Ohio could be Biden's best shot at keeping Trump from contesting the 2020 election

Andrew Romano
·West Coast Correspondent
·11 min read

Typically, presidential elections are fought and won in the so-called tipping-point states — places such as Wisconsin or Pennsylvania that statisticians consider most likely to put one candidate or the other over the top in the Electoral College.

But with President Trump and his family signaling that he will refuse to concede a narrow defeat and will contest any result that is drawn out beyond Election Day — an unprecedented break from convention — some Democrats have begun insisting that Joe Biden can’t wait for the trickle of mail-in ballots from the usual Midwestern battlegrounds to eventually nudge him past 270 electoral votes.

To nip any disaster scenario in the bud, they say, Biden also needs to flip one or more “nail-in-the-coffin states” — that is, the ones that on election night itself could quickly and decisively prove that Trump has no remaining path to victory.

Ohio, the site of this year’s first presidential debate, could be Biden’s best option.

Joe Biden speaks at a campaign event in Columbus, Ohio in March. (Paul Vernon/AP)
Joe Biden speaks at a campaign event in Columbus, Ohio, in March. (Paul Vernon/AP)

“In a normal world, I understand the tipping-point strategy,” David Pepper, chair of the Ohio Democratic Party, told Yahoo News. “But we’re not in a normal world. We’re in a world where Donald Trump sees a path to be president even if he loses a close election. So I would say, ‘Don’t aim for the goal that guarantees chaos; aim for the goal that ends it before it starts.’ And that means winning a state that’s tied, a state that counts its early votes first and announces them first, and a state that has a Republican secretary of state who can’t claim that Democrats rigged it.”

“Win Ohio,” Pepper added, “and you’ve just ended not just the Trump presidency — you’ve ended the drama that Trump wants before it ever got started.”

Pepper has been making a version of this argument for months. But after previously declining to play big in the Buckeye State, Team Biden finally seems to be catching on. Over the last week, three separate polls have shown Biden leading Trump by as much as 5 percentage points in Ohio — a surprising turn of events after Hillary Clinton lost there by 8 points in 2016. It’s been enough to propel Biden past Trump in FiveThirtyEight’s statewide polling average for the first time.

The polls may have also earned Ohio a second look from Biden’s strategists in Philadelphia, who suddenly have a record-breaking pile of cash at their disposal, including $364.5 million raised in August alone. On Monday, Medium Buying, a political ad tracking firm, reported that “the Biden campaign is expected to move forward with [a] huge TV ad outlay in OHIO” starting Oct. 6 or sooner — a move confirmed Monday by Democratic Sen. Sherrod Brown.

“They’re doing a major effort in Ohio,” Brown told Yahoo News, referring to the Biden campaign. “They’re scaling up their television buy. They are bringing more paid staff to Ohio. They’ll have a zillion volunteers — they’re already out there. We win Ohio and it’s an Electoral College landslide, and that will make it that much harder for Trump to try to contest and overturn the election.”

Tony Hickson holds signs in support of Joe Biden in Youngstown, Ohio on September 22, 2020. (Megan Jelinger/AFP via Getty Images)
Tony Hickson holds signs in support of Joe Biden in Youngstown, Ohio, on Sept. 22. (Megan Jelinger/AFP via Getty Images)

Of course, all hometown pols want the party’s presidential nominee to pay attention to their fiefdoms. But should Biden really be investing in a state that Trump won by such a wide margin just four years ago?

The answer is yes, according to state insiders from both parties. They cite three reasons Biden’s new investment could pay off on election night.

The first is that the latest polls may actually be accurate. At this point in the 2016 cycle, Trump was ahead by 3.5 points in the Buckeye State, but he went on to win by a much larger spread on Election Day. This mirrored the way Trump overperformed his polls in other Rust Belt states such as Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania, upending expectations.

Later analyses pinpointed the main problems: Pollsters undersampled white voters without college degrees, who disproportionately favored Trump, and didn’t anticipate that an unusual wave of undecideds would break his way at the eleventh hour. They have since worked to correct the oversights, and, as a result, subsequent state polls in 2018 proved more accurate.

