Much has been typed and spoken about Ohio’s pivotal role in the US presidential election. The state’s 18 electoral votes have been prized by both candidates due to finely balanced electorate of that state.
It is a truism that Ohio has voted for the winner of presidential elections uninterrupted since 1964 and no Republican president has been elected without carrying Ohio since the party’s foundation in 1854.
If Ohio is the key to winning the election, what is the key to winning Ohio? In this post we will take an in-depth look at the voting patterns of Ohio geographically by breaking the state’s 88 counties into 14 regions and discern where the parties’ strengths lie.
Urban vs Suburban vs Rural
When looking at the internal voting dynamics of US states the same demographic pattern re-occurs in each state; the urban core of cities which vote Democratic, rural areas which vote Republican and the outer metropolitan or suburban areas which generally vote with the winner in any given state.
At this point we need to divert to the unique meaning of the term suburb in the United States. When Australians refer to suburbs they mean a subdivision of a given city’s metropolitan area. These subdivisions are immediately surrounded by other suburbs unless they are located on the fringes of a metropolitan area.
In the United States a suburb is a residential community that is separated from the city by undeveloped land. In the United States a suburb is detached from a city. In Australia a suburb is attached to a city. This does not make suburbs in the United States less urban but it does make them more comparable to the outer metropolitan areas of Australia cities, like Campbelltown or Frankston rather than inner metropolitan suburbs, like Glebe or Caulfield.
Nevertheless once one gets over the culture differential about suburbs, the (urban/inner metropolitan) – (suburban/outer metropolitan) – rural divide in voting patterns is familiar to the Australian experience.
Overlaid upon this geographic breakdown is the issue of turnout. If the base for either party turns out poorly then this can tip the election the opponents. If urban turnout is poor this advantages Republicans. Poor rural turnout favours Democrats.
Our breakdown of Ohio into 14 groups of counties or regions takes into account this urban-suburban-rural dynamic. Five of the regions are the counties that continue the urban core of 5 significant cities. Another 5 regions are the areas containing the suburbs surrounding the same 5 significant cities. A further two regions cover grouping smaller groups of cities in the northeast of the state, while the last two regions are predominantly rural with no city holding a population over 50,000 in either.
It should be noted we are only breaking down the overall result by county. The boundaries of counties containing cities are not the limits of the said city. Some urban counties have urban and suburban elements. Counties surrounding cities may have suburban and rural elements to it. Our grouping represents an approximation.
Most importantly we are attempting to paint a picture of how the counties vote and give you an ability to assess the contest as the election results are reported. When the election results are reported by the major media organisations and the secretary of state website on a sub-state level it is by county. For outsiders this might be confusing as the names of counties don’t necessarily correspond to the names of the cities contained within. This post is designed to assist the outsider.
One last note, when we refer to turnout, it is a calculation of valid votes for president as a share of all registered voters. As some voters cast a blank vote for president this means the turnout figures are slightly lower than overall turnout.
If you need a few maps to help reading with this post, click on the following to open new windows with the following maps:
Shaded map of regions as defined in this post (Apologies for the bad quality)
Major Cities and Surrounding Areas
First we will survey each city and then its surrounding area.
The city centre of Cleveland and its inner suburbs are in Cuyahoga County. On presidential level, Cuyahoga County is reliably Democratic. The last Republican presidential candidate who won the popular vote in Cuyahoga County was Richard Nixon in the Republican landside in 1972.
At the 2008 election Cuyahoga County contained 11.7% of all votes cast in Ohio, the largest of any county. It also had the lowest turnout rate of any Ohio county with only 59.9% of registered voters casting a valid vote for President. Cuyahoga County also has the largest African-American share of the population at 30% compared to 12% state-wide.
While your eyes will be on the bellwether counties on election night keep an eye on turnout in Cuyahoga County if it falls below the 59.9% of the last election it will be an indicator that Obama’s overall turnout is in trouble.
