One of the candidates who came to Columbus for last night’s spirited Democratic candidate’s debate made some news when he announced that, in his view, Ohio can no longer claim to be a “swing state.”
The candidate, Tom Steyer, is a billionaire who used to run a hedge fund but now is running for the Democratic nomination in 2020. According to a news story in the Columbus Dispatch, this week on his visit to town Steyer told a group of 15 young Democrats: “You guys live in a red state. I know people call it purple, but it’s pretty darn red.” Steyer apparently noted that President Donald Trump won Ohio by 8 points in 2016 and that Republicans dominated statewide elections in 2018. Steyer then said, however, that if Trump loses in Ohio and the rest of the country in 2020, it will represent a shift that will leave Republicans losing “forever.”
I don’t know much about Tom Steyer, but I do know this: he’s off base in his views about Ohio. The Buckeye State is a classic “swing state,” as the results of presidential elections over the past few cycles will confirm. Before going for President Trump in 2016, Ohio had voted for President Obama twice, President George Bush twice, and President Clinton twice. In short, in the last seven presidential elections Ohio has voted for the Democratic candidate four times and the Republican candidate three times. Equally important, in none of those races did the winning candidate get more than 52 percent of the vote in Ohio. That record sounds like the very definition of a “swing state.”
But there’s even more that’s wrong in what Steyer is saying. He’s apparently one of those “classifying” people who like to put people into buckets. To him, you’re a red state or a blue state, and if you change that change will be for “forever.” That’s not my experience with Ohioans, at least. In Ohio, as in any state, there are groups that are solidly for one party or another — but the key to Ohio is the group in the middle who will look carefully at the competing candidates and make their best judgment about who deserves their vote. Their votes can change because their views, informed by experience and current events, can and do change. Anyone who thinks Ohio is moving “forever” into one category or another is going to be proven wrong in the not-too-distant future.
Many of us, myself included, were astonished to see President Trump win Ohio by such a significant margin in 2016. Rather than concluding that the 2016 results mean that Ohio is now a “red state,” candidates like Tom Steyer would be better served by looking carefully at why the middle group of Ohioans voted as they did in the last presidential election and thinking carefully about how they can appeal to that group to change their direction when the 2020 vote rolls around. If you want Ohio to swing your way in the next election, that’s what you need to do.