COLUMBUS, Ohio — By picking Ohio to host the upcoming Oct. 15 Democratic presidential debate, national Democrats are sending a message they still view the state as a top-tier battleground, according to Ohio Democrats.
But is it true?
National Democrats have debated how much they should focus on Ohio ever since the 2016 election, when Donald Trump won here by 8 points while narrowly winning three nearby states — Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin — that propelled him to the White House.
Exhibit A: an interview Michael Halle, the campaign manager for 2018 Democratic governor candidate Richard Cordray, gave shortly after Cordray lost the election in what was a banner year for Democrats elsewhere. Halle, who now works for South Bend Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg’s presidential campaign, told the New York Times that his party might be better off focusing on other states, like Arizona and Georgia.
“It’s kind of scary, because Ohio and Iowa are two states that Obama won in both his presidential campaigns, and now they’re just not competitive in the way they once were,” he said. “We are at a place where we need to expand the map.”
Halle got grief from within Ohio Democratic circles over his comments. But his argument reflects what’s increasingly becoming conventional wisdom within his party: Ohio, with a major bloc of white, blue-collar voters who are turning away from the Democratic Party, and a fragmented media market that makes it more expensive to advertise here than in other states, is no longer the top-tier swing state it once was.
But one person making the case for Ohio is someone with a vested interest in the issue. Ohio Democratic Party Chairman David Pepper has argued Ohio can serve to distract Trump from Midwestern states that were closer in 2016, like Wisconsin and Pennsylvania.
“Look at where they’ve been — Florida, Texas, Michigan,” Pepper said, naming three electorally significant states that hosted the three previous Democratic debates. “People are going to argue about does it move voters, but the fact that they put the debate here, that’s a very clear statement by the DNC about which states they view as battleground states.”
If you want to understand Pepper’s argument, consider Trump’s frequent presence here since he was elected. Trump’s visited six times in 2019, most recently in Wapakoneta in September. A leading pro-Trump Super PAC in May listed Ohio among its priority states, something equivalent groups on the Democratic side haven’t all done.
“Having a debate here is a good way to force Trump to defend a much bigger map, versus signaling to him just go to Wisconsin, and don’t worry about these other states,” Pepper said.
Dayton Mayor Nan Whaley, a prominent Ohio Democrat, said Ohio likely won’t be the white-hot political center that it’s been in past elections.
But she said Sen. Sherrod Brown’s re-election in 2018 shows there is a path for a Democrat to win in Ohio. And current polling in Ohio — as spotty as it’s been here recently — has suggested weaknesses in Trump’s support.
“If the Democrats abdicate Ohio, that’s a big win for the Republicans,” she said. “While we don’t need this state as Democrats, Republicans must have this state, so it’s a battlefield that’s worth fighting on.”
While they’re spending much more time in early-primary states, Democratic 2020 contenders also have staked out a presence here. Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders in April visited Lordstown, the site of the shuttered General Motors factory. California Sen. Kamala Harris, who stopped in Ohio as part of the 2018 fundraising circuit, spoke at a state party dinner in March. Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren visited Columbus and Chillicothe in March and Toledo in July. Former Congressman Beto O’Rourke stopped in Dayton, Columbus, Kent and Lordstown last month after visiting Cleveland earlier in the year. And former Vice President Joe Biden is visiting later this month, his campaign announced this week.\u200b
But Matt Borges, a former chairman of the Ohio Republican Party, says Ohio is unlikely to be in play in 2020. That’s despite Trump winning only roughly one-third of the vote in Franklin County, which includes Columbus, in 2016, a similar number to what Trump got in deep-blue Massachusetts. He made up for it by overperforming in all other types of counties across the state, especially in Eastern Ohio.
“Even having the largest county in the state being essentially Massachusetts, he still carried Ohio by 8 points,” Borges said. “It’s a willing trade Republicans are now making. What we’ve given up in the suburbs to gain support in rural and exurban areas for Trump and Republicans generally, that math has worked here.”
Kyle Kondik, an Ohio native who’s now a political analyst at the University of Virginia, said Westerville, the Columbus suburb that’s hosting the debate, is the type of place where Democrats likely will need to do well if they want to beat Trump.
“From that standpoint, I think there’s some sort of electoral calculation about having a debate there, or at least wanting to have a strong presence for the party in that part of the state. I don’t think it makes a difference, but the parties only have so many cards they can play,” he said.
Kondik said he thinks Trump will win Ohio in 2020, given his performance in 2016.
“But the president does seem to pay the state a lot of attention, which maybe suggests they don’t see it as 100% in the bag,” he said.