Cleveland Surrounds & Akron
Cleveland’s outer suburbs and satellite cities are based in the 7 counties that surround Cuyahoga County; Lake, Geauga, Portage, Summit, Medina, Loraine and Ashtabula. The outer suburbs are less Democratic. President Obama carried 5 of these 7 counties in 2008. Summit County also contains the city of Akron, which is the fifth most populous city in the state. Summit County has been carried by the Democrats in presidential elections in every election since 1964 bar the Republican landslides in 1972 and 1984. Summit County was carried by Obama 58-41 in 2008.
The bellwether county out of this group is Lake County which has mirrored Ohio’s choice for president (and the nation’s) for all election since 1964 bar one (1992).
Toledo is based at the “end” of Lake Erie in the north-west of the state. The city of Toledo is contained within Lucas County and was easily carried by President Obama in 2008 65-34. The county at a presidential level generally goes Democratic. The last Republican presidential candidate to carry the county was Ronald Reagan in 1984. Toledo is important in terms of the margin and the net votes it can deliver towards a Democratic victory overall.
The three counties surrounding Toledo hold the suburbs of that city which are not contained within Lucas County; Fulton, Ottawa and Wood Counties. This region provided the largest swing to the Democrats in the whole state of 6.2% compared to 2.8% state-wide. In 2008 Obama carried this region 51-47, after carried Bush it 55-45 in 2004. This is definitely a swing region and every presidential candidate that has won a majority of these three counties has won the election in Ohio since 1980.
The city of Columbus is the 2 and a half hours drive south-west from Cleveland on the Interstate-71. Most of Columbus is contained with Franklin County.
In 2008 Obama carried Franklin County 60-39 and the county contributed 9.8% of all votes in Ohio. Franklin County has been trending Democratic overtime, it has been carried by the Democratic Presidential candidate in all elections since 1992, prior to which the last time the county was carried by the Democrats was in the 1964 LBJ landslide.
In 2008 Columbus provided a swing to the Democrats of 5.4% outpacing the state wide swing of 2.8%. Columbus is vital in this election in terms of whether President Obama can hold on to the gains of 2008.
Election results watchers should also focus on the turnout in Franklin County as well as the margin. In a tight Republican victory in Ohio, Franklin County can still be carried by the Democrats by about 10 points as was the case in Republican John Kasich’s gubernatorial victory in 2010
The counties that surround Columbus which contain its suburbs and satellite cities generally vote Republican and all these counties voted for McCain in 2008. These seven counties are; Delaware, Fairfield, Morrow, Licking, Pickaway, Union and Madison counties.
Nationwide, in 2008 Obama won the suburban vote 50-48 according to exit polls, however much of Republican support does come from the suburbs in this highly urbanised nation. The suburbs surrounding Columbus are such GOP heartland. No Democrat has won any of the 7 counties since the LBJ landslide of 1964. And given the closeness of the contest this year will probably not win any of the same seven counties on Tuesday week. If Mitt Romney is to carry Ohio, he will need to carry over 60% of the vote in these counties and increase the turnout above the 2008 level of 72% of registered voters.
The counties surrounding Ohio have some of the lower unemployment rates in the state, so any backlash against the President on that front may be muted here.
Dayton is contained wholly within Montgomery County. In 2008 it was carried by President Obama 52-46. Given that Ohio only went Democratic 52-47 overall, this is a county that could flip in the event of a Romney victory. However the relative lean of county has shifted around, the county was narrowly carried by Democrats in 2000 & 2004 whilst the Republicans carried the state. President Clinton carried the county in 1992 and 1996. However in 1988 President George H.W. Bush over performed in the county carrying it 57-38, whilst carrying Ohio 55-44. The only conclusion to draw from the data is that Montgomery County is a swing county but not a bellwether.
Dayton Surrounds and Springfield
The four counties which surround Dayton; Miami, Preble, Greene & Clark contain its outer suburbs and the nearby city of Springfield. In 2008 Senator McCain was able to stem the tide of losses for the Republicans in this regions by holding on to it 57-41, and only suffering a -1.5% swing in the GOP vote compared to a -3.9% swing state-wide.
