It wasn’t so long ago that Ohio was looking like a lost cause for Democrats, after Donald J. Trump scored a convincing victory there and humiliated the party that had twice carried the state under Barack Obama.
Now, unexpectedly, Ohio looms as a tantalizing opportunity for Joseph R. Biden Jr.
Two prominent polls of the state last month showed the presidential race in a statistical tie. Turnout in the Ohio primary elections in April was higher for Democrats than Republicans for the first time in a dozen years, evidence of enthusiasm in the Democratic base. And the Trump campaign recently booked $18.4 million in fall TV ads in Ohio, more than in any state besides Florida — a sign that Mr. Trump is on the defensive in a state that until recently seemed locked down for Republicans.
With Democratic leaders urging Mr. Biden, the presumptive nominee, to expand his ambitions to states previously considered out of reach, Ohio offers Democrats the possibility of seizing on suburban gains they have made in the Trump era, while restoring parts of the old Obama coalition.
“The definition of Trump being in trouble is that he’s forced to spend $18 million on TV in Ohio and he’s mired in a battle for his life here,” said David Pepper, the chairman of the Ohio Democratic Party.
Mr. Biden’s argument to Democrats has always been that he can energize Black voters and reverse defections by the white working class. If he were to make good on that promise and carry Ohio, it would reset the national political map. Not only would Ohio again be a presidential bellwether, but the long-term trend of Northern white voters abandoning the Democrats would, at least for the moment, be paused under a highly divisive incumbent president.
In a state where decades of deindustrialization have created long-term anxiety about jobs, the reality behind Mr. Trump’s unmet promises to restore steel, coal and other industrial sectors through trade wars is also being put to the test — a dynamic that could extend to other states across the Midwest.
“People were looking for someone who wasn’t establishment,” said Tina Comstock, 56, a court employee in suburban Cleveland, explaining Mr. Trump’s triumph four years ago. “They thought as a quote-unquote rich businessman, he could do great things for Ohio.”
Ms. Comstock, who is married to a factory worker who like her is supporting Mr. Biden, said the pandemic had exposed the hollowness of the Trump economy. “If the economy is so great under him, why is everybody so screwed after just a couple of months of this Covid thing?” she asked. “People didn’t have enough money in their savings accounts.”
For all the optimism of Democrats, though, the Buckeye State just might be an illusion in the mists. Not only did Mr. Trump win handily in 2016 — by eight percentage points — but Democrats also fell short in the 2018 midterm elections in Ohio compared with their gains in the “blue wall” states of Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania.
Corry Bliss, a top Republican strategist who has worked in Ohio, said that whatever trouble Mr. Trump appeared to be in now, the election would turn on how voters feel about jobs and the economy in October. The president, he said, still has the upper hand. “At the end of the day, President Trump will win Ohio,” he said. “It’ll be closer than it was in 2016. The question is, how does that translate to Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania?”
Mr. Trump won those states by less than one percentage point each in 2016.
Bob Paduchik, Mr. Trump’s top adviser for Ohio, said the campaign was spending lavishly there because it had plenty of money to spread around, including in states like Minnesota and New Mexico that tilt blue. “One way you could look at it is, ‘They’re spending money in Ohio, they’re in trouble,’” he said. “When you have the kind of resources we have, you can play everywhere.”
It’s also unclear how aggressively the Biden campaign intends to compete in Ohio. It has not reserved any TV ads there, according to the firm Advertising Analytics. Nor has Mr. Biden named an Ohio state director, frustrating local Democratic officials. The Ohio Democratic Party is so financially stretched it sought over $333,000 from the federal coronavirus relief package to help meet its payroll.
Mr. Biden’s advisers say that for now they are focusing on getting to 270 electoral votes, the minimum needed to be president, and they are directing resources to Northern battlegrounds as well as opportunities in the Sun Belt. On Tuesday the campaign announced a TV ad focused on rising coronavirus cases that will run in Arizona, Florida and — for the first time — Texas.
