Wednesday on Morning Joe, the namesake host was running through the states where Joe Biden was currently ahead of Donald Trump or was close. Pennsylvania, Scarborough said, was all but in the bag for Biden. Michigan was looking good, Wisconsin leaning that way. Then he proceeded to name-check (if I’m remembering them all) Florida, North Carolina, Nevada, Colorado, Arizona, Georgia, and even Texas as possibly competitive.
That’s 10 states, fully one-fifth of the whole tattered union. But what state did he not mention? The ur-swing state. The state about which it has often been said, “As ____ goes, so goes America.” The state of the presidents, home to seven of them, second only to Virginia’s eight.
That’s right: Ohio. I’m not picking on Scarborough. He was just doing what everyone does. Donald Trump won Ohio by 8.1 percentage points, or nearly 450,000 votes. Hillary Clinton quit fighting in the state before Election Day. Republican Mike DeWine won the 2018 governor’s race. For all these reasons, people seem to write it off as having turned an irreversible red.
I’m here to report to you that they might be wrong. Some numbers from this year’s primary suggest—I don’t want to go too hard here; suggest—that something very interesting might be happening in the Buckeye State, and it’s not good news for Team Orange.
Ohio held its primary this year in April. I say “in April” rather than on a specific date because, as you might remember, there was a whole drama around the date. It was supposed to happen on March 17, but that was just as the crisis was descending in full fury. Governor DeWine cancelled it. A judge overruled him. State Health Department Director Amy Acton overruled the judge. Then the legislature set a “date,” really a deadline, of April 28, meaning that absentee ballots had to be postmarked by April 27, or hand-delivered ballots had to be turned in to local election boards by the 28th.
Ohio has a “semi-open” primary, which means that a person can vote in whichever party’s primary they like, but there are separate ballots, and they have to request either the Democratic or Republican ballot. In other words, Republicans can vote in the Democratic primary, and vice-versa, and unaffiliated voters can do whatever, but they all have to request one ballot or the other from poll workers.
This system comes with a handy side effect: You can see how many enrolled members of both parties crossed over and decided to vote in the other party’s primary.
Without giving the matter much thought, you’d expect those numbers to be more or less even, right? And pretty low, too. Well, that’s where our story gets interesting.
Ohio’s 12th congressional district is a suburban/exurban district north and east of Columbus. The seat has been Republican since the 1940s (though very gerrymandered) and is now held by first-termer Troy Balderson. Donald Trump carried it by 11 points.
Now—back to ballot requests. In this year’s primary, in this district that has been Republican (with a single one-term interruption) since we were bombing Adolf Hitler, about 8,800 Republicans requested Democratic ballots. In reverse, only about 1,200 Democrats requested Republican ballots. In addition, about 21,000 “unaffiliateds” (independents) took Democratic ballots, and just 13,000 of them took GOP ballots. Overall, 73,000 people requested Democratic ballots, and 68,000 requested Republican ballots. That’s in a district that Cook rates R+7.
What’s it mean? Again, I’ll be cautious here. The obvious inference is that this imbalance is explained by suburban women’s disgust with Trump. We’ve seen this register in a lot of polls. Can there be other explanations? Maybe. But there just aren’t that many options.
The most likely other explanation is that there was a more competitive presidential race on the Democratic side, spurring Republicans to vote on that side of the fence.
But that wasn’t really the case. Bernie Sanders suspended his campaign on April 8, so for most of the time window during which Ohioans were casting their absentee ballots, there was no competitive Democratic primary. And even when Sanders was still officially in, at that point (i.e. after the Super Tuesday wipeout on March 3), the race wasn’t especially competitive. And there were no hot down-ballot races, either.
Of the 8,800 R-to-D switchers, “That’s a good number,” says Hannah Riddle, the campaign manager for Alaina Shearer, the Democratic congressional candidate who’s running against Balderson. (Shearer, incidentally, seems like a good candidate for the district—she’s from a purple area, started a small business, and is running hard on health care and women’s empowerment). “A vastly larger number than we’ve seen before. Anecdotally, you go around and talk to people, and they’re pretty disgusted.”
Is this 12th District some kind of anomaly? Something in the Licking County water supply? Well, let’s saunter down to the also very Republican southwest corner of the state, and the 1st congressional district, the suburbs north and west of Cincinnati. Here, GOP incumbent Steve Chabot is being challenged by Democrat Kate Schroder (her career is in public health—a pretty good year for someone with that on her résumé to be running).
In the 1st, says Schroder’s campaign manager Allie Banwell, about 6,200 Republicans took a Democratic ballot, while just 543 Democrats requested a GOP ballot. It’s worth noting here that when people request a ballot, they’re becoming a member of that party until the next primary. So it’s a bit of a commitment for people to make.
Then just to cover our bases, let’s venture up to the state’s other corner and look at numbers from Cuyahoga County. That’s Cleveland, so of course it’s very Democratic; but there are some Republicans there, and 9,500 of them asked for Democratic ballots, while just 2,000 Democrats asked for Republican ballots. Also in Cuyahoga, unaffiliateds requested Democratic ballots over Republican ones by about 37,000 to 7,000. (All the numbers I’ve used here are unofficial, so I’ve rounded them, but the official tallies aren’t expected to change things dramatically.)
Finally, and more generally: Turnout in the Democratic primary last month was higher than Republican primary turnout for the first time since 2008. And it was a lot higher—more than 860,000 votes to about 680,000.
“There are two big things happening in Ohio,” says state Democratic Party chairman David Pepper. “The first is this suburban shift from red to blue. And number two, the great economy that Trump brags about? That wasn’t really true here even before COVID.” He thinks that will make it hard for Trump to use his “greatest economy ever” line even if the economy is on the path to recovery in November.
Pepper also notes that DeWine won the governor’s mansion two years ago by specifically targeting suburban women and doing pretty well with them. For reasons that should be obvious, Pepper says, “Donald Trump will not be able to run that campaign.”
Look, it may still be a tough state. Biden and Trump are essentially tied there right now, which is a bit of a discouraging sign, because in Pennsylvania, Michigan, Arizona, Florida, and more narrowly in Wisconsin, Biden is ahead. And even though Democratic turnout in Ohio was larger than Republican, the overall turnout figure was a low 23 percent.
But still, the above numbers are real. They’re actual votes. By 5- or 7- or 12-to-1, Republicans voted Democratic in Ohio more than the other way around, and independents opted to take the Democratic ballot by large margins. It has to mean something.