At 11:14 p.m. Eastern time on election night 2012, Fox News announced that Barack Obama would carry the state of Ohio, all but ensuring his re-election as President of the United States. Ohio was “the entire ballgame,” explained an anchor. Although Obama was not quite at the requisite number of 270 electoral votes, any other outcome was suddenly unimaginable. In the end, Obama won the state with 50.1 percent to Mitt Romney’s 48.2 percent, a margin of 103,481 votes out of more than five million cast. Ohio—along with North Carolina, Virginia, Colorado, Iowa, and Wisconsin—was an outlier in 2012. On a night when most states awarded their electoral votes quickly, predictably, and by wide margins, its close race paralleled the tight national race, which Obama won 51.1 percent to 47.2.
Most swing states have earned that title in the past two decades. Not Ohio. If its current number of 18 electoral votes, down from a high of 26 in 1968, reflects its long-term economic stagnation and declining population, the Buckeye State matters as much now in national contests as it did in the 19th century. For more than two centuries, victors in key presidential elections, even those with landslide margins nationally, have carried Ohio with percentages similar to Obama’s. Since 1860, Ohio has voted with the winner of every national contest, except those in 1884, 1892, 1944, and 1960, when it supported losing Republicans. The race is inevitably tight. Republican Abraham Lincoln got 51.24 percent in 1860; Republican (and Buckeye) William McKinley received 51.86 percent in 1896; Democrat Franklin Delano Roosevelt took the state with 49.88 percent in 1932; Republican Ronald Reagan won with 51.51 percent in 1980; Republican George W. Bush with 49.97 percent in 2000 and 50.81 percent in 2004; and Obama with 51.38 percent in 2008.
To the consternation of many on-air commentators, Nate Silver and other computer savvy analysts correctly anticipated the likely outcome in Ohio in 2012 long before the polls actually opened. Their key insight, if not their methodology, was no news to veteran politicians. If you know enough about an individual—age, income, religion, occupation, education, race, ethnicity, gender, and the voting history of the neighborhood—you have an excellent chance of guessing how he or she will vote in any election. Partisan loyalties are frequently tribal. Being a Republican in small-town Ohio, the writer Brand Whitlock observed more than a century ago, was not “a matter of intellectual choice, it was a process of biological selection.” Just “as an Eskimo dons fur clothes,” it “was inconceivable that any self-respecting person should be a Democrat.” Given the depth of partisanship and closeness of elections, campaigns are about persuading people you know would never vote for your opponent to show up on Election Day, persuading people you know would only vote for your opponent to stay home, and contesting the small number of people who actually change their minds from one election to the next.
Nothing illustrates the variability of outcomes better than Ohio’s preference for Governors who are not from the same party as sitting Presidents. The most popular politician in the Eisenhower era was Democrat Frank Lausche (Governor from 1948 until 1956 and then a U.S. Senator until 1970). Republican James Rhodes was elected Governor during the Kennedy, Johnson, and Carter Administrations. Ohio elected Democrat Richard F. Celeste Governor twice while Reagan presided over the nation and then chose Republican George Voinovich twice in the same decade it twice voted for Bill Clinton. So voting for Obama in 2012 after electing John Kasich Governor in 2010 was normal for Ohioans.
Ohio leans Republican in state elections. To be sure, over the past half-century, there have been close elections and several Democratic victories. Incumbent Democratic Governor John J. Gilligan lost re-election to his predecessor, Republican James A. Rhodes, in 1974 by fewer than 10,000 votes and Kasich defeated Democrat Ted Strickland in 2010 by just under 100,000. Democrats Howard Metzenbaum, John Glenn, and Sherrod Brown were all elected to multiple terms in the U.S. Senate. But Republicans have held the governorship for long stretches (1962–70, 1974–82, 1990–2006, 2010–present), won the majority of U.S. Senate elections, and currently dominate the General Assembly.
A glance at a map of the 2012 election, however, suggests that Ohio is more Republican than it actually is. Just 14 of 88 counties voted for Obama; located mainly in the north and northeast, they included the Cleveland, Akron-Canton, Youngstown, and Toledo metropolitan areas, easily the most populous, industrialized and unionized sections of the state. The rest of the Obama counties were urban areas—Hamilton County (Cincinnati), Montgomery County (Dayton), and Franklin County (Columbus)—and Athens County, in which the students, faculty, and staff of Ohio University outnumber their neighbors. By contrast, Republicans dominate rural areas, small towns, and suburbs. Indeed, the most reliably Republican region in the state consists of the sparsely populated counties that run north from exurban Cincinnati along the Indiana border, many of them in the 8th Congressional District of former Speaker of the House John Boehner.