Ohio’s early success in flattening the curve of virus infections has reversed, with a new spike in hospitalized patients. The state “is sliding down a very dangerous path,” Gov. Mike DeWine, a Republican, warned on Wednesday. While the governor enjoys strong bipartisan support for his response to the outbreak, only four in 10 Ohio voters approved of Mr. Trump’s handling of the virus, according to a Quinnipiac University poll last month.
In the pre-Trump era, when Ohio was a perennial swing state, Democrats’ formula for statewide victory was to turn out Black voters in Cleveland, Columbus and Cincinnati, while relying on blue-collar voters in midsize industrial cities. Republican victories ran through the suburbs.
Mr. Trump upended both parties’ formulas. Republicans now win large groups of white blue-collar voters, while fighting to limit defections from suburbanites, especially women.
In the 2018 midterms, Democrats flipped six suburban districts in the Statehouse that had been drawn to favor Republicans.
The Trump campaign is seeking inroads with suburbanites, particularly women, with a TV ad aimed at stirring fears over calls by racial justice protesters to “defund the police.”
The ad, which has aired more than 1,000 times this month in Ohio, portrays the police as unable to respond to rapes and home invasions and warns, “You won’t be safe in Joe Biden’s America.”
But running on law and order may not move many suburban voters toward Mr. Trump; recent polls suggest there is a broad understanding that calls to defund the police often mean changing how they operate, not getting rid of departments entirely.
“I don’t think Trump’s a credible messenger,” said Elizabeth Brown, a Democrat on the Columbus City Council. “The voters who may be law-and-order-focused in our suburbs know how to tell when someone is lying. If you’re not a trustworthy messenger, even though you’re fearmongering, I don’t think you can dupe voters.”
Fred Holbein, 63, who is retired from the Navy, is a Trump supporter who endorses some of the president’s racially divisive comments, such as his criticism of NASCAR’s ban of the Confederate flag. “I’m not a NASCAR fan anymore,” he said.
“I think Joe Biden’s had 50 years’ opportunity to do something and most recently had eight years when he was a heartbeat away from the president and didn’t do anything,” Mr. Holbein, who lives outside Columbus, added. “I’ve always maintained that the government needs to be run like a business, and Donald Trump is trying to do that.”
In the end, Mr. Trump’s chances in the state are likely to come down to whether voters re-embrace his anti-China, pro-jobs message of four years ago, ignoring not just today’s record unemployment because of the coronavirus outbreak, but also the president’s unfulfilled promises even before the virus.
In Mr. Trump’s first three years before the pandemic, 14,000 new manufacturing jobs were created in Ohio. The gains represent a leveling off of growth from the last three years of the Obama administration, when Ohio manufacturing jobs expanded by 20,000.
The president’s tariffs on imported steel did not produce a promised boom in American steelmaking in places like Ohio’s Mahoning Valley, and Mr. Trump’s Twitter threats to carmakers did not stop General Motors from closing a huge factory near Youngstown, at a cost of 4,400 jobs.
In national and battleground state polls this week, a majority of voters disapproved of Mr. Trump’s handling of the economy, a reversal on the issue that had been his greatest strength.
Mr. Paduchik, an Akron native who ran Mr. Trump’s Ohio campaign in 2016, said Ohioans would forgive shortfalls between the president’s promises and what he has been able to deliver. “Voters don’t expect it to change overnight,” he said. “But here’s a guy who said he’d fight for them and he has, and it’s more than enough for them to give him another four years.”
White working-class Ohio voters, who according to 2016 exit polls were 56 percent of the electorate, do not appear to be abandoning Mr. Trump. The Quinnipiac University poll of the state last month showed the president with a 21-point advantage over Mr. Biden among white voters without a four-year college degree. The margin was only slightly smaller than Mr. Trump’s 24-point edge with the same voters in a Quinnipiac poll of Ohio on the eve of the 2016 election.
“They still think he walks on water,” said David Betras, a former Democratic chairman of Mahoning County, in northeast Ohio’s blue-collar epicenter. “You try to explain how his policies have hurt the working man, they say that’s fake news.”
His advice to Democrats: Add four or five points to Mr. Trump’s polling support.