Here, I discussed what state was most analogous to Ohio for the Democracy, in the sense that it was nearly the case (or had remained the case for the longest) that no Democrat had won without it.
But is the fact of no Republican’s having won without Ohio itself all that interesting or significant? Is Ohio somehow representative of the Republican Party’s historic base?
Well, it is true that no Republican has won without Ohio, and it is the only state whereof this is true, although there were other states whereof this was true until fairly recently. Until 2004, no Republican had won without New Hampshire; and until 2000, no Republican had won without Vermont or without Illinois. Vermont and New Hampshire are fairly small states (although West Virginia, which Hillary Clinton pointed out in 2008 no Democrat had won without since 1916, is also fairly small). Illinois is about the same size as Ohio, and in 2000, Judy Woodruff did remark that no Republican had won without Illinois. However, even then, while it remained true that no Republican had won without either Ohio or Illinois, there seemed to be more general interest in the fact that no Republican had won without Ohio (with Woodruff’s comment being relatively isolated).
It may be that no Republican has won without Ohio, but few Democrats have won without Ohio either. As we saw Sean Wilentz pointed out in 2008, no Democrat (save Grover Cleveland) had (or has, as of 2020) ever won without carrying at least one of Pennsylvania or Ohio. (Democrats won with Pennsylvania but without Ohio in 1836, 1844, 1856, 1944, 1960, and 2020, and with Ohio but without Pennsylvania in 1912, 1916, 1932, and 1948 — a six-to-four split in favour of Pennsylvania, but five-to-four as of when Wilentz was writing.) (Conversely, before Texas was projected for George H. W. Bush in 1992, not only had no Democrat won without Texas since it became a state, but eleven Republicans had been elected without Texas: Lincoln, Grant, Hayes, Garfield, Harrison, McKinley, Theodore Roosevelt, Taft, Harding, Coolidge, and Nixon [in 1968].)
In other words, Ohio is (or was), perhaps, much more of a bellwether state than a state particularly representative of a constituency vital to the Republican Party in particular. As Chris Wallace remarked in 2016 upon the projection of Ohio for Trump,
I mean, everybody always talks about Republicans can’t win without it [Ohio]; they [Ohio] have picked the president thirteen elections in a row. This is a big deal.
(This might also partly explain why Missouri wasn’t seen as more of a Democratic analogue to Ohio prior to 2008 — as of 2008 it had become known more as a bellwether state than as particularly critical to either party in particular, and the last two losing Democrats to have carried it were Adlai Stevenson in 1956 and William Jennings Bryan in 1900.)
The problem with seeing Ohio as having a mystical power over the fate of Republican nominees becomes evident when we consider that its neighbour, Indiana, came very close to also being a state that no Republican has won without. The only Republican to have won without Indiana is Rutherford Hayes, in an election, 1876, ‘more famous for irregularities than for fairness’.
Today, Indiana is seen as a staunchly red state, and has been seen as such for a long time. But in the Gilded Age, Indiana was conspicuously the most Democratic-friendly of the (free-soil) Midwestern states. As Emery A. Storrs wrote in October 1880, the Democratic electoral strategy essentially consisted in adding New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, and Indiana to the Solid South, and this was in fact how Cleveland did win in 1884, the first Democratic victory since the Civil War. In both 1876 and 1884, Indiana was the only free-soil Midwestern state carried by the Democrats.
Why was this? Probably because Indiana had been much more heavily settled from the South than other Midwestern states had been. In 2016, Craig Fehrman wrote an article detailing the idiosyncrasies of Indiana relative to the rest of the Midwest (and specifically relative to Wisconsin), by way of explaining why Indiana might pose more of a challenge to Ted Cruz than Wisconsin (which indeed it ended up doing). These idiosyncrasies essentially came down to how Indiana had been settled:
Among those [Old Northwest] states, and from the very beginning, Indiana was unusual. The Ohio River made it easier for Southerners to enter, and they settled the state from the bottom up. Thomas Lincoln was born in Virginia, migrating from there to Kentucky and then to southern Indiana. It was a typical itinerary, and Thomas was a typical early Hoosier.