Democrats do better in presidential than in state elections because more Ohioans vote in the former. As is true nationally, higher turnout tends to benefit Democrats, which is why they advocate easy registration, early voting, and long hours, and why Republicans oppose them on all counts. In 2008, when Obama won his first term, 5,721,726 Ohioans voted; 5,580,822 participated in 2012 when he carried the state again. But in 2010, when Kasich defeated Strickland and Republican Rob Portman trounced Democrat Lee Fisher for an open U.S. Senate seat, only 3,749,792 Ohioans went to the polls. Had the turnout in 2012 resembled that in 2010, Romney likely would have won the state.
Obama took Ohio twice because he increased Democratic margins by a few percentage points in virtually every corner of the state, not just in its cities. The Democratic majority increased from 66.6 percent in 2004 to 68.9 percent in 2008 in Cuyahoga County (Cleveland) and more dramatically from 47.1 percent to 53 percent in Hamilton County (Cincinnati). Surprisingly, a similar pattern appeared in Republican enclaves such as Butler (from 33.7 percent to 38 percent), Delaware (33.6 percent to 39.7 percent), and Warren Counties (27.6 percent to 31.4 percent). Whether because of the economic collapse, opposition to the war in Iraq, weariness with the Bush Administration, or Obama’s charisma, Democrats were more enthusiastic in 2008 than in 2004. Still, the total number of voters rose only slightly, from 5,627,908 in 2004 to 5,721,726 in 2008. Obama got 2,940,044 votes, roughly 200,000 better than Kerry’s 2,739,952, while John McCain’s total of 2,677,820 was only 180,907 lower than Bush’s 2,858,727. A few thousand people determined the outcome in both 2004 and 2008.
Twenty-first-century Ohio’s political behavior is entirely in keeping with the state’s political behavior in the 19th and 20th centuries. Close elections, staunch party affiliation, and the disproportionate power of a few uncommitted voters are familiar to students of the state’s history, in large part because Ohio is not and never has been anything more than a convenient construction that lacks any kind of cultural unity or social coherence. Diversity has defined Ohio and, for good or ill, inhibited the formation of anything approaching a permanent majority. There is only one legal Ohio. But in terms of landscape, ethnicity, and settlement patterns, there have always been many Ohios.
The citizens of Ohio have little in common with each other except that they are all Americans who happen to live in an area between Lake Erie and the Ohio River designated by the Congress of the United States as the 17th state in the Union. Ohio consists of four geographic quadrants whose landscapes and people share more with their neighbors in other states than they do with each other. At their intersection lie Columbus and its environs. The capital city came into its own after World War II, thriving on the expansion of higher education, government, health care, and service industries, while the rest of the state endured the effects of deindustrialization, the corporatization of agriculture, and the emigration of young people, particularly those with higher education.
Although Ohio has its share of cultural quirks and stunning vistas, it has no widely shared signature image, not even the Script Ohio created by The Ohio State University Marching Band. Sports do not unite Ohio. Cincinnati and Cleveland have professional football and baseball teams whose patterns of support reflect the state’s north-south divide. The Reds versus Indians and Bengals versus Browns don’t qualify as serious rivalries. Sports battles within Ohio excite little interest because no one carries the banner of the Buckeye State. (Why, many fans of the University of Michigan football team actually live within the borders of Ohio and prefer Wolverines to Buckeyes.)
“Buckeye Nationalism” is at best a marketing ploy. It is a long way culturally as well as geographically from the southern shore of Lake Erie, the cultivated New England image of towns such as Oberlin, the remains of the once-flourishing steel industry and the onion domes of Orthodox churches in Cleveland down I-77 to the Appalachian greenery, coal mines, and villages of southeastern Ohio. Conversely, to drive north on I-75 is to go through the heart of a Cincinnati-Dayton metroplex, still tied to the world of the Ohio River, into endless cornfields and a succession of small cities and finally to Toledo, a city more like Detroit than Columbus.
Cleveland and Cincinnati might as well be in different states, for their residents feel little kinship with each other. Cleveland is a lake city that flourished with the railroad, the steel industry, and massive migration from Central and Southern Europe in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Cincinnati is a river town that peaked in the mid-19th century as a major regional commercial hub whose immigrant population was largely German and Southern, both white and black. Cincinnati is a sibling of Louisville, St. Louis, Memphis, and Nashville, while Cleveland resembles Buffalo and Pittsburgh. Southeastern Ohio is an extension of West Virginia, while northwestern Ohio is indistinguishable in many ways from nearby Indiana. The demographic differences affirm the basic picture. There are more African Americans and Catholics in the north and more Evangelical Protestants in the south. Reflecting national trends, the most Republican areas (southeast and west-central) have higher levels of poverty and an older population.
