Evan Scrimshaw: What's the play in Ohio?

(Evan returns to talk about why I managed to get him to scrap an entire column on Democrats facing doom in Ohio.)

"Tim Ryan will lose, probably by 4-6%, and if Democrats were to run someone else they'd lose by 10%. Ohio is a red state now, and one I still maintain is trending against us, and no amount of effort is going to change that fundamental truth. Tim Ryan is running, and God bless him for it, I guess. But let's not delude ourselves into thinking he has much, if any, of a chance. He's just this cycle's Rob Oakeshott - running too late, and whose chances of victory were always running on empty."

That was going to be the