Mostly these counties vote Republican, however Clark County which contains the city of Springfield has voted Democratic in the past, the last time in 2000. However it is trending to the Republican Party as Senator McCain was able to hold in county in 2008.
The city of Cincinnati, the urban area of which is contained within Hamilton County is the third largest in Ohio and the metropolitan area of the city spills over into the neighbouring states of Kentucky and Indiana.
Of all the urban areas we have profiled, Cincinnati is the most Republican. In 2008 Hamilton County was carried by a Democrat presidential candidate for the first time since 1964, 53-46, a victory margin two points higher than the 52-47 state-wide result. Obama also earned a swing of 5.9% in Hamilton County well above the state-wide 2.8% swing.
Black turnout is also a factor in this county where African Americans comprise of 23% of the population, compared to 12% state-wide.
Given the size of the share of the vote in Hamilton County (7.4% of all Ohio votes in 2008) this is the swing county of Ohio and the one to watch when the election returns come in. If President Obama is to carry Ohio gain, he will likely carry Cincinnati.
Cincinnati Surrounds & Wilmington
Associated suburban areas of Cincinnati spill into the surrounding Ohio counties of Butler, Brown, Warren and Clermont. We are also including the nearby Clinton County in this group as it falls with the Cincinnati media market but outside of the adjoining region of Appalachian Ohio.
The surrounding counties are reliably Republican. Since the LBJ landslide of 1964, only Brown County has ever been carried by a Democratic presidential candidate, once by Jimmy Carter in 1976.
Just like the surrounding areas of Columbus, the Republican victory margin in these counties is a large component of any state-wide Republican victory. In 2008 Senator McCain carried these counties 64-35 and it was the most Republican area of the state. If Governor Romney is to win in Ohio he will want to lift turnout above the 2008 level of 70% in these counties.
Smaller Urban Conglomerations
We now turn to two regions which are groupings of smaller urban areas.
This region of three counties, Trumbull, Mahoning and Columbiana are situated in the Mahoning Valley and contained the cities of Youngstown and Warren. As the name suggests, in the 20th Century, Steel Valley was part of the largest steel producing areas in the world (combined with Western Pennsylvania, which it borders), hence the name Steel Valley.
Like most industrial regions in the western world the citizens of this region have had to deal with economic change as industrial jobs disappeared. Not unlike other industrial areas of the world voters have historically aligned themselves with the party of the labour unions, in this case the Democrats. The last time a Republican presidential candidate won all three Steel Valley counties was in the Nixon landslide of 1972.
In 2008, the Steel Valley was the only region where the Democratic vote went backwards despite Obama carrying the region 59-39. Currently unemployment is slightly higher than the state average in these counties, but about par with the national average. The returns in these counties will be interesting to watch on election night.
This region comprises Carroll and Stark Counties and contains the mid-range sized cities of Canton and Massillon. This region is also a swing area but not a bellwether. In 2008 President Obama carried Canton-Massillon 51-47 similar to the state wide margin; however he only won a small swing here for the Democrats which was consistent with their anaemic performance across North-East Ohio. In 2004, Senator Kerry carried this region for the Democrats 50-48. If Governor Romney is able to carry this region on election night then it may indicate that he carries Ohio.
We now turn to the two regions which are primarily rural. These regions do have some small cities with population under 50,000, however compares to the other regions they are the least urban in the state.
As the name implies this portion of Ohio hugs its eastern border which follows the mountain range of the same name. This area is relatively rural, poor and white and like other areas of Appalachia has been trending away from the Democrats at a national level. The voting record of this area mirrors the fate of neighbouring West Virginia. Democrats carried the neighbouring state between 1964 and 1996 except during the Republican landslides of 1972 and 1984. Consequently, in past decades in Ohio even when Democrats lost state-wide generally the only counties the Democrats could carry outside of Cuyahoga County (Cleveland) were in Appalachian Ohio. However, as West Virginia had changed its national partisan lean to the Republicans so did Appalachian Ohio.