It’s not that Ohio lacks character, but that it has no particular character. Many states have public images, which, however exaggerated or romanticized, are synonymous with their names. Mention of Louisiana, Maine, Colorado, Oregon, New Mexico, or New York conjures certain foods, landscapes, and ways of life. Ohio is not and never has been a culturally coherent place—a fate it owes in large part to its origins and the reasons it became so important in the first place.
Ohio has always been a place in between other places. It’s a state you have to pass or cross to get where you’re going. Water—the most critical means of transportation and communication until the arrival of the railroad in the middle of the 19th century—literally pulls Ohio apart. All the streams in the northern third flow north into Lake Erie and then over Niagara Falls and through Lake Ontario to the St. Lawrence River and the Atlantic Ocean. Water in the rest of the state drains southward into the Muskingum, Hocking, Scioto, and Miami Rivers, and from them into the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers and the Gulf of Mexico. Long before Ohio was a state, the flow of water divided people oriented to the Ohio River and the south from the people in the north of the Ohio Country living in the world of the Great Lakes and looking eastward to New York. The Ohio River and Lake Erie reinforce that division because they were the primary carriers of people migrating further west.
The borders of Ohio are the product of political calculation. In the first years of the 19th century, Jeffersonian Republicans in Congress wanted Ohio to became a state as soon as possible. They assumed (correctly) that its citizens, many of them from Virginia, Kentucky, and North Carolina, would support the policies of their leader, Thomas Jefferson. Realizing precisely the same thing, Jefferson’s Federalist opponents wanted to delay Ohio’s admission to the Union. The Northwest Ordinance of 1787 required a population of 60,000 to qualify for statehood. The most populous place in the region in 1800 was the commercial center of Cincinnati. Federalists wanted to locate the western border of the future state along a line going north from the mouth of the Little Miami River, which is east of Cincinnati. Had they succeeded, Cincinnati would be in Indiana. But they failed, and the Jeffersonians located the border at the mouth of the Great Miami River, which is west of Cincinnati. The city’s population added enough people to break the 60,000 barrier, and Ohio became the 17th state in 1803.
In the early 19th century most settlements were in the southern part of the state, because the Ohio River was much more accessible and navigable than the Great Lakes. The Ohio Valley quickly took on a coherent character: Its settlers were Virginians, Carolinians, and Kentuckians, who treated the river as an artery more than a border. It was the lifeblood of commerce that connected families, traders, and political feelings more than it divided them. Southern Ohio became an extension of western Virginia, and Kentucky developed around the production of corn, hogs, tobacco, and hemp, its political leanings more state than Federal. Virginians wrote Ohio’s first constitution and dominated its early politics. Southern Ohio from the start was an extension of the Upland South, and it still is, thanks in part to the large number of Appalachian migrants who arrived in the middle of the 20th century.
Only with the 1825 opening of the Erie Canal linking the Hudson River and Lake Erie did Ohio become something other than an extension of Greater Virginia. Men and women from New England and New York flocked into the northwestern quadrant of the state, many advocating religious conversion and social reform. By mid-century the towns and private colleges of northern Ohio—most famously, Oberlin—were synonymous with radical causes. Voters were inclined to support government policies designed to encourage individuals to improve themselves and their families, including public education and advancements in communication and transportation, and to oppose anything that they feared infringed on the liberty of individuals, whether it was slavery, Roman Catholicism, or alcohol. Yankees were natural Republican voters in the 1850s, making northern Ohio a bastion of the new party of largely native-born, middle-class Protestants hostile to slaveholders, papists, and good old boys.
In the middle of the century, the Democratic Party that had emerged out of the Jeffersonian and then Jacksonian organizations augmented its base (rural voters in the southern counties and workers in cities) with non-Protestant immigrants, including Irish Catholics. The foundation of this alliance was immigrants’ fear of Republican efforts to deny them their right to educate their children, practice their religion, and make their own choices about alcohol and families. Democrats found common ground in championing local autonomy.
Like other states, Ohio experimented in the 1830s with state financing and direction of canals, man-made waterways that facilitated cheaper, faster, and easier transportation where rivers did not exist or were too shallow. Much of the money was borrowed from English bankers. When the latter called in loans during the global economic crisis of the late 1830s, Ohio found itself in a serious financial trouble. As a result, when railroads replaced canals in the 1840s and 1850s, private corporations operated them, limiting government to a supporting role. The power and wealth of the railroads and ancillary industries shaped Ohio politics from the middle of the 19th century, prompting protests and populist splinter parties. The beginning of the 20th century saw Progressive reform movements that enhanced the power of municipalities and, to a far lesser extent, the state to act for the general welfare, specifically by regulating transportation (such as streetcars) and relying on educated experts (such as city managers) rather than politicians.
