COLUMBUS, OHIO — Thousands of Democratic Party loyalists shifted eagerly in their seats in Columbus’ dimly lit convention center ballroom. They waited for President Obama, who would give a fiery speech urging Democrats to get out the vote, and indicting the GOP for aiding and abetting the overt racism that marked this election season.
But before the president took the stage, Ohio Democratic Party chair David Pepper strode to the podium and, citing polls showing Donald Trump with a slight lead in the crucial swing state, launched into what he called a “pep talk.”
“Do you think we’re a Trump state, Ohio?”
“No,” the crowd roared.
“I don’t think so,” he called back to them. “We’re the state that elected President Obama in 2008 and 2012. We are the state that elects [Senator] Sherrod Brown, the progressive lion, again and again.”
“One more reminder,” he shouted as the crowd cheered. “Donald Trump couldn’t even win the primary here. This isn’t Trump country.”
But despite everything hobbling Donald Trump in the state — a halfhearted ground game, a public feud with the state GOP, a popular Republican governor who despises him — Ohio might turn out to be “Trump country” after all.
With just a few weeks to go, the hotel mogul and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton are in a dead heat in Ohio, while Republican Sen. Rob Portman is trouncing former Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland by more than 15 polling points.
Early voting tallies paint a darker picture. So far, 300,000 fewer people have voted this year than at this same point in 2012 — in large part because the state slashed the entire first week of early voting — and the biggest drop-offs have been in blue strongholds.
Democratic elected officials and voters who spoke to ThinkProgress in Cleveland, Lorain, Columbus, and Youngstown had many theories about how a diverse, student-heavy state could be lurching to the right. They cite apathy, voting restrictions, a depressed economy, a longtime undercurrent of anti-immigrant populism, and an avalanche of outside spending.
Who to credit? Who to blame?
Ohio’s Senate race has attracted more outside corporate spending than any other Senate race in the country, with tens of millions of dollars allowing groups supporting Portman to blanket the airwaves with attack ads against Strickland.
“I’ve never seen this much money against a candidate,” Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-OH) told ThinkProgress. “The Koch Brothers have spent millions of dollars already and are planning to spend more. They can’t win in the marketplace of ideas, so they win by spending this kind of money.”
Strickland has received a smaller amount in contributions — just over a third the size of Portman’s haul — mainly from labor unions. As the national Democratic Party has largely abandoned Strickland to focus on more promising races, he has had fewer resources to counter the ads’ claim that he was responsible for massive job losses during his time in Ohio’s governor’s mansion.
At Portman and Strickland’s first debate, held in Youngstown, the Republican incumbent hammered on this theme, accusing the former Governor of costing the state hundreds of thousands of jobs. Outside, campaign volunteers flanked the largely empty downtown streets echoing this message. One wore a costume of a truck tire to represent the campaign’s moniker for Strickland: “Retread Ted.”
Strickland counters that he should not be blamed for a national recession — the result of Wall Street malfeasance — that wiped out nearly 9 million jobs across the country. He turned the attack back on his opponent, noting that Portman was serving as budget director for President George W. Bush when the recession began, making him more responsible for the job loss. He further noted that Portman has voted for and help negotiate free trade deals that cost Ohio tens of thousands of jobs, and opposed the bailout of the American auto industry — which saved about 160,000 Ohio jobs.
But Armando Labra, who works at the General Motors plant near Youngstown and serves an an organizer for the United Auto Workers, says the bailout has had surprisingly small impact on workers’ political views.
“President Obama and the Democrats saved our jobs. They went to bat for us,” he told ThinkProgress. “So you would think the people who work for auto companies would have a grain of gratitude. But no, I hear a lot of them say Obama is horrible, that he’s a communist, that he’s not American. It makes you wonder what’s in people’s heads.”
But other Ohio workers have not fared as well as the auto manufacturers. Thousands of blue-collar jobs have left the state — a trend that started long before the 2008 recession but picked up speed once it hit. As in the rest of the country, most of the jobs Ohio has gained since the recession are lower paying than the manufacturing jobs that were lost. All this has fueled anger at the Democratic Party and piqued interest in Trump’s populist promises.
“Too many people have been left behind in the state. That’s what this election is really about,” said Ohio House Rep. Dan Ramos (D-Lorain). “The recession hit us first and it’s leaving us last. I see more people walking to work on the side of highways than I’ve ever seen in my life.”
Ramos added that in his district in the heart of the Rust Belt, he can understand the frustration fueling Trump’s popularity. Industrial manufacturing is no longer the cornerstone of the economy it once was. “We have a big steel mill in Lorain that has been there since 1898, and now it’s almost entirely empty. They laid off hundreds of people. So Trump’s anti-free trade message is resonating, even though he doesn’t really have a plan.”
