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Why Ohio Is the State to Watch on Election Night

No Republican president has ever won the White House without carrying the Buckeye state.

Trump campaigning in Ohio last week
MANDEL NGAN/Getty Images

Veteran Ohio Democratic strategist Greg Haas has a vision. “At 11:05 on election night, the returns are going to show Ohio going for Joe Biden,” he said. “And all across the country, people are going to begin chanting, ‘O-H-I-O.’ And then across the globe people are going to join in, even if they’re not sure what O-H-I-O even means.” 

I cut Haas off before he started talking about how the Ohio State football chant would spread across the universe to Alpha Centauri. But the former Franklin County Democratic chairman makes a serious point. Ohio, half-forgotten through much of 2020, may prove to be a bellwether on election night. The Biden campaign clearly recognizes the state’s potential: At the last minute, it rejiggered the former vice president’s itinerary so that he could make a stop in Cleveland on Monday. 

Ohio was the tipping-point state in 2004, when George W. Bush carried it by 118,000 votes. And I first sensed the magnitude of Barack Obama’s 2008 triumph interviewing exuberant voters casting their ballots early in Columbus. But, aided by huge margins in rural counties, Donald Trump carried Ohio easily in 2016, defeating Hillary Clinton by nearly 450,000 votes.

As a result, this year, Ohio has been seen, up until now, as a reach state by the Biden campaign. It would be a nice prize to have, but the Democratic campaign has been more focused on the “Blue Wall” states of Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin, which Clinton lost to Trump in 2016. In short, while Trump can barely afford to lose Ohio’s 18 electoral votes (almost equal to Pennsylvania’s 20), Biden has many roads to victory: He could lose the Buckeye state and still prevail.

What gives Ohio its sudden importance is that it counts votes quickly. Absentee ballots will be processed before the polls close at 7:30 p.m. Eastern with the envelopes opened and the signatures verified. The result? “We’re going to know with a 95 percent chance how Ohio goes on election night,” said Mike Dawson, a respected expert on Ohio voting patterns.

Clarity from Ohio could go a long way toward compensating for the anticipated slow counts in Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Michigan.

Ohio represents an insurance policy against Trump’s ill-disguised plans to declare victory on election night before the Democratic-leaning absentee ballots are counted in key states. If Biden takes Ohio, it will be difficult for even Trump’s fevered imagination to concoct a credible conspiracy theory about the results, since the state has a GOP governor and legislature. In addition, no Republican president has ever won the White House without carrying Ohio, a trend that dates back to Trump’s rival in presidential greatness, Abraham Lincoln, in 1860.

Make no mistake: A Biden victory in Ohio is not preordained. A top Democrat estimates that the plausible range of outcomes varies from a 2-point Biden triumph to a 3-point Trump victory. Nate Silver’s model at his website FiveThirtyEight calls Ohio a true 50-50 coin flip. The Economist’s election model sees Ohio as one of three toss-up states (Iowa and Georgia are the others), while giving Trump a small edge. And the Real Clear Politics polling average gives Biden the kind of lead that can only be measured by a micrometer.

The news media has been so responsible with its warnings not to expect a victor on election night that many voters now assume that we will learn little on Tuesday other than maybe that Vermont has gone for Biden in a landslide and Trump has swept West Virginia. In truth, Ohio is far from the only swing state to count ballots quickly—Florida, Georgia, North Carolina, and Arizona are all quick to tally votes. In addition, we may have indicative tallies from key counties in Michigan that can be compared with the 2016 results for a sense of how Biden is doing in the Detroit suburbs and the Grand Rapids area.  

I have long believed that a person’s emotional makeup partly shapes how they interpret the final polls before Election Day. As an inherent optimist, I will admit that I didn’t recognize the magnitude of the danger facing Hillary Clinton until after 9 p.m. on election night in 2016. And that is why I am struggling to contain my irrational exuberance as I contemplate a Biden sweep on par with Obama’s 365-electoral-vote victory in 2008.

But then I think of the reasons for a dollop of caution even when high-quality polls like Sunday’s NBC News/Wall Street Journal Survey give Biden a 10-point national lead. 

There are, alas, no ways to measure in advance the full effects of Republican voter suppression. Polls only measure voting intent rather than voting outcomes. So, in theory, a Biden supporter whose absentee ballot is rejected on a technicality would still register as having voted Democratic in a poll.

With Covid-19 raging out of control through most of America, it seems plausible that some voters may not make it to the polls on Election Day because of illness or health concerns. While in-person Election Day voters tilt Republican, according to the polls, there is no way of predicting the full effects of holding an election during a pandemic.

Reporters often augment the results of polls by interviewing voters and gauging their sentiments on the eve of an election. While journalists are still prowling the swing states, their jobs have become infinitely more difficult—masks and nervousness about going inside restaurants and cafés to talk to strangers have made it much harder to take the temperature of the electorate. (I will confess my personal frustration that I am obsessing about Ohio from my Manhattan apartment instead of typing up my notes in a diner somewhere in the Columbus suburbs.)

At minimum, Ohio will add to Republican election night anguish. Unlike many states where the absentee votes are tallied last, in Ohio they are counted first. What that means, according to electoral experts, is that Biden will begin the night with a 10–15 percent lead in the tallies. That number is certain to dwindle as GOP-leaning Election Day votes are added to the total. But if Biden can cling to an Ohio lead, we will know for sure that a battered Trump is on the ropes before election night flows into Wednesday morning.