Thomas Lincoln — Southern, working-class, anti-intellectual, religiously devout — made a more honest representative Hoosier than his son ever did. The prevalence of people like Thomas is also what made Indiana unusual…In 1850, only 3 percent of Indiana’s U.S.-born residents hailed from New England. (The Old Northwest average was 10 percent.) Only 20 percent of Indiana’s U.S.-born residents hailed from Mid-Atlantic states such as Pennsylvania and New York. (The Old Northwest average was 42 percent.) But a whopping 44 percent of Indiana’s U.S.-born residents hailed from the South — easily the highest percentage in the Old Northwest, where the average was 28 percent.
…More than any other Midwestern state, Indiana ended up with a certain kind of citizenry: white, working-class Protestants with Southern roots.
On these and a host of other measures — percentage of homes without broadband internet, rate of teen pregnancy, rate of divorce — you’ll often see Indiana finishing closer to Kentucky or Tennessee than to Ohio or Wisconsin. In other words, you’ll see 200 years of history making its presence known.
A lot of those factors correlate with support for Trump. (Another way to say this is that Thomas Lincoln would have probably voted for The Donald.)
But, albeit surely to a lesser degree, much the same is true of Ohio, as noted by Henry Grabar in 2018
Parts of northern Michigan share the rural progressive tradition of Wisconsin and Minnesota; Ohio, meanwhile, is one-quarter southern and one-quarter Appalachian.
and by David Frum in 2016
Michigan is not a tossup state. Michigan is a solid Democratic state, and has been for a long time…Michigan doesn’t have a kind of north-south divide. Michigan was settled by, uh, Yankees, and then reinforced by European immigration; Ohio is one of those states, like Indiana, settled both from the north and from the south, and it’s got a kind of internal cultural divide.
Fehrman noted the importance of the Ohio River in making it easier for Southerners to settle Indiana, but of course, the Ohio River also borders Ohio. Wilentz began his 2008 article (written after the Kentucky primary) by noting that Hillary Clinton had swept the ‘crucial primary states adjoining the Ohio River’. (This wasn’t quite true — Obama had won his home state of Illinois — but even in that case, Michael Barone noted that the 14 counties Obama lost in the 2008 Illinois primary had been ‘originally settled by southerners — more Jacksonian country’.)
Now, unlike Indiana, Ohio didn’t ever vote for a losing (or, for that matter, a winning) Democrat in the Gilded Age. But in 1868, 1872, 1880, and 1888, Ohio gave the Democrat his second-highest vote share of any of the free-soil Midwestern states (counted as these states), after Indiana. (In 1876, it gave Tilden his highest vote share of any of these states; Tilden carried Indiana with a slightly lower vote share than he lost Ohio with.)
If one made a map of where either Alton Parker’s or James Cox’s vote share would have been enough to carry a state in 1912 (assuming everyone else’s vote share remained the same), only two (free-soil) Midwestern states stay blue: Indiana and Ohio. In 1916, Charles Evans Hughes came within 1,887 votes in California of winning the White House without Ohio, which Wilson carried by a comfortable 7.68% margin.
What happened to leave Ohio as the one state that no Republican has won without is probably not anything particularly atavistically Republican about Ohio, but the quirks of electoral history. In the Gilded Age, when Democrats were (after the end of Reconstruction) routinely sweeping the former slave states, Republicans had to execute a near-sweep of the free-soil states to win. There were a few free-soil states in which they were weaker than in Ohio — New York, New Jersey, and Indiana — but they couldn’t lose much more than that and still win. So the fact that they didn’t win without Ohio in this period didn’t say much about Ohio’s being particularly Republican relative to other free-soil states.
Then, from 1900 through 1964, there were only three close elections, all of which the Democrats won (1916, 1948, 1960). Most Republican wins were landslides; the closest Republican win out of this period was McKinley’s 1900 6.1% win. So, again, the fact that no Republican won without Ohio in this period didn’t say much about Ohio’s being particularly Republican.
