward those leaders. Kasich, DeWine and Portman have been re-elected time and time again with no problems. The Ohioans showed that they did not strive for perfection in their leadership. They were looking for common sense, stability and reasonableness. In 2022, DeWine won 85 of Ohio’s 88 counties. Such a mandate comes from popularity and trust.
This trust, in turn, has built a stable trust in the GOP state party. The Ohio State Party is one of the strongest and best-run in the country, which could be largely responsible for the state’s more stable Republican character than other neighboring states in recent years. Michigan and Pennsylvania, for example, have been riddled with underperforming or irresponsible Republicans over the years. Pennsylvania has remained competitive in statewide elections, with Trump narrowly winning the state in 2016. At the same time, however, the Pennsylvania state GOP has caused one debacle after another as it ceded control of the governor’s house to Democrats for 12 years State House lost. The upsurge of Trump and other MAGA forces that have eroded confidence in democracy and elections has further weakened GOP parties in those states.
In a piece entitled “Competence instead of Chaos” in the city newspaper After last week’s election, Fred Bauer wrote: “In order to convince voters that they could govern well if they came to power, the Republican Party has a strong political incentive to create a political vision and try to be a part to implement it through legislation. … The Midterms 2022 also show the limits of disruption. Instability is likely to increase appetite for candidates and parties that appear stable.”
Ohio’s transition from a battlefield swing state to a staunch Republican stronghold over the past 15 years is emblematic of that evolution. States like Ohio and Florida are the roadmaps to building large, broad, and sustainable modern conservative coalitions that can govern with confidence. It is up to national Republicans to decide whether to accept these teachings and proceed on such a sane, thoughtful path.
Pradheep J. Shanker is a radiologist and writer from Ohio.