Election officials across Ohio are still sorting out a few final ballots that get through the mail, but one result is certain: President Donald Trump won Ohio by about the same 8 point margin as he did in 2016.
After months of polls suggesting a dead heat between Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden, the incumbent in Buckeye State was able to regain a comfortable lead. Ohio state political scientist Herb Asher says the shift in favor of the president suggests there is a fundamental problem with polling and weighting of voters in rural areas.
“Many of the mistakes that have been made seem pretty consistent in terms of either underestimating Trump’s performance or overestimating Biden’s performance,” says Asher.
He points out that other states have also been overly optimistic about the Democrats, such as late polls showing Biden’s 11-point lead across the country. But Asher rejects the idea of “shy” Trump supporters that explains the apparent gap between polls and results.
Unsurprisingly, the state’s three largest counties – Cuyahoga, Franklin, and Hamilton – all went to Biden. But 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 elsewhere in the state.
And although Biden won sovereignly in Cuyahoga County, Trump was able to win around 10,000 additional voters compared to the last time.
In the suburbs, the night seemed to be going according to plan for the Democrats. The party was unlikely to flip the districts around the urban centers, but by driving the points up in the cities and then eating to the edge in the neighboring districts, there was an argument that the Democrats cobbled together a victory could.
In counties like Butler, Warren, and Clermont outside of Cincinnati, the Democrats have made some progress. But this “lose better” strategy played out most successfully in Delaware County north of Columbus. The area has been leaning towards Democrats for a few cycles, but in 2020 Biden garnered around 16,000 votes – effectively cutting the GOP advantage in half.
“It may still be a Republican country, 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 western parts of the state. In counties like Auglaize, Shelby, and Mercer, Trump built on what was already a huge advantage of 2016.
There was a broad redshift in northeast Ohio, which gathered in suburbs near Cleveland and stretched to the Pennsylvania border. Lorain County, which Clinton narrowly won, went to Trump; Mahoning County also switched to the GOP.
In counties where Biden was able to build on the 2016 voter turnout, the Trump campaign tended to attract even more voters. Instead of losing better, the Democrats often saw the GOP win margin grow.
“What you are seeing here, I believe, is that Trump is cementing his support among white working-class voters,” Asher says.
Trump was also able to make up ground in some smaller democratic circles. Lucas County, home of Toledo, went to Biden but Trump took two points compared to the previous cycle. In the Athens district, both candidates underperformed in voter turnout, but Trump narrowed the gap.
Asher isn’t sure what’s behind the lower turnout in the Athens district, especially given an election with a higher turnout. However, he suggests that this could be a product of fewer college students on campus due to COVID-19.