Either way, recent election results in Ohio — not just recent polls — confirm that the state and its 18 electoral votes could be trending away from Trump. “2016 was just an absolute blowout in the rural parts of the state that typically would have voted for a Republican 60-40 but voted for Trump by anywhere from 75-25 up to 80-20,” Pepper explained. “But the truth is — and this is why the polls are not shocking to Democrats in Ohio who’ve been paying attention — a lot has changed since 2016.”

Among those changes: an economy that has been failing to keep pace with the rest of the country, even before COVID-19, and a widespread backlash to Trump among former Republican voters in the fastest-growing suburban parts of the state.

A projection is shown on a building Monday, Sept. 28, 2020, in Cleveland, by Robin Bell, an American multimedia visual artist, with the words President Donald Trump used when he talked about the coronavirus on Jan. 22, 2020. Trump paid $750 in U.S income taxes in 2016 and 2017. The billboard art was created by Shepard Fairey. (Tony Dejak/AP)
Billboards and posters in Cleveland feature artwork from several notable street artists, such as Shepard Fairey. One billboard highlights the words President Trump used in a tweet in May, and the “$750” sign references the amount the president reportedly paid in income taxes in 2016 and 2017. (Tony Dejak/AP)

“In 2018, we [Democrats] won two state Supreme Court seats decisively,” Pepper said. “We hadn’t done that in decades. We hadn’t flipped a single statehouse seat from red to blue all decade because they were gerrymandered for Republicans. We flipped six. The overall breakdown for the 2018 statehouse vote was 50 percent Republican, 49 percent Democrat. That’s where Ohio is. Then ’19 showed the same thing. We won every city council seat in Reynoldsburg, a Republican suburb; we won every seat in Cuyahoga Falls, near Akron. So those suburbs are not just showing up because they like Sherrod Brown. They’re now voting for Democrats for mayor and city council. The shift in the suburbs makes Ohio winnable.”

At least some Ohio Republicans agree. Four years ago, former state GOP Chairman Kevin DeWine predicted Trump would win. This time, however, he isn’t so sure.

“I find it hard to believe that Donald Trump wins Ohio,” DeWine mused on a recent episode of the Ohio-focused podcast “Pinot and Politics With Chris Redfern.” No Republican president, it’s worth noting, has ever won the presidency without winning Ohio.

The data suggests that DeWine’s skepticism is well founded. First, Trump’s support is down from 2016 by a significant margin, and in some cases by as much as 10 points in Ohio, according to a Republican source who has seen internal polling on state legislative races in competitive districts.

If those numbers hold, the president would need to squeeze even more votes out of the mostly rural parts of Ohio that delivered landslides for him in 2016. But Trump’s 2016 numbers were so high they set records. Not only did he win 80 out of the state’s 88 counties, but in 38 of them, he got more support than any Republican presidential candidate since 1980.

President Donald Trump speaks during an event at the Whirlpool Corporation Manufacturing Plant in Clyde, Ohio in August. (Tony Dejak/AP)
President Trump speaks at the Whirlpool manufacturing plant in Clyde, Ohio, in August. (Tony Dejak/AP)

DeWine, a cousin of Ohio’s Republican Gov. Mike DeWine, said on the podcast that he doesn’t expect Trump to beat his rural margins from four years ago.

“I think the politics of this state have changed. I think people have caught up to [Trump]. And let’s just be honest, he’s not running against Hillary,” DeWine explained. “I think there are so many Republicans who for years and years and years were looking for one more chance to vote against the Clintons ... and I think 2016 presented them that opportunity. Donald Trump benefited from it. I think Biden’s in the sweet spot to carry the state.”

If Biden does win Ohio, he could win it quickly. This is key. Ohio’s polls close at 7:30 p.m. ET, making it one of the first battleground states (along with North Carolina) to start reporting results on election night. (Polls don’t fully close in Florida until 8 p.m. ET.) Even more importantly, Ohio is one of just a handful of battleground states (North Carolina and Florida are others) that start processing mail votes before Election Day and tend to release their counts immediately after the polls close.