By 1968, the first close election since the 19th century in which the Republican won, the shift had already occurred to where the Lower Midwest had displaced the Upper Midwest as the most Republican-friendly part of the Midwest (a shift that, for some reason, seems to have somewhat predated the Southern Strategy). As Nixon won Ohio and Indiana that year (with Indiana giving him a bigger raw-vote margin than any other state), Humphrey won Michigan and Minnesota (making Nixon the first Republican to win without the state in each case).
In a certain sense, the most ancestrally Republican states — other than Vermont — are probably Kansas and Nebraska, two states whose progression to statehood coincided with the rise of the Republican Party itself. As Chris Matthews observed in 2004,
Kansas — probably the most historically Republican state in the Union, President Bush projected to win the state of Kansas. Nebraska, another Republican state historically, going back to the Civil War days. President Bush, projected winner in the state of Nebraska.
However, aside from the fact that they are relatively small and still fairly safely Republican, at least one Republican already has won without both of these states: McKinley without Kansas in 1896, and McKinley in 1896, and Taft in 1908, without Nebraska. In each case, the Democrat was the free-silver proponent (and Nebraskan) William Jennings Bryan. (Hughes, who again came excruciatingly close to winning the Electoral College in 1916, also lost Nebraska by over 14%, and Kansas by over 5%.)
In 2008, Wilentz didn’t point to any single state that no Democrat had won without, but mentioned that no Democrat had won without carrying at least one of Pennsylvania or Ohio. We could call this a ‘Wilentzian pair’. In the case of Pennsylvania and Ohio vis-à-vis the Democracy, the phenomenon is perhaps somewhat trivial — the same could be said of the Republican Party (since no Republican has won without Ohio full stop). Pennsylvania was the second-largest electoral prize from 1824 through 1948, and Ohio, the third-largest from 1844 through 1888 (and the fourth-largest from 1892 through 1940). It is of course possible for any one very large state to lean toward one party without the other party thereby being shut out of power, but if one combines any two of the four or so largest states, it becomes more likely that they will form a Wilentzian pair for both parties, simply by virtue of their electoral weight.
There are quite possibly a number of possible Wilentzian pairs for the Republican Party that are possible, but one in particular seems interesting: Michigan and Wisconsin. With one exception, no Republican has won without carrying at least one of Michigan or Wisconsin (something that remains true with Trump’s defeat in 2020). (Republicans won without Michigan, but with Wisconsin, in 1968, and without Wisconsin, but with Michigan, in 1924 and 1988. Since Wisconsin became a state, Democrats have won without either thrice: in 1856, 1884, and 1916.)
In his speech accepting the Republican presidential nomination in 1920, Warren Harding said,
The Republican Party was founded by farmers, with the sensitive conscience born of their freedom and their simple lives. These founders sprang from the farms of the then Middle West.
Of course, Ohio (and, for that matter, Indiana) are Midwestern states, but they are also Ohio River states. Indiana didn’t vote for the party’s first nominee, John Frémont, in 1856, and although Ohio did, it was with a plurality. In the region, only Michigan and Wisconsin gave Frémont a majority (indeed, they were his only majority wins outside the five states of New England). The Republican Party was famously founded in Ripon, Wisconsin (and Walter Manley II called Michigan ‘a birthplace of the Republican Party’ in 1988). (And, while he lost the Ohio and Pennsylvania primaries, Obama won the Wisconsin primary in 2008 — and it was not an ‘enclave’ victory, as in Missouri; Obama carried all but ten of the state’s counties. [Hillary Clinton won the disputed Michigan primary, in which Obama’s name did not appear on the ballot.])
