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COLUMBUS, Ohio—The frenzied political state of Ohio on the eve of the midterm election is what happens when no one knows which polls to trust. In the state’s two marquee races—governor and Senate—the Republican is polling ahead, in one case by double-digits.
And yet neither race feels like a foregone conclusion, even in an election cycle where history is on Republicans’ side. You hear it from voters in each camp, and from campaigns on both sides. Anything can happen, and just might.
“Ohio is tough because it’s been so gerrymandered. The numbers are there, though. People just need to vote,” Naomi DeVore told me last week in a parking lot on Columbus’ northside, on her way from casting her ballot. Despite what the polls suggest, the 32-year-old project manager believes that former Dayton Mayor Nan Whaley still has a shot at unseating Republican Gov. Mike DeWine and that Democrat Tim Ryan can squeak out a win for the open Senate seat against J.D. Vance. “All of my friends are voting for Nan and Tim. Ohio is very purple.”
Maybe. And it’s a big maybe that the state remains as evenly split between the red and the blue as it once was. Early-vote numbers have been lagging in the city’s urban areas, places where Democrats typically run up the score to offset a shellacking in the rural counties. Sure, about 126,000 more Democrats have cast their ballots than in the last midterms, increasing their share of that bucket of about 1.2 million votes (and counting) by about 2 percentage points. But independents—those voters who actually decide elections in Ohio—have seen their share jump by 3 percentage points.
Read More: Live Updates on U.S. Midterms
It’s entirely possible many of those independents split their ballots, casting votes for DeWine, but deciding that Vance isn’t as good a fit for the state as Ryan. (Ohio, to be clear, is not unique here in ticket-splitting, as voters in at least eight other states may end up doing something similar.) Polls show DeWine comfortably ahead by around 20 percentage points and the Senate race possibly breaking late for Vance—meaning there is a persistent under-vote for him.
But after the last few cycles, and widespread skepticism that pollsters know what they’re even doing anymore, those polling averages feel like they may be off, perhaps significantly. And that’s why, in the final days of a campaign that ends on Tuesday, Whaley and Ryan have been hustling, and hard. For both candidates’ advisers, a win remains in the mix. And all four top-of-the-ticket campaigns are putting very, very little stock in public or even private polling. So close is the race, some of their top aides are picking up clipboards with little fanfare at field offices and heading to the doors to spot-check their own assumptions via old-fashioned canvassing.
“I think Tim has struck a real nerve with a lot of people,” former state lawmaker Bob Hagan, a Democrat, told me. “But Nan is going to be closer than the polls say.”
But it’s bitter for Hagan, who is trying to make a comeback of his own: “It’s M&Ms, and they aren’t sweet for Democrats. This state is about Money and Maps.”
Ohio’s politics are as complicated and contradictory as they come. The state has long embraced its unofficial motto of “As Goes Ohio, So Goes the Nation.” Joe Biden was the first Democrat since 1960 to capture the presidency without the state’s electoral votes. Donald Trump’s win here in 2020, after first winning here in 2016, put Ohio’s status as the primo bellwether in jeopardy—and maybe even its place as a state both parties bother investing in. One of the biggest Democratic super PACs, Priorities USA, left Ohio off their list of targeted states this cycle and instead directed cash to future battlegrounds like Georgia and Arizona, and perennial must-win states of Pennsylvania and Michigan. And despite Biden earning 42% of Ohio’s vote two years ago, Democrats are effectively shut out of power; the redistricting maps were drawn with red Sharpies, and the 15-seat delegation to Congress next year is expected to have at least 11 Republicans.
The combination of rigged districts and shifting statewide demographics in Ohio, frankly, makes it a tough sell for Democrats, whose recent victories have been powered by people of color, women, and younger voters; white Ohio voters in 2020 made up two-thirds of the electorate, women were a slim minority that same year, and young voters are, crassly, an unreliable investment in renewable resources.
Still, Ohio’s college campuses can’t be ignored in a discussion about the state’s political leaning.
“We wouldn’t be a swing state if we didn’t have these universities. They’re younger and more liberal, and they can vote,” 66-year-old emergency-room nurse Elaine Clark Pace tells me in Columbus after a Fox News forum. Clark Pace is very involved in local GOP groups and has been impressed with Vance’s evolution as a candidate. Still, she can’t help but look over her shoulder with worry toward Ohio State’s campus just two miles north of where we are talking. “If we didn’t have the college voters, we’d be a red state.”
Which may explain why, after spending last week on the ground, it was impossible not to feel like I was watching two completely different campaigns. At Democrats’ events, codifying abortion rights, defending democracy from autocracy, and combating extremism topped the agenda. On the other side, there was a lot of chatter about Biden’s economic failures, mockery of social justice issues, and defense of police budgets from anti-cop anarchists. It felt like one party was in a college dorm’s lounge while the other was a country club’s locker room—where, of course, transgender neighbors are banned.
The candidates themselves feel the two-screen reality while acknowledging Ohio’s place as a proxy for all of the country is tenuous at best.
“Some people say, Oh, no, it’s a red state. That’s just not true. We may be a little right-of-center. But we are a state that certainly still can elect Democrats,” DeWine told me in Zanesville.
Taylor Sappington, the Democratic nominee for auditor, has an interesting corollary: “Ohio is not a red state,” he says in Youngstown before the twist. “It’s a rigged state.”
That’s why Sarah Pomeroy was standing a week before Election Day in a parking lot on Morse Road, north of downtown Columbus, doing everything she could to get her colleague in the city attorney’s office elected a Franklin County judge. “The local races are where you build the bench,” says the 32-year-old assistant city attorney and volunteer campaign manager for Zach Gwin.
The state, for sure, will be studied and dissected after Election Day on Tuesday. Whaley ran a progressive race centered on a message aimed at animating the party’s younger, female, and more inclusive base. Ryan ran his campaign entirely outside the Democratic machine while looking hard for those working-class voters who are tired of being told Washington was fighting for them without anything to show. So in the coming days, we’ll learn whether the pollsters there had any clue what they were doing in Ohio. If they did, we may come to realize that Ohio has retained its bellwether mettle. Democrats just may not like what that means for them in Ohio and, more broadly, the upper Midwest and maybe even the country.
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