Correction appended, March 14
It’s one of the most repeated Ohio-related maxims in American politics: that the state, the birthplace of presidents, is a crucial step in any Republican’s road to the White House. Ohio governor John Kasich even touts it as one of the main reasons he still stands a chance despite not having won a primary yet in 2016.
But what does history show about the relationship between Ohio primaries and the White House? No Republican has been defeated in the Ohio primary, which has been held in every election year starting in 1912, and then gone on to win the White House. But in 1968, Richard Nixon won the White House even though James Rhodes—the state’s governor, like Kasich—won the Ohio Republican primary.
Likewise, Dwight Eisenhower won the general election in both 1952 and 1956 even though the Ohio primaries in those years were won by Robert Taft and John Bricker, respectively. (A full list of the candidates and results for primaries 1912–2012 can be found in the CQ Press Guide to U.S. Elections.)
Neither Nixon nor Eisenhower appeared on the ballot in Ohio in the relevant years. In 1968 and 1956, there was only one man to choose from. In 1952, there was another option, but it was Harold E. Stassen, not Eisenhower. (In fact, Eisenhower was still fulfilling his military service when 1952 started, and made a point of staying out of the race until drafted by his party.)
In other words, it is true that a loss in Ohio is a very bad sign—if history is any indication—for a candidate who hopes not to lose in the general election. But it's also true that, in the past, candidates have skipped the Ohio primary entirely and come off no worse for it. Sometimes that was the whole idea, in fact. Rhodes, for example, was a "favorite son" of the state party—not a major presidential candidate but rather someone who could control the state's delegates at the convention, throwing Ohio's support behind whomever he picked later. So a vote for Rhodes in 1968 was, in fact, a vote for Nixon after all.
Here's the whole breakdown:
- There were 26 presidential primaries in Ohio in the century between 1912 and 2012, which means we're trying to predict the future using an extremely small sample size.
- In nine of those cases, a candidate won all three contests: Ohio primary, national nomination, general election.
- In six cases, victory in the first two did not lead to the White House.
- In 11 cases, the candidate who won in Ohio did not win the nomination—though in three of those years, discussed above, the eventual Republican nominee did win in the end, without having won in Ohio.
Even narrowing it to 1972 and after, winning in the Ohio primary and then scoring the nomination has meant about even odds for the White House victory. No Republican since Nixon has won the White House without winning the Ohio primary, but plenty of Republicans since Nixon have won the Ohio primary without winning the White House.
If there's anything absolutely true that can be said about the Ohio Republican primary, a single lesson from history that can carry us through to the future, it is perhaps this: in politics as in baseball, it's possible to turn anything into a statistic.
Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated the meaning of an adage about Ohio politics.