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Are Ohio Republicans Average or Angry?

Kasich, Trump, and the battle for the middle of the middle.

Jeff Swensen/Getty Images

Ohio Republicans could see the differences between Donald Trump and John Kasich very clearly over this past weekend. Trump was very much in his reality-TV-show comfort zone, with rioting and pepper-spraying outside events in Chicago and Kansas City and the candidate uttering his new catchphrase, “Get them outta here,” practically as a punctuation mark at the end of most of his sentences. He later said the rallies were successful because there were “zero” injuries

Kasich, meanwhile, was in his own comfort zone, stumping as just an average guy in not-so-exciting Ohio towns like Heath and Moraine and Lima (pronounced like the bean) in advance of Tuesday’s winner-take-all primary. There were no disruptions, no comparisons to The Jerry Springer Show, no “U-S-A” chanting. His crowds—measuring in the hundreds and not thousands—asked him questions, and he tried to answer them. No podium, no tie, gray slacks and blue blazer. “The very spirit of our country rests in us,” the Ohio governor said. “You have a purpose here and the purpose is to live a life bigger than yourself.”

It not as if Kasich was portraying this motivational-speaking, preacher-style character out of his own inner goodness. He’s known to be somewhat of a jerk in private. But he’s been winning political campaigns in Ohio since 1978, and he knows that showboating in public doesn’t play well here: Instead, you tell people things are OK, though they could improve a bit, and here’s how you’ll do it. That’s the message that’s always worked for Ohio pols: that being average in your work and life is as good as being exceptional. It’s why Kasich tells you his father was a mailman almost as much as Trump says his poll numbers are “yuge.” Kasich knows being average in Ohio is sometimes better than being great, and that being a mailman is the epitome of being average.

Ohio is average on many counts. The amount of land used in agriculture is 56 percent in the state; nationally, it’s 51 percent. The national poverty rate is 14.8 percent of all households; in Ohio, it’s 16 percent. The age of the population lines up almost identically to the national numbers, as does the number of African-Americans (13.2 percent nationally, 13.7 percent in Ohio). The only missing demographic is Hispanic, mainly because Hispanics found Chicago a more inviting destination than other places in the Midwest over the past few decades. Economically, the state could hardly be more representative, with its ocean-going vessel ports on Lake Erie, its coal mines in the southeastern part where Appalachia nudges in, its row-crop-corn agriculture west of Interstate 71, its big insurance companies in Columbus, and what is left of its industrial economy in Cleveland and Youngstown. There’s oil and gas fracking, too.

Even the marijuana grown in Ohio is considered average in a good way. The weed that comes from Meigs County, near Athens, “is generally considered to be of fairly good quality, inexpensive, and plentiful. Were marijuana legal, Meigs Gold would be sold at Sam’s Club,” according to the Urban Dictionary.

I was born and raised here (and have smoked some Meigs County Gold in my time), but then lived in Texas for a few decades before moving back about four years ago. What many outside of Ohio don’t get, especially the political pundits on the East Coast, is that being average is not a bad thing in many parts of the country, especially in Ohio. In many ways, being average is a choice: Some don’t want to be great or exceptional because that takes way too much work. Let us do what we have to do and not much more, Ohioans say, and reap decent benefits from it. 

It all explains why Ohio has long been a political bellwether state—it hasn’t voted for a presidential loser in a general election since 1960—and why it could be another kind of bellwether for the Republicans on Tuesday. Because the middle of the American middle is in Ohio, and Trump and Kasich are offering that middle two starkly different messages. 

Kasich is up slightly on Trump in the Ohio polls—and while some may think that’s just a matter of a favorite son holding on to his home state, there is a little more going on. Ohioans have been dealing with “transitional economies” for decades (and more recently “disruptive innovation,” as the high-techies call it). They are getting tired of the contentiousness. Why do we always have to change, and then change again? And if Donald Trump’s “Make America Great” campaign represents anything, it’s contentiousness and change.

In short, many in Ohio want to get back to being average. But if Ohio Republicans buy into Trump’s concept of greatness on Tuesday—if their anger at their declining economic conditions outstrips their love of the average—Kasich will be through as a presidential candidate. If, on the other hand, they go for Kasich’s old-style Ohio message—that things aren’t as bad as you think they are, and we need to make only a few fixes—then this race might be extended, and we’ll find out whether Kasich’s politics of the middle can work in the remaining Republican states.

Kasich’s message is comfortingly familiar to Ohioans. Republicans, of course, have always been about less change than Democrats, taking the message to voters that things get better if you leave them alone. The Democrats have used a similar message in Ohio as well, telling union members that the high wages and high pensions will stay in place if they’re elected. 

In effect, Ohio politics has always been about protecting the average—more so than most other states—and that is why Kasich has always done well here. By “average,” I mean the type of people who are comfortable with a steady lifestyle and income, without any of the selfie bragging of social media, and no aspirations to be great or exceptional. This mindset stemmed from the fact that America valued the average in the old economy, and that is how Ohio came to define itself. Alexander Graham Bell could invent the telephone, after all, but he needed people to dig the ditches to plant the poles and then hang the wires from them to make his high tech creation work. Ohioans were those people: making the little metal things that make big things work, and even on occasion making the big metal things that make the little metal things work.

The U.S. economy rewarded that averageness, paying decent salaries to turn a screw and grow corn and mine coal, and allowing families enough money to go to Florida every winter for a week. The economic and cultural rules were very defined in this old model: Some parts of the country did the exceptional, other parts did the average, but both were regarded as having equal importance in the whole scheme of things.

But the value of being average has disappeared in America. You are now either marginalized and needing financial assistance, it seems, or you’re one of those disruptive innovators who create and sell and create again. You can see it in the jobs and people leaving states like Ohio—in the 436,000 jobs lost during the Great Recession, and in Cleveland’s declining population. You can see it in the growth of meth labs and heroin addiction. You can see it in the Ohio small towns that have but three thriving businesses left: bars, funeral homes, and dollar stores.

Getting rid of the middle-class average drops the floor. In 2000, Ohio ranked 19th among states for household income, but it is now 35th. In inflation-adjusted figures, Ohio household incomes have gone down by about $10,000 since 2007. 

That’s why people are angry, and not just in Ohio. And during this election campaign, Trump has pounced on that anger more than anyone. The Grand Old Party of old would have told everyone to sit tight and do nothing, that things will get better as they always do. Kasich has always done that, and he’s doing it now. And in the contests leading up to Tuesday’s, that has been his problem. Sullen, frustrated voters have tapped into Trump’s notion that being great is better than being average.

Kasich’s message is that being practical supersedes being emotional, and that notion has a foothold in Ohio. That’s why Kasich can say something as generic as this and get applause in Ohio: “We hear a lot about negative. Let me tell you, we—all of us, in our families, in our neighborhoods, in our communities—we are the spirit of America.”

The difference is clear as day: While Trump is selling the idea that most of America is now marginalized and we need to blow it up, Kasich is saying that people are not marginalized and a little hard work and smarts will get us back to where we once were.

Will this work for Kasich in Ohio and the possible states beyond? Probably not. Trump doesn’t need more than 35 percent of the Republican voters to agree with him in Ohio and send Kasich to the showers. But even if that’s the outcome on Tuesday, the same question that dominates the Ohio Republican primary will remain: How long will the populace put up with Trump’s message that the solution to your fear is more fighting and change and transition? Part of what people are angry about, really, is that the average has been exported out of America. Hearing that the only solution to restoring America is some vague notion that the country needs be big and bold and great again doesn’t sound all that appealing to the many folks who never were all that great and never wanted to be.