In 2008 Senator McCain carried the region 51-46 after President Bush carried the region 54-45 in 2004. Governor Romney would be looking to beat the 2004 Bush effort if he wants to carry the state. Another metric to look for in these counties is turnout. Outside of the urban regions, Appalachian Ohio had to worst turnout in the state at 67.9%, so an improvement in turnout will also boost Romney’s chances.
Central and Western Ohio
The remainder of Ohio is Republican heartland and most of the counties in this area last voted Democratic in the LBJ landslide. However in 2008, this regions swung harder to the Democrats than the overall state wide swing (4.4% vs 2.8%), consequently, President Obama will be look to hold on to many of his gains as possible in these counties.
2004 and 2008 Geographic Analysis
By grouping Ohio’s 88 counties into 14 areas, identified above we can see the contributions each area made to the Republican victory in 2004 and the Democratic victory in 2008. For each of the 14 regions we have indicated the raw vote lead of the major party candidate over their main rival and the contribution to the overall raw vote victory margin for the state.
As you can see the bulk of the votes that shifted which was the basis of Obama’s victory in Ohio was in Cincinnati, Columbus, Toledo, the surrounding areas of those three cities and Central-Western Ohio. Below is a similar table with this time with vote shares and turnout figures, please click to enlarge.
Again the largest swings to Obama in 2008 took place in Cincinnati, Columbus and the fringe urban areas around Columbus.
So what are the opportunities for today’s candidates? Whilst in any state-wide election candidates will take votes from where they can find them, the candidates will be fighting over the areas that had the largest change of votes in 2008 and the Democrats will seek to defend their gains and Republicans will try to regain their losses. Obama’s key to victory is to hold on to his urban advantages in Cincinnati and Columbus gained in 2008. Increasing turnout in Cleveland won’t hurt either.
Romney’s path for victory requires regaining lost GOP voters in the Cincinnati, Columbus, Toledo and the fringes outside these three cities. However his big draw card is Appalachian Ohio, as noted above unemployment is worse in the region and the area is trending Republican, plus previous low turnout gives him room to grow.
Counties which voted for the winner in the past 3 presidential elections include; Hamilton County which contains Cincinnati. Other counties which fall into this category include Lake County on the outskirts of Cleveland. Ottawa, Sandusky and Wood counties which are positioned below Toledo and fall within the Western and Central region of Ohio for our analysis. The only other bellwether county is Tuscarawas County in Appalachian Ohio, which was a relatively Republican county in 2000 & 2004 but swung wildly to the Democrats in 2008.
The Race Picture
While this post is primarily about geographic voting patterns, it would be remiss of us not to look at the racial breakdown of the Ohio vote at the last election. According to 2008 exit polls the share of voters by race at the last election was 83% White, 11% African American, 4% Latino, 1% Asian and 1% other. The white vote split 52-46 McCain while the black vote split 97-2 Obama.
The counties which have the most influence from the African American vote are the counties with the large urban centres, Cuyahoga (Cleveland), Franklin (Columbus) & Hamilton (Cincinnati).
Before we finish this post, we shoud look at the rules for recounts in Ohio, should this become an issue on election night. Under Ohio law if the margin between the first and second placed candidates is less than 0.25% of all votes cast there is an automatic recount undertaken by the state government at its expense.
Individual candidates or a group of 5 voters or more can request recounts if the margin of victory is wider than 0.25%, but the applicants must bear the cost of the state conducting the recount.
In any event for a recount of the presidential election, the recount must be completed at least 6 days before the meeting of Electoral College electors on 17 December.
Ohio promises to be a fascinating contest on election night for psephs. Hopefully those who live outside Ohio and indeed the United States will have found this post useful in getting a handle on the geographic patterns in the Ohio vote.