Yet Ramos and other Ohio Democrats are mystified as to why the anger at those who have pursued free trade deals hasn’t translated to the state’s Senate race.
Just this year, Portman voted to fast-track the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a proposed free trade deal with a dozen nations that is deeply unpopular with voters on the left and right who oppose outsourcing.
Strickland, the son of a steel mill worker and the first in his family to attend college, attempted to hammer Portman on his trade record. “You should get down on your knees and beg the people of Mahoning Valley for forgiveness” for supporting trade agreements that cost them jobs, he said. He also boasted about defying his party and voting against the North America Free Trade agreement in the 1990s.
“I’m proud of my record,” Strickland told ThinkProgress after the debate. “I will stand up for regular working people. But what he does as a senator doesn’t help the middle class. It helps the rich and the powerful.”
Portman refused to speak to reporters following the debate.
A blue collar county that no longer votes blue
The sun is setting in Canfield, Ohio, and Tequila Jalisco restaurant is packed with couples and families noisily sharing chips and margaritas.
Armando Labra, possibly the restaurant’s sole customer who is himself Mexican, surveyed the scene: an oasis from the poverty and partisan tension gripping the Mahoning Valley.
“At one point this was a booming town, and now it’s not,” Labra explained. “The steel mills closed, there’s a lack of opportunity, and it has people angry.”
That anger, for the most part, is directed at President Obama and Secretary Clinton, but its roots began long before they rose to power. Youngstown has lost 60 percent of its population since 1960, and it lost tens of thousands of steel mill jobs in the late 1970s. This economic pain is driving support for Donald Trump, who promises to wrest these jobs back from China and block future free trade agreements that could lead to further outsourcing. Trump has also promised to put an end to the epidemic of heroin addiction that has gripped the region.
While Mahoning County has voted for Democratic presidents in all but two elections since 1946, the area has seen a surge in “cross over” voters this year: Democrats hopping on the “Trump Train.”
“It shocks me that the same people in the community who you see at church and who give you a hug — sweet old ladies — they’re supporting Trump and they’re vociferous about it,” Labra said.
Support for Trump is so high in the area, he added, that Rob Portman’s last-minute decision to disavow Trump triggered a major backlash.
“The people who used to support [Portman] are now really ticked off,” Labra said. “I hear them say, ‘Traitor, traitor! We trusted you. You’re jumping from the boat like a rat.’”
Bruno Serrano, a student at Youngstown State University who is in the process of becoming a U.S. citizen, said the partisan anger in town really began to frighten him after a friend who works at the university put a Hillary Clinton sign on his lawn, then woke up one morning to find a bag of human feces hanging from his front doorknob.
As in other parts of that country, Youngstown’s economic anxiety has a racial element. The area has undergone a major demographic shift in the last few years. White residents made up more than 80 percent of the population in 2000, but represent just 47 percent today. Local voters told the New York Times that they distrust Muslims and believe minorities get more benefits from the U.S. government than white people.
Serrano told ThinkProgress he has experienced more racial hostility this year than in any of his previous 13 years in the country.
“I’ve started to hear [Trump’s] followers repeating his own words, not just about immigrants but about women, Muslims, and other people.”
Serrano, who is from Peru, said his co-worker, a white Trump supporter, has called him the n-word. Once Serrano asked him why they never hung out outside of work, joking: “Am I not white enough?” The co-worker said yes.
Then, at this year’s Canfield Fair, the Mahoning County Republican Party drew condemnation for selling bricks to build a mock U.S.-Mexico border wall.
“I called the fair office and told them I thought it was a very negative thing to do, especially as a Latino,” Serrano said.
Labra, whose young children have been teased by their classmates this year for their Mexican heritage, said the groundwork for this racism was laid decades ago.
Rep. James Traficant Jr. (D-OH), who represented the valley for nearly 20 years in Congress, was Trump before Trump: a fiery populist with an odd hairpiece who, though charged with federal crimes, was beloved for railing against the political establishment. Like Trump, Traficant warned of undocumented immigrants voting illegally and stealing jobs from U.S. citizens.
“He had the same ideas that Trump has,” Labra explained. “He proposed a wall and a militarized border 20 years ago. This area has suffered tremendously, and he was also always looking for a scapegoat. It was usually the Mexicans.”
Traficant ended up serving seven years in prison on bribery and racketeering charges. He died in 2014, but his memory hangs over the Mahoning Valley today, and many of the voters who once cheered for “Jimbo” are now rooting for The Donald.