(CN) — The state of Ohio has been carried by every winning presidential candidate since 1960, including Donald Trump in 2016, but it’s possible — and perhaps fitting — that the trend could be disrupted in 2020.
It has been a tumultuous and historic year, and so perhaps it should come as no surprise that the presidential election might deviate from the expected course.
A poll of 907 registered Ohio voters conducted Sept. 20-23 by Fox News gives Joe Biden a five-point advantage over President Trump, and Larry Sabato’s Crystal Ball currently has Ohio as a toss-up.
Trump won Ohio by nearly eight points in 2016, however, and a single round of polling does not signal a death knell to the incumbent’s chances in the Buckeye State.
Courthouse News spoke with Ryan Salzman, associate professor of political science at Northern Kentucky University, about the polling numbers and Ohio’s significance in the upcoming election.
“I think that these numbers for Biden are surprisingly good,” Salzman said, “and I’ll be curious to see if they hold. Donald Trump was consistently polling up in 2016 and he ended up winning by a pretty significant margin.”
Salzman considers Ohio essential if Trump wants to win reelection, based on polling numbers and trends in other surrounding states.
“If Biden wins Ohio, I don’t see a scenario where he doesn’t win the other ‘blue wall’ states,” Salzman said.
The “blue wall” refers to 18 states across the northern portion of the U.S. viewed as critical to any Democratic presidential candidate, including Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin.
“These states somewhat move in concert with another,” Salzman said, adding that 2016 pro-Trump polling in Pennsylvania should have given analysts a clue regarding Ohio’s eventual victor.
Salzman was quick to point out, however, that even if Trump wins Ohio, it will not guarantee him a victory in 2020.
“I can definitely see a scenario in this election,” he said, “where we finally defy that run that Ohio has had in terms of being the great indicator.”
Bryan Marshall, chair of the Political Science Department at Miami University in Ohio, had similar thoughts about Biden’s routes to victory in 2020 during an interview with Courthouse News.
“I think there are a lot more paths open to Biden to win,” Marshall said. “If Trump wins Ohio, I don’t think that necessarily means it’s going to follow that sixty-year barometer.”
“There are so many other states that are on the board that could change the path for Biden,” he added, while mentioning Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Michigan, as well as Arizona.
Ohio’s no excuse absentee voting meant no legislative changes were necessary to allow citizens to vote by mail during the Covid-19 pandemic, but Secretary of State Frank LaRose has nevertheless been diligent in encouraging those voting absentee to do so early.
According to LaRose’s office, as of Sept. 22, over 1.7 million absentee ballot applications have been received statewide, which is more than double the amount requested at the same time during the 2016 presidential election.
LaRose urged voters to send in their absentee ballots early because of structural changes to the U.S. Post Office and the large numbers of ballots submitted across the state, but remains confident Ohio can process the votes without a hitch.
“One of the big reasons why Ohio is considered the national leader in absentee voting,” LaRose said in a statement, “is because we’ve been doing it this way for nearly two decades. You get good at something when you practice, and Ohio has proven to be game-ready.”
The surge in absentee ballot requests has not come without difficulty, however, as the availability of ballot drop boxes and signature requirements have engendered partisan squabbling and spawned both federal and state litigation.
LaRose, a Republican, ordered each county to make a single drop box available for the 2020 election at its respective board of elections.
The Ohio Democratic Party sued LaRose in Franklin County Common Pleas Court and argued Ohio law does not limit the number or location of drop boxes.
Judge Richard Frye agreed with the Democrats and called the restriction to a single drop box “arbitrary and unreasonable,” especially considering the circumstances created by the pandemic.
Frye did not issue an injunction, and LaRose’s appeal to the state’s Tenth District Court of Appeals is currently pending.
LaRose was also sued in federal court by several voters’ rights groups who claim the state’s signature verification requirements for absentee ballots are unconstitutional.
U.S. District Court Judge Michael Watson, a George W. Bush appointee, issued an opinion on Sept. 27, and while he agreed with the plaintiffs that the lack of uniform signature matching processes across the state created a burden on individuals who vote via absentee ballot, he declined to issue an injunction so close to the election.
Watson said any change at this stage of the election process — when ballots have already been mailed and “pre-election activities are ramping up” — could be “particularly damaging,” and also alluded to President Donald Trump’s repeated attacks on the credibility of mail-in voting.
“Some public officials,” Watson said, “have unfortunately regularly cast doubt on the security and legitimacy of voting by mail. A federal court enjoining part of the State’s procedure for maintaining the security of mail-in voting in the weeks leading up to the election could further undermine public confidence in elections.”
Marshall, however, believes an increase in voter turnout in 2020 will calm any fears about voting irregularities.
“In 2018,” Marshall told Courthouse News, “turnout during that midterm election was almost as high as it was in the 2016 election. So if we’re anywhere close to hitting record turnout in 2020, I think that … might take some of the fuel away from people that want to challenge the outcome one way or the other.”
Concerns over mail-in ballots were put on the backburner earlier this week, however, when the New York Times released the results of its investigation into President Trump’s tax returns.
The story is sure to grab voters’ attention as Election Day nears, according to Salzman.
“We like to talk about ‘October surprises,’” he said. “This is going to dominate the news cycle … because one of Biden’s major issues is increasing taxes on high earners.”
“[Americans] tend to be averse politically to tax increases,” Salzman continued, “however, President Trump paying so little in taxes is like jet fuel for this policy position that Vice President Biden is advancing right now of paying your fair share.”
The first of several presidential debates took place on Tuesday, and while it garnered its fair share of attention on social media and news outlets alike, Marshall was hesitant to give the event too much weight.
“I think you have fewer undecideds in 2020 than you did in 2016,” Marshall told Courthouse News. “I think you have a stable race. It’s been close, it’s been tightening a little bit.
“I don’t see this last debate as having a really big impact on undecideds… and I don’t think it’s something that’s necessarily going to change people’s minds. Historically, when we look at presidential debates, I think you have to go back a long, long time to see a debate that really changed the potential outcome of a race, even going back to Kennedy.”
Ohio’s status as a bellwether state in presidential elections is unparalleled since 1960 — when the state chose Richard Nixon over John F. Kennedy — and looking even further back, Thomas Dewey in 1944 is the only other losing candidate selected by Ohio voters since 1896.
Demographic changes in the past decade, however, may signal an end to Ohio’s reliability as a presidential predictor, according to Marshall.
“Ohio always has been that bellwether state,” he told Courthouse News, “but I think for a number of reasons, especially over the last ten or fifteen years, I don’t think that Ohio is the same as it used to be.
“I think it’s become more reliably Republican, especially in the last couple of election cycles, so we’ll just have to see if these more recent polls pan out … and see if there really has been enough of a shift to turn Ohio for Biden.”