Election officials in Ohio are still sorting through a few final ballots that come in through the mail, but one thing is certain: President Donald Trump won Ohio by about the same 8-point lead he got in 2016.
After months of polls that pointed to a dead heat between Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden, the incumbent in Buckeye state was again able to pull out a comfortable lead. Ohio state political scientist Herb Asher says a shift in favor of the president suggests there is a fundamental problem with how pollers collect and weight voters in rural areas.
“A lot of the mistakes that have been made seem pretty consistent as they either underestimate Trump’s performance or overestimate Biden’s performance,” says Asher.
He points out that overly optimistic views for Democrats have also emerged in other states, such as late polls showing an 11-point advantage for Biden across the country. Asher, however, rejects the idea of ”shy” Trump supporters explaining the apparent gap between polls and results.
Unsurprisingly, the state’s three largest counties – Cuyahoga, Franklin, and Hamilton – all went to Biden. While voter turnout in urban centers like Cleveland, Columbus, and Cincinnati resulted in Democrats getting more votes than it did in 2016, those improvements weren’t enough to offset gains in other parts of the state.
And while Biden won comfortably in Cuyahoga County, Trump gained about 10,000 additional voters compared to the last time.
When it comes to the suburbs, the night seemed to be going according to plan for Democrats. The party was never likely to flip the districts around the urban centers, but by increasing the score in the cities and then eating on the fringes in the neighboring districts, there was an argument that Democrats could cobble together a victory.
In counties like Butler, Warren, and Clermont outside of Cincinnati, the Democrats have made some progress. But this “lose better” strategy has been most successfully implemented in Delaware County north of Columbus. The area has leaned toward Democrats for a few cycles, but by 2020 Biden garnered around 16,000 votes – effectively halving the GOP advantage.
“It may still be a Republican county, but it’s not – the Republican Party has changed a lot, and of course Trump isn’t exactly the candidate of choice for many highly educated suburban voters, men and women,” says Asher.
In other counties near Columbus, margins remained stable or improved slightly. There was also a mixed bag near Cleveland.
The most obvious place Trump sealed his victory in Ohio was in the rural west of the state. In countries like Auglaize, Shelby and Mercer, Trump built on the already massive advantage he had in 2016.
In northeast Ohio, where it gathered in suburbs near Cleveland and stretched to the Pennsylvania border, there was a broad, red shift. Lorain County, which Clinton narrowly won, went to Trump; Mahoning County also switched to the GOP.
In countries where Biden built on the 2016 voter turnout, the Trump campaign tended to attract even more voters. Instead of losing better, the Democrats often saw the GOP profit margin increase.
“What you are seeing here is, I think, Trump is cementing his support among white working-class voters,” Asher says.
Trump was also able to gain a foothold in some smaller democratic counties. Lucas County, home of Toledo, went to Biden, but Trump managed to score two points compared to the previous cycle. In Athens County, both candidates underperformed in terms of turnout, but Trump was able to fill the gap.
Asher isn’t sure what’s behind the lighter turnout in Athens County, especially during a higher turnout election. But he suggests that due to COVID-19, it could be due to fewer college students on campus.