FROM THE car park of a desultory Dollar General shop in Lordstown, a declining corner of north-east Ohio, not much suggests a presidential campaign at full blast. A few plastic Halloween decorations flap in the breeze. Passing customers say they pay little heed to politics. Shane Edwards, in a green mask, admits he forgot to cast a ballot in 2016. He had planned to vote for Donald Trump, who took Ohio by eight points in any case. Grey-haired Rose says she always voted Democratic, then switched when Mr Trump showed up. She has “no idea” what to do this time, but will probably ask her husband.
Places such as Lordstown are mostly home to blue-collar workers who, like Rose, have shed their old loyalty to Democrats but are wary of committing themselves again to Mr Trump. Rose’s doubts are mostly over the pandemic. She does not think the president has handled it well. She worries, too, about her disability payments and care for veterans. Her county, Trumbull, saw a huge swing to Mr Trump in 2016, when voters took against Hillary Clinton. Yet Democrats won back much support in mid-term elections two years ago. And Joe Biden, who makes much of his working-class roots in Scranton, Pennsylvania, is again making it a closer race.
Mr Biden’s fortunes in Ohio have soared in recent weeks. A Republican strategist talks of colleagues startled by internal polls that point, after months of Mr Trump being ahead, to an almost tied race. Some recent public ones have even put Mr Biden just in front. Our own forecast still gives Mr Trump a slightly better chance of winning, but his prospects have dipped sharply. Mr Biden, meanwhile, is buying more television advertising in the state (just as Mr Trump is buying fewer) and paid a brief visit there, by train, last week.
For much of the past year Mr Trump had banked on Ohio, where rural voters, non-college ones, Catholics and the former coal-mining areas of Appalachia were solidly behind him, and a strong local operation reliably gets out the vote. The state is big, with 18 electoral-college seats, and more Republican-leaning than most of the Midwest. That makes it indispensable. No Republican has ever become president without it. Its record as a bellwether is unmatched. In 29 of the past 31 elections, whoever won Ohio won the White House.
The trouble for Mr Trump is that the most populous and fastest-growing parts of the state increasingly favour his rival. Mr Biden does not need to win back all the lost support in places like Lordstown if he can pile up votes in cities and suburbs, especially in big counties around the “three Cs”: Columbus, Cincinnati and Cleveland.
The activity of Abby Wimbiscus Black, a music teacher in Delaware County, a former Republican stronghold in central Ohio, north of Columbus, is emblematic of this. A party strategist calls her area the “frontier” of the election battle. Her tiny garden is crammed with eight signs for Mr Biden and other Democrats; a colourful knitted scarf is draped round a tree, with a message urging all to vote. Biden and BLM signs have sprouted on nearby lawns. Each night Mrs Wimbiscus Black writes 30 postcards to would-be voters across Ohio. She also texts, phones and posts online. She moved there a year ago from Columbus, part of an exodus of liberal-minded, young, urban folk (notably college-educated women) spilling out to suburbs and smaller cities as bigger ones get more costly.
Paul Beck at Ohio State University calls Mrs Clinton’s rotten showing in 2016 an “anomaly”. Democrats have been quietly gaining, he says, for example in state-legislative elections in suburbs near Columbus. The re-election of a Democratic senator, Sherrod Brown, two years ago points to wider strength. He cites a poll from late September, by Fox, showing Mr Biden with a ten-point lead in Ohio’s suburbs.
What explains the recent surge? Some moderates may be swayed by a former governor, John Kasich, who has endorsed Joe Biden. Older voters, like Rose, are dismayed by the coronavirus. Many women despise Mr Trump’s personal style. A party strategist says the president did so disastrously in the first debate he can’t recover. Spending on ads by Mr Biden, and the scarcity of Trump ones, could be making a difference. And local Republicans’ notably swampy behaviour does not help: Larry Householder, the Republican speaker of Ohio’s House, was arrested and indicted for racketeering in July.
Kyle Kondik, who wrote a book on Ohio’s influence on presidential elections, says Ohio is more competitive again. Yet he doesn’t think it matters, for the national contest, whether Mr Biden pulls off a victory there—a close race would be good enough for him. A Republican strategist agrees, calling Ohio the “head and neck” of the Midwest: as long as Mr Trump must scramble to avoid losing there, his prospects of crucial victories elsewhere in the region, in Michigan, Pennsylvania or Wisconsin, look vanishingly small. Mr Biden, in contrast, could triumph even if Ohio remains tantalisingly just out of reach. ■
This article appeared in the United States section of the print edition under the headline “Swinging again”