There is another interesting thing about the pair, Michigan and Wisconsin. In 2008, Wilentz used Hillary Clinton’s primary wins in Pennsylvania and Ohio to argue the case that she better represented the Democracy’s historic base than did Obama. Well, Michigan and Wisconsin have had a habit of backing Republican presidential candidates who, at least arguably, better represented the historic base of the Republican Party than did their opponents, especially since the advent of the Southern Strategy. In 2016, Wisconsin prolonged the Republican presidential primary campaign by delivering a strong win to Ted Cruz (one he was unable to duplicate in Indiana). In 2011, Robert David Sullivan wrote of Michigan that it had a
habit of prolonging the candidacies of doomed Republican presidential candidates, whether for hours or for weeks. It has handed defeats to ultimate nominees three times in the past 35 years (Bush I over Reagan in 1980, McCain over Bush II in 2000, and Romney over McCain in 2008), a record matched only by Massachusetts, and none of these defeats have mattered much in the end.
At least in the first two cases (Bush Sr. over Reagan and McCain over George W. Bush), Michigan was arguably expressing the will of the traditional, pre-Southern Strategy Republican Party (as Wisconsin was arguably doing in 2016). (McCain’s Michigan win in 2000 came after his denunciation of Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell — high-profile backers of George W. Bush — as ‘agents of intolerance’, and after his warning against the party’s drift towards becoming the ‘party of Pat Robertson’. Arthur Paulson wrote that ‘[t]he long term outcome of [the Goldwater movement’s] victory within the G.O.P. was that it laid the groundwork for the later elections of Richard M. Nixon, Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush to the Presidency’, a list to which Trump’s name could have been added after 2016.)
Michael Barone, who has written much about how Obama alienated the ancestral Democratic base, also wrote in 2016 (between the primaries and the general election) of how (as paraphrased by Nick Ottens)
Certain ethnic groups resisted Trump, he notes: Mormons, Dutch Americans in northwest and central Iowa and western Michigan, German- and Scandinavian Americans in Wisconsin and the Upper Midwest states.
Republicans may have now won without Michigan as well as without Wisconsin, but the first time Michigan voted Democratic whilst Ohio voted Republican was 1944, whereas the first time Ohio voted Democratic whilst Michigan voted Republican was 1916. (In Wisconsin’s case, Wisconsin voting Democratic whilst Ohio voted Republican did come sooner than vice versa [1892 vs. 1916], likely due to the Bennett Law. That said, the first time that Wisconsin voted Democratic whilst Indiana voted Republican was in 1940, whereas the first time that Indiana voted Democratic whilst Wisconsin voted Republican was in 1856.)
The one exception — the one Republican to have won without carrying either Wisconsin or Michigan — is George W. Bush. But there was one exception to Wilentz’s Pennsylvania and Ohio as well: Grover Cleveland (who won both times, in 1884 and in 1892, without either Pennsylvania or Ohio). Everything that Wilentz said to mitigate Cleveland’s exceptionality could also be applied to Bush. Cleveland, Wilentz said, barely lost Ohio (in 1892 — this was less the case in 1884, when Cleveland lost Ohio by 4.05%); Bush lost Wisconsin in both his elections by less than 1%. Wilentz also noted that Cleveland was unusually dependent on the Solid South. So, too, was Bush; as George Will observed in 2008, Bush had been the ‘first Republican ever to win the Presidency while losing the rest of the country [outside the South]’, and Ohio was ‘the only large state outside the South that [Bush] carried’.
(And perhaps it was not entirely coincidental that 2000 was the first two-party election since 1972 in which Utah was not the Most Republican State. Manu Padro has written that ‘Utah has a distinct feel and design reminiscent of New England and European villages’, in describing its often-overlooked distinctness from the rest of the Mountain West. There is a neat link between the two states that have, by far, been the Most Republican State on the greatest number of occasions: Joseph Smith, the founder of Mormonism, was born in Vermont, and the LDS Church built a memorial at the site of his birth, which it continues to own and operate today.)
With the 2020 election apparently confirming Ohio’s status as a red state, it is likely to remain the case for some time to come that no Republican has won without Ohio. Of course, as Ohio becomes more safely red, it will be less important to point this out (as it hasn’t been particularly important to point out that no Republican has won without North Dakota since it became a state).
It was also, perhaps, never quite as indicative of anything important, as the fact that no Democrat had won without Texas (since its becoming a state) until 1992, or without Arkansas (since its becoming a state) until 2008, or without Missouri until 2008.