“Our early votes are processed as they come in and they are tabulated very quickly on Election Day, unlike other states, where that process doesn’t start until after the election,” Pepper explained. “If you’ve covered the state, you know that by 7:45 p.m., close to 8, that early vote is announced, and the only early vote that’s left to count is the vote that’s still floating in the mail out there for 10 days.”

Depending on the in-person margins and the size of the outstanding mail vote, it’s possible the networks could call Ohio before Wisconsin has even finished voting. If they call it for Biden — and no other big surprises emerge — Trump would have almost no chance of clawing his way back.

That’s doubly true because Ohio has a Republican governor and secretary of state who have both vouched for the integrity and accuracy of mail-in voting there.

President Donald Trump listens as then Ohio gubernatorial nominee and Ohio Attorney General Mike Dewine speaks during a campaign rally in Cleveland, Ohio in 2018. (Carlos Barria/Reuters)
Trump listens as then-Ohio gubernatorial nominee Mike DeWine speaks at a campaign rally in Cleveland in 2018. (Carlos Barria/Reuters)

“The idea that a massive conspiracy could be undertaken that could actually change the result of a governor’s race or U.S. Senate race, or certainly a presidential race, is a very far-fetched idea and beyond ... the realm of possibility,” Ohio Secretary of State Frank LaRose told Yahoo News’ Jon Ward last month.

“We want the people to be able to vote and their vote to be counted,” Gov. DeWine added Thursday. “Do I believe that Ohio has the ability to count the votes? Yeah. We’ll do it consistent with the law.”

For Pepper, this means that “Trump’s attempt to claim that Dems rigged the election is not going to fly in Ohio,” where Republicans run the show and where voters must request a mail ballot — a system even Trump has said he supports.

In fact, a recent Ohio Republican Party mailer encourages Ohioans to “Join President Trump & vote by absentee ballot!”; it also quotes Trump as saying, “I will be an absentee voter. We have a lot of absentee voters. It works, so we are in favor of absentees.”

“And so if Biden wins Ohio by enough, we won’t have some massive tranche of votes that Trump tries to pick apart for weeks,” Pepper said. “He may fight over every vote in Wisconsin, but it won’t really matter because in the middle of the map will be a blue Ohio. It will be, ‘Did Biden win by this amount or that amount?’ But there will be no arguing that Biden won.”

A voter drops of his election ballot in the drop box at the Cuyahoga County Board of Elections, on April 22, 2020, in Cleveland, Ohio. (Tony Dejak/AP)
A voter drops off his election ballot at the Cuyahoga County Board of Elections on April 22 in Cleveland. (Tony Dejak/AP)

It remains to be seen whether Biden’s new investment in Ohio can seal the deal there — and whether an early, decisive Buckeye State upset could really be the factor that stops any postelection shenanigans before they begin.

Pepper, for one, argues that investing in Ohio is all upside given how little Biden and other Democratic groups have dropped there to date.

“Other states have had $30, $40, $50 million spent on them,” Pepper said. “Another $10 or $20 million is important, but at some point you hit saturation. We have not hit saturation here. Every dollar is going to be new messaging to voters who haven’t seen anything yet.”

Brown, meanwhile, is optimistic about Biden’s chances. Noting that Trump recently stopped advertising in the state — his campaign reserved and then canceled $5.5 million worth of September ads — the senator said Monday that he is “thrilled the Biden people are going to play big in Ohio now.”

Brown knows of what he speaks. In 2012, when Barack Obama boosted Democratic turnout, Brown won reelection in Ohio by 6 percentage points. Six years later, with Trump in office, Brown increased his margin of victory to 7 — earning 280,000 more votes than his party’s gubernatorial candidate, Richard Cordray, and 100,000 more than DeWine, Cordray’s victorious Republican rival.

“The advantage of Ohio” — as compared to Florida or North Carolina, other potential checkmate states — “is that our voters are used to voting for Democrats for president,” Brown said Monday. “Bill Clinton won here twice, Barack Obama won here twice — and Ohio is going to vote for Biden this year.”

Additional reporting by Jon Ward.

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