COLUMBUS, Ohio — Peggy Lehner, a Republican state senator in Ohio, doesn’t sugarcoat what she has seen happen to support for President Donald Trump in her suburban Dayton district.
“It hasn’t ebbed. It’s crashed,” said Lehner, who is not seeking reelection in the district of working-class and white-collar communities the president won comfortably four years ago. “He is really doing poorly among independents.”
Trump’s chances for a second term rest heavily on being able to maintain the margins he won by in 2016, particularly in suburban areas. Trump campaigned outside Dayton and Toledo Monday, as liberal Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s death stoked questions of whether the sudden court vacancy would energize more suburban voters who support abortion rights or social conservatives in small-town and rural areas who oppose them.
During his Ohio visit, Trump credited himself with boosting manufacturing in the state prior to the pandemic and warned of economic devastation if Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden beats him in six weeks. “Put simply, if Biden wins, China wins,” Trump said. “If we win, Ohio wins and most importantly, in all fairness, America wins.”
But Republican lawmakers and strategists in Ohio say they are seeing research that shows a near-uniform drop in support from his 2016 totals across every suburban region of the state.
They say that Trump, who won Ohio by 8 percentage points in 2016, maintains a yawning advantage in more rural areas and small towns. Still, Republicans are concerned that if he is losing badly in suburban areas in Ohio, it is a signal that Trump’s hold on other states in the industrial heartland that delivered him the presidency may be in peril.
“The million-dollar question becomes, how does that translate in Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania?” said Corry Bliss, a Republican strategist who managed Ohio Sen. Rob Portman’s 2016 reelection campaign. “It translates into probably not a very good night.”
Ohio has long been a bellwether. No Republican has won the White House without carrying the state since the advent of the modern two-party system, and no Democrat has since 1960.
Trump is faring worse than four years ago in communities in essentially all suburban areas around Ohio, from its major cities to its several mid-size metro areas, more than a half-dozen Republican operatives tracking races across Ohio say.
Trump has slipped in suburbs to the east and west of Cleveland, where he narrowly edged Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton in 2016, they say. In the blue-collar suburbs of Youngstown, where Trump won by double digits, the same appears to be true.
In affluent suburbs, such as Dublin northwest of Columbus, 2012 GOP nominee Mitt Romney won by almost 20 percentage points. Four years later, Trump narrowly lost to Clinton. Less than two months before the 2020 election, Republicans were concerned about signs the trend in Dublin has continued, according to several GOP operatives following legislative and congressional races.
There is debate among state Republican strategists about how many new voters there are left to lift Trump in rural and small town Ohio.
Former Ohio Republican Party Chairman Kevin DeWine, a second-cousin to Gov. Mike DeWine, said, “I just don’t see him getting more votes.”
But veteran Ohio GOP strategist Doug Preisse countered, saying, “I perceive a commensurate intensification in the support for Trump in small towns.”
While GOP strategists say Trump can make up the suburban losses with new voters, Marquette University’s polling director Charles Franklin sees no evidence in research tracking Trump’s support this year to suggest new voters are choosing him.
“He definitely needs to ramp it up and deliver on what the campaign is talking about, big increases of turnout of Trump voters in regions other than the suburbs,” Franklin said. “It’s not in the polling now.”