TOLEDO, Ohio – Ohio, a Midwestern swing state that has been captured by each White House winner since 1964, has a longstanding reputation as the United States’ most accurate political thermometer.
A place where rural, urban and suburban voters often live within close proximity to one another, it serves to gauge the mood of the American electorate as a whole, and particularly those residing in other nearby Rust Belt states that have experienced industrial decline in recent decades.
This year, a visit to crucial counties in Ohio leads to the conclusion that incumbent President Donald Trump likely is headed for defeat, primarily due to a loss of support from people in rural and suburban areas – including farmers – who feel he has not delivered on his campaign promises.
“(The president) has not been particularly strong, has shown a lot of weakness, so this has been pretty consistent. Even before coronavirus, Trump has not been faring well in the state of Ohio,” Robert Alexander, a political science professor at Ohio Northern University, told EFE.
He also sees Democratic nominee Joe Biden, who had initially trailed self-proclaimed democratic socialist Bernie Sanders in the race to his party’s nomination, as a palatable option for Ohioans.
“Biden probably was the right candidate for the Democrats. I don’t think he is too scary for a lot of Ohio voters, pretty moderate. The argument that he’s too progressive and that kind of thing fall very flat among a lot of voters in Ohio,” Alexander said.
One issue that could play a role in the outcome in that state is global warming, since more extreme temperatures are making it unsustainable for farmers to grow certain varieties of traditional fruits.
Uncertainty about the climate also has increased the risks of a bad harvest.
“We are increasingly seeing less viability in the early apple varieties that bloom out so early and in other crops too,” a farmer in Doylestown, Ohio, Matt Vodraska, told EFE. “We’re taking more and more losses on our peach trees, on our plum varieties. We have some plum varieties that we’ve gotten to crop maybe three times in the last 10 years that historically have done well in our climate There’s entire crops we can’t grow anymore.”
He also expressed concerns about the continued threat of the coronavirus and said the leadership of the state government, headed by Republican Gov. Mike DeWine, has been far superior to that of the Trump administration during the crisis.
“The state government has actually been very helpful. Ohio has been very lucky to have a governor that has taken the coronavirus seriously, that has been consistently out in front when it comes to publishing mandates and guidelines on how to deal with it, how to stay safe, mandating masks in public, capacity restrictions,” he said.
“I mean those things do hurt our business, but I think it also hastens the (transition) to the new reality that we’ll get to at the end of this outbreak. I don’t think the federal government has been particularly helpful at all. I think there’s a lot of contradictory statements that come out, a lot of fear-mongering, a lot of mixed-messaging that confuses people.”
Ohio’s farmers are continuing to show their support for Trump with their flags and signs.
But many have been hurt by the president’s tariffs on China, since they led to retaliatory measures by the Asian giant that made it more difficult for them to export soy and other farm products.
Trump also could see reduced support among blue-collar workers due to job losses stemming from his administration’s tariffs and ever-increasing automation in factories.
In Toledo, a port city on the shores of Lake Erie, auto assembly plants provide work to some of the state’s better-paid middle-class workers, although the future of those jobs is tenuous.
“Over the last six months, we’ve witnessed one manufacturing miracle after another,” Trump said on a visit to Ohio in August.
But that statement contradicts the reality of an industry where a decades-old trend toward automation has continued to take a toll on the workforce.
Laid-off workers had been able to transition to lower-paid work in restaurants and other service-sector industries prior to March, but that alternative has become less viable amid the coronavirus pandemic.
The state’s manufacturing sector has lost 40,000 jobs since the onset of the pandemic, while nationwide that sector has not recovered the employment levels that existed prior to the 2008-2009 global economic crisis, according to Federal Reserve figures.
In 2012, then-President Barack Obama, a Democrat, won Ohio with an advantage of three percentage points; Trump, the Republican Party’s nominee in 2016, turned the tables there four years ago to top Democratic rival Hillary Clinton by eight percentage points.
Alexander said that this year there are concerns for both sides but that on balance Biden has the advantage.
“Those big counties like Cuyahoga County in Cleveland, if Joe Biden does not turn out big numbers in a place like Cuyahoga County near Cleveland, or Lucas County in Toledo, Franklin County in Columbus, Biden’s going to have a hard time making up enough ground in the state,” the political scientist said.
“But at the same time, Trump was absolutely able to energize rural voters in 2016. He totally did. But I question whether or not he’s able to increase that number too much in 2020. There’s only so many of those voters,” he added.
The political scientist said that in January Republicans were not expecting to have a major battle on their hands in Ohio, adding that this reality has forced them to pull back their campaigning efforts in other key swing states such as Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania.
The big question is whether the trend in Ohio (where 18 of the 270 electoral votes needed to win the White House are in play) will also be extended to other Rust Belt states like Pennsylvania (20), Michigan (16) and Wisconsin (10).
Under that scenario, Trump will be left with an extremely narrow path to re-election on Nov. 3.