The only issue that has divided Ohioans more than the role of government has been race, especially when it comes to the perennial split between the northern third of the state and the rest of Ohio. The Northwest Ordinance of 1787 forbade slavery or involuntary servitude north of the Ohio River. But among the founders of the state were Virginians such as U.S. Senator and later Governor Thomas Worthington, whose black “family” had accompanied him to the Ohio Country. Anti-slavery sentiment did not mean support for African-American equality. Many opposed slavery because they feared the institution would drive down wages, devalue labor, and empower a handful of arrogant “nabobs.” The black population of Ohio was tiny in the 19th century. Despite its prominence on the Underground Railroad, the state generally did not welcome runaway slaves or freed blacks, many of whom traveled on to British Canada. Ohio-born Toni Morrison’s Beloved offers a corrective to the image drawn by Cincinnati resident Harriet Beecher Stowe in Uncle Tom’s Cabin of the Ohio River as a border between slavery and freedom.
Northern Ohio was a hotbed of abolitionism before the Civil War, while a substantial number of southern Ohioans were sympathetic to the cause of the Confederacy—or at least seriously opposed to freed black people streaming across the Ohio River. Copperheads, as Peace Democrats and advocates of states’ rights were labeled during the Civil War, thrived in southern Ohio. Their most important leader, Clement Vallandigham, represented a Congressional district in the Dayton area from 1859 to 1863. Arrested in 1863 and deported by President Lincoln, Vallandigham ended up in Windsor, Ontario, where he lived in a hotel while winning the Democratic nomination for Governor. He lost the general election to Republican John Brough. Lincoln celebrated with a telegram to Brough proclaiming, “Glory to God in the Highest. Ohio has saved the Nation.” Another key leader, a “peace Democrat” but not formally a Copperhead, was George H. Pendleton of Cincinnati. Pendleton, a man with Southern roots whose wife was the daughter of Francis Scott Key, voted against the 13th Amendment and ran with George McClellan against Lincoln in the 1864 election.
The most persistent 19th-century swing group consisted of German immigrants, who identified with the Republicans in class terms but shared Democratic fears of assaults on their religious and cultural traditions. Germans were a diverse lot who included Roman Catholics, Protestants, and Jews, and whose occupations typically covered a wide spectrum. Many Germans shared the party’s hostility to the South and slavery, as well as its celebration of hard work and of the cultivation of self-control. At the same time, most Germans, especially Catholics, were opposed to Republican support for temperance reform, English-only public schools, and immigration restriction. Germans often held the balance of power in close elections. By the turn of the 20th century, a plurality of Ohioans were primarily of German ancestry.
The Democrats received reinforcement when the new wave of immigrants who arrived in the half-century after the Civil War, attracted by the rapid industrialization of northeastern Ohio, became naturalized citizens. Unlike mid-19th-century immigrants, they tended to be from Southern and Eastern Europe. Fewer were Protestant, and fewer were devotees of the bourgeois respectability their German predecessors favored. Congregating in ethnic neighborhoods in cities such as Cleveland, Canton, and Youngstown, most of these immigrants were consistently Democratic voters. Some supported Socialist candidates, and they were disproportionately involved in the formation of the labor unions that became immensely powerful in the early 20th century.
In the late 19th century, when Republicans and Democrats were even more evenly split than they are now, a Republican could depend, as Whitlock noted, on strong support from middle-class, Protestant white voters in small towns. But he needed more than that constituency to overcome the Democrats’ advantage among rural whites with ties to the South and immigrants who were not Protestants. Adding to the problem was that much of the Republican base actively supported measures to restrict the consumption of alcohol, require public education (in English), and encourage behavior that fit the norms of small town elites, all of which outraged immigrants and made them more enthusiastic voters for Democrats. Statewide Republican candidates were in a bind: Pushing cultural issues important to their base intensified the opposition and alienated swing voters (in this case, German Protestants). But if they ignored temperance, for example, they risked the loss of committed voters to splinter groups such as the Prohibition Party. (Democrats had a similar problem with currency issues that drew their voters to third parties, such as the Populists.)
