Delaware, Ohio (CNN)When the 2020 presidential race began, even most Democrats didn’t sugarcoat their belief that Ohio had fallen off the map of the most competitive battlegrounds in the country.
But as Labor Day weekend opens the final stretch of the campaign, there’s little doubt that Ohio is back in play. Look no further than a multimillion-dollar investment in advertising here by President Donald Trump, who is fighting to defend a state he comfortably carried four years ago.
Winning Ohio wouldn’t guarantee him a victory over Democratic nominee Joe Biden in November, but even his advisers concede a loss would severely limit his path to 270 electoral votes and almost certainly make him a one-term president.
“You could draw a line right down the middle,” said Ed Paxton, a cigar shop owner here who supports Trump but knows plenty of people who do not. “There’s the haters and there’s the lovers.”
Two months before Election Day, the tensions between both of those camps came to life in conversations with more than two dozen voters in the suburbs of Columbus, where people are weighing Trump’s law-and-order message with Biden’s pitch for calm, competent leadership.
The President’s handling of the coronavirus crisis and its economic fallout, along with racial unrest across the country, also contribute to a highly volatile atmosphere for the closing chapter of the campaign in pivotal swing states across the country.
Four years ago, Trump won Ohio by 8 percentage points. Since then, Democrats have made significant gains in several local races here, particularly in suburban areas across the state, even as Republicans have expanded their hold on rural counties.
The November election is emerging as a key test for whether Ohio can still deliver a victory to a Democratic presidential candidate or whether Barack Obama’s wins in 2008 and 2012 are but a wistful memory for the party.
The degree to which Ohio develops as a top-tier battleground will be answered over the coming weeks. But the investments from Trump, who has reserved $18 million in TV ad spending this month, and Biden, who included Ohio in his $45 million blitz this week, underscore how the fall landscape offers the President’s team little room for error.
While the Trump campaign is devoting time and resources to New Hampshire and Minnesota — states the President narrowly lost in 2016 — a far bigger focus is on defending states Trump won, including North Carolina, Florida, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Michigan and Arizona. Falling significantly behind in any one of those states, his advisers believe, could create a cascading effect that would be difficult to overcome.
Battle in the suburbs
Ohio will be a leading case study for whether Biden can expand the electoral map to the one Democrats enjoyed while he was on the ticket with Obama.
Trump’s racially charged suggestion that electing Biden would “totally destroy the beautiful suburbs,” a claim offered without evidence, has become a motivating factor for some Democratic voters here and in suburbs across America.
The intense divisions were on vivid display here in recent days, with an “All Lives Matter” sign just down the block from several “Black Lives Matter” signs. Trump flags were flying on the same streets whose front yards were decorated with Biden signs.
“He’s trying to put fear in people, by scaring them about what America would look like if Biden wins,” said Angie Jenkins, elected last year as the first Black city council president of Reynoldsburg, a community just outside Columbus. “But people know what we’ve had for the last four years and what he has been as a President.”
Jenkins believes that she and two other Black women won their city council races, in part, as a counterbalance to divisiveness in the Trump era. She said that many suburbs are diverse communities that won’t take kindly to the President’s warnings about looming danger if Biden is elected.
“I have no idea what he’s talking about,” Jenkins said. “The suburbs are not what they were in the ’60s.”
Hillary Clinton’s loss in Ohio sparked a wave of activism among women here.
Awakened by Trump’s victory and angered by his presidency, more women have sought office and have become politically engaged through groups like Positively Blue, which Stephanie Pyser and a small group of friends started after the 2016 election in a suburban neighborhood that traditionally has leaned Republican.
She said Trump’s rhetoric about the suburbs amounted to “scare tactics.”
“He’s desperate and trying anything to get suburban women to vote for him,” Pyser said. “We have grown our group from three people to 600 — these are suburban women who are against Trump. A lot of these women were not involved in politics prior to Trump being elected, so it’s put a fire under them to get involved.”
Yet she also knows plenty of people who support the President — Trump yard signs are on her block — so she can see the fiercely competitive race every day, unlike some Democrats who may not know or live near Trump voters.
“I’ve had a number of women tell me, ‘I hate Trump, I hate what he says, I hate his tweets, but I don’t want to live in a socialist country,’ ” Pyser said, recalling a common critique she hears of the Democratic Party. “We’re not going to convert any Trump supporters, but we can find those people that are on the fence, independents and Republicans who are just fed up with the way the country is being run.”
In the aftermath of the GOP convention, where Republicans sought to brand Biden and the Democratic Party as radical, one Trump supporter after another expressed that very concern during conversations here. Several Republican voters said they saw Biden as a placeholder for a party with an agenda they viewed as extreme.
“The Democratic Party is not what it used to be,” said Gina Heffner, who stopped to talk as she ran errands on a recent afternoon. “I think it’s extremely liberal and I think it’s scary. I think it’s got a very socialist vibe. I think our country will be in great danger.”
She also believes Trump deserves to win reelection based on his record from his first term, saying: “I don’t think you can question what he’s done for the country. I think it’s been phenomenal.”
She and other Trump supporters also echoed the President’s attacks on absentee and mail-in voting. She said she fears the election could be rife with fraud, a suggestion that local election officials here said was simply unfounded.
Anthony Saadey, deputy director of the Delaware County Board of Elections, said absentee ballot requests have already increased dramatically. All registered voters in Ohio will receive absentee ballot request forms, which they can send in and ask that ballots be mailed to them. People can also vote in person during 30 days of early voting or on Election Day.
“People should vote however they feel comfortable,” said Saadey, who added, “Your vote is safe. It’s always been safe in Delaware County.”
No Republican in modern times has reached the White House without winning Ohio. And the last Democrat to win the presidency without carrying Ohio is John F. Kennedy.
Both of those historical points will be tested in November.
One of the biggest changes from 2016 — in Ohio and across the country — is how the last four years of the Trump presidency serve as a motivating factor. That sentiment reverberated through conversations with almost every voter here, regardless of how they view the President.
John Murphy, an ironworker, conceded that Biden was not his first choice among the field of Democratic candidates. But he said he would enthusiastically vote for him — because of Trump.
“We’re not voting for Biden, we’re voting against Trump,” Murphy said, stopping for a moment to talk after buying a cigar at a shop owned by Paxton, a Trump supporter. “I can’t see Trump in there anymore. And I think Joe is going to do a better job.”