Why isn’t the Trump campaign airing TV ads in Ohio?
Ohio is a must-win for President Trump. But his campaign is mistakenly acting as if the battleground state is in the bag.
With just weeks to go before the Nov. 3 election, Trump’s reelection campaign ads have been missing from local television airwaves in Toledo, where I live and work, while spots promoting former Vice President Joe Biden are ramping up. It’s the same situation across the Buckeye State.
Trump had been campaigning in Ohio before being taken off the trail because of his COVID-19 diagnosis. But Biden has also been here, with stops in Cincinnati and Toledo — and he’s going on an advertising blitz.
Ohio serves as a bellwether for the general state of the race. No Republican has been elected president without winning Ohio, and no Democratic candidate since 1960 has won the White House without carrying Ohio.
In response to Biden’s visit to Toledo this week, Trump’s campaign spokesman released a statement saying, in part, “President Trump won Ohio convincingly in 2016 and will do so again in November, so we are thrilled to see Joe Biden wasting a valuable day on the campaign trail visiting a state he cannot win.”
That attitude combined with a lack of advertising seems like a weak strategy for a state that’s very much in play.
The preferences of Ohio voters tell us a great deal about what to expect in this election. Trump won Ohio by more than eight points in 2016, but polling averages show the state to be effectively tied right now.
If Biden wins Ohio, then he will almost certainly win the Electoral College. If Trump squeaks by with a narrow win in Ohio, he will still likely lose the Electoral College because the key Great Lakes industrial states that Trump won by small margins in 2016 – Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin – all track closely with Ohio but lean several points further in Biden’s favor. So, if Ohio has moved eight points towards Biden, then I would expect these other states have also moved 6-to-8 points towards Biden, which fits his polling averages in the three states.
If Trump has also lost about eight points of support in these four states, he is far behind in states that he must win to have a chance to repeat his 2016 Electoral College success.
The key to understanding why Ohio is a good bellwether again is that it is demographically and economically similar to these other electorally crucial neighboring states. Like those states, Ohio has a significant group of voters who swung from Obama to Trump and who now seem ready to shift back to the Democratic candidate.
Toledo and Youngstown are the areas where Biden has the best opportunity to win some former Trump voters. Those cities had higher Obama-to-Trump swings and historically have been better areas for Democrats.
However, the Trump campaign canceled ads that were slated to air across Ohio this month.
It’s not unusual for political campaigns to cancel ads. But it’s unusual to cancel ads in Ohio when the state is this close.
President Obama won Ohio by three points in 2012 before Trump won it by eight in 2016. This is consistent with the American National Election Study, which shows that about one in eight – or 13 percent – of Trump voters nationally had voted for Obama in 2012.
Trump seems to be losing the support of some solid Republican voters who delivered recent victories statewide to Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine and other Republican candidates, particularly among women and in the suburbs.
While we should expect that Trump will hold onto the vast majority of his 2016 voters in Ohio and across the Great Lakes, several issues are hurting him here. Job losses in manufacturing are highly visible due to the loss of 4,500 jobs when GM closed the Lordstown plant in 2019.
Job losses were particularly acute in eastern Ohio, which was traditionally Democratic territory that shifted towards Trump in 2016. While the Trump campaign cites the renegotiation of NAFTA as a major win, evidence of positive effects is hard to come by. While the rhetoric of the trade war with China can be popular here, the results have been more negative as it has affected both manufacturing jobs and the agricultural economy.
Research shows that political advertising has a positive and economically meaningful impact on candidates’ vote shares. And it is possible that the Trump campaign is waiting to spend cash on campaign ads in Ohio until we inch closer to Election Day. But early voting started on Oct. 6 and is underway in high numbers.
In Franklin County – the Columbus area – the number of early voters skyrocketed to more than 20,000 in the first week. That’s nearly double the 11,000 who cast an early in-person ballot four years ago, and twice the 10,000 in 2012.
This year a record two million registered Ohio voters requested absentee ballots.
In Lucas County, where Toledo is the county seat, nearly 70,000 residents requested absentee ballots that should start going out this week.
Overall, there are 8,073,417 registered voters in Ohio, more than in any year since the record of more than 8.2 million in 2008.
With so much emphasis and enthusiasm for early voting, whether via mail or in-person, and voting in general, it is significantly conspicuous that the Trump campaign is not courting Ohio voters in their living rooms through local TV ads.
There’s been talk of Trump holding events or rallies every day from now to the election. Certainly, one would expect him to show up in the battleground state of Ohio again. But while rallies serve to energize the base, they don’t reach persuadable voters and they’re essentially bringing the show to town once, whereas advertising is about the steady beat of messaging again and again.
Missed opportunities add up to a losing strategy. Any other campaign, Republican or Democrat, would be doing what Biden is doing in making a play for a key swing state in the closing weeks of the campaign.
Sam Nelson, Ph.D., is associate professor of political science and chair of the department of political science and public administration at The University of Toledo
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