Next primaries offer contrast between nation's past, future
CLEVELAND, Ohio – Sharing the primary calendar Tuesday are two states that represent different pieces of America: Ohio, a largely white state that’s barely growing and looking to rebound from a decline in manufacturing, and Arizona, a state where one-third of the population is Latino and growth is exploding. One looks more like the nation's past, the other could be its future.
It is a contrast that's also playing out politically as the 2020 presidential election approaches. Ohio, for decades a pivotal swing state, has shifted into Republican territory. Arizona may finally be in play for the Democrats.
Both states hold primaries Tuesday alongside Illinois, a Democratic stronghold, and Florida, another swing state, in the next round of the contests between Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders ahead of a general election in which Democrats will fight to wrest back at least two of those states to win back the White House.
“There’s no plausible Electoral College scenario where Trump loses Ohio but wins reelection,” said Kyle Kondik, author of “The Bellwether: Why Ohio Picks the Presidents.”
But whether Ohio can still be considered a swing state is a matter of debate. Unlike its Rust Belt counterpart of Illinois, which last went Republican in 1988, Ohio went big for Republican President Donald Trump in the 2016 election.
Ohio had for decades reflected national voting trends, not just in whom it chose for president, but also in how much that person won by. While Democratic President Barack Obama won the national popular vote by nearly 4 percentage points in 2012, he won Ohio by 3. When Republican President George W. Bush won the national popular vote by 2.5 percentage points in 2004, he won Ohio by 2. But in 2016, Trump won Ohio by 8 percentage points — but lost the popular vote by 2. It was the largest margin between Ohio and the national outcome since 1932, Kondik said.
The state is whiter and has more voters without college degrees than the national average, both of which make a voter more likely to lean Republican, Kondik said.
That's partly why Democratic Rep. Ruben Gallego of Arizona thinks the collection of swing states is shifting away from Ohio and toward states like his, where the population is more diverse and representative of a coming demographic shift across the country. Arizona has long been coveted by Democrats, and the 2018 midterm elections showed promising signs: Centrist Democrat Kyrsten Sinema flipped the U.S. Senate seat vacated by Republican Sen. Jeff Flake, and Democrats flipped a U.S. House seat, though the statehouse remained under GOP control.
Whites are expected to become a minority in Arizona within the next decade. Like the rest of the country, Arizona's Hispanic population is younger, meaning it will steadily become a greater share of the voting population. As Arizona's young voters, Hispanic and otherwise, spread out into the suburbs, they may expect more public investment, which could help Democrats, Gallego said.
“It does continue to trend blue, and largely because the Latino population is going to become a bigger and bigger portion of the state,” he said.
While Arizona is known as an attractive state for retirees, its population of voters over 65 — 17% — is just slightly higher than the national average, according to census data. In Florida, a fifth of the population is age 65 or older.
Statewide, Arizona's population grew 13% over the past decade, more than double the national average. Ohio's grew just more than 1%, and the major city of Cleveland lost population.
Ohio leaders say the state remains a national mirror. It's home to a growing capital city in Columbus and a diverse population in Cleveland, where about half of residents are African American, and it's indicative of national efforts to rebuild economies in response to the loss in manufacturing and other industries, particularly in rural areas.
And they say it is premature to write the state off as firmly Republican, partly because Trump's promises to revive manufacturing haven't met reality. A General Motors plant in Lordstown, where incomes are low and less than a fifth of the population has college degrees, shuttered last year despite Trump’s pledges it would stay open.
“Do I think there is possibility that if Biden is the nominee that Biden could bring some of these working-class folks back? Yeah, I think he could,” conceded John Kasich, the former Republican governor who is anti-Trump.
Nan Whaley, the Democratic mayor of Dayton, a working-class city, is frustrated that some in her party have seemingly taken Ohio off the table. Republicans won every major state office but one in 2018, and the state's U.S. House representation didn't change despite big gains for Democrats elsewhere. But she and others pointed to U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown, the only Democrat to win statewide even with his progressive voting record, as evidence the party can win.
“I completely believe it is still a swing state,” said Whaley, who also said Hillary Clinton erred in 2016 by not visiting her part of the state. “I don’t believe national Democrats believe it’s a swing state.”
Contrast Ohio with Illinois, which has suffered similar declines in manufacturing but has remained a solidly blue state. The southern portion of the state has become even more Republican as union jobs wane and diversity lags. But Chicago, the nation's third-largest city, offers a major counterweight. And in 2018, the suburbs began shifting even more toward Democrats, said Christopher Mooney, a professor of state politics at the University of Illinois at Chicago.
DuPage County outside Chicago, once as Republican as California's famous Orange County, flipped two congressional seats from Republican to Democratic in 2018. Like much of the country, today's swing voter in Illinois may be a 30-something suburban mom who cares about strong schools, prefers low taxes, supports abortion rights and is made uncomfortable by Trump's rhetoric and immigration policies, Mooney said.
“You can win her, you can win statewide,” he said.
Then, there's Florida, the nation's third-largest state and one that's brought drama to American presidential elections. Gary Mormino, a professor emeritus at the University of South Florida and the author of “Land of Sunshine, State of Dreams: A Social History of Florida,” called it a true “mirror of America,” with its population of retirees from the Northeast and Midwest and its heavy Hispanic population, which makes up about a quarter of the state.
In Florida, older voters have strong voting power. That could benefit Biden and hurt Sanders, who draws his biggest base of support from young voters. Sanders has also angered some of Florida's Cuban voters for his comments praising aspects of the country under dictator Fidel Castro's leadership. The state offers 219 delegates on Tuesday, the third-largest haul behind California and Texas, which have already voted.
While Florida voted for Trump in 2016 and has Republican statewide leadership, Democrats still view it as a swing state in November.
By the time Tuesday's results are counted, Old and New America will either agree on a Democratic nominee or split in a way that keeps the campaign going.
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