Republicans pursued several strategies to deal with this dilemma. They endorsed temperance and other cultural issues while suggesting that they be handled on the local rather than the state level, thereby avoiding the need to vote on controversial issues in the legislature. They relentlessly celebrated the Northern triumph in the Civil War, which reminded core voters of the party’s achievements. And they nominated relatively unknown candidates whose positions on major issues were vague at best and who could be presented to voters as respectable problem solvers. The Presidents of the United States from Ohio who served between the 1860s and the 1920s were a notoriously bland bunch recruited by the Republican Party in the hopes that favorite-son status would translate into a victory in the near-evenly divided Buckeye State. The more unknown the candidate, the better he could be marketed in ways that did no harm. The climax of this era was 1920, when both presidential candidates—Republican Warren G. Harding and Democrat James M. Cox—were from Ohio.
Republican leaders also targeted groups of voters who could make a difference in tight contests. At the end of the 19th century, they courted the small number of African-American voters (less than 5 percent of the population in 1900) with civil rights legislation, such as the Ohio Accommodations Act of 1884, which forbade discrimination on the basis of race. Although these laws were rarely enforced, they constituted a Republican commitment to issues vital to the African-American community. Mark Hanna, the industrialist turned campaign manager for William McKinley in 1896, cultivated a relationship with George A. Myers, the black barber at the Hollenden House Hotel in Cleveland. Republican politics were largely conducted in Myers’ state-of-the-art barbershop where the shaving mugs of important clients were on display. Hanna consulted with Myers regularly and arranged his selection as a delegate to the Republican National Conventions in 1892, 1896, and 1900, and his appointment to the party’s State Central Committee. Myers reciprocated by working hard for McKinley in black communities in Ohio and the South and by helping Hanna win election to the U.S. Senate in 1898. He was instrumental in maintaining the loyalty of African Americans to the Republicans in the aftermath of a notorious lynching in Urbana in 1897. Blacks exercised influence out of proportion to their numbers because parties had to court them to win a majority.
Only in the 20th century, particularly during the Great Migration from the South that occurred in waves from World War I through the 1960s, did blacks become a significant percentage of Ohio’s population, largely concentrated in urban areas. At the same time, hundreds of thousands of upland white Southerners arrived to work in industries in and around Cincinnati, Dayton, Columbus, and Akron-Canton. Well-established Ohio families objected to the new arrivals, white as well as black, in part because they represented competition for jobs. But the growing numbers of African Americans intensified white solidarity. During World War I and II, German and Eastern and Southern European families became eager to obscure their ethnic heritage and emphasize what they had in common with the other Americans moving to largely white suburbs of cities.
Race fractured the 19th-century Democratic coalition of rural Southern whites and ethnic immigrants in northern cities in Ohio, as well as in the United States as a whole. As national Democrats advocated Civil Rights and an end to the war in Vietnam, the Ohio political landscape was transformed, at least in terms of party affiliation. Northern Ohio became more Democratic while Southern Ohio became more Republican. But in many ways positions on questions of government and race had not changed significantly. In 1860, Abraham Lincoln won Cuyahoga County with roughly 62 percent of the vote and lost Butler County with roughly 40 perfect of the vote, figures roughly comparable to Obama’s performance in 2012.
Two centuries of a seriously divided population and close elections demonstrate the power of two-party politics to encourage pragmatism. Ohio rarely produces a strongly ideological politician. Popular figures, while often clearly conservative or progressive, tend to be realists who emphasize their ability to get things done. Ohio politicians, as a result, are historically rather colorless figures. They are masters of tactics (Hanna) or legislative maneuvers (Sherman and Taft) or relative unknowns not easily defined by the competition and therefore more marketable to swing voters (perhaps the chief attribute of the string of Buckeye Presidents from Grant to Harding). Even the most innovative leaders in Ohio’s history—Progressive mayors such as Samuel “Golden Rule” Jones in Toledo and Tom Johnson in Cleveland—stressed that they were men who got things done.
We like to think that Americans have become more entrenched in recent years and less open to compromise than they were in some idyllic past. Yet the vast majority of Ohioans have always expressed strong opinions. The Buckeye tradition of pragmatic politics reflects the requirements of winning elections in a profoundly divided state. Those who would obtain power in Ohio long ago learned that they had to compromise, avoid controversy, and construct (usually fleeting) coalitions. Nothing has changed. What is different is that cable television and social media have given voice to all voters, and made it harder, if not impossible, for politicians to do the kinds of things—such as saying different things to different groups, maintaining a gap between rhetoric and reality, targeting small groups of undecided voters with attention and gifts—that held a remarkably diverse group of citizens together for more than 200 years.
How all this will play out in November 2016 is anyone’s guess. Whether the 2016 electoral contest is on balance normal or not, Ohio will most likely represent a kind of centrist ballast, once again likely a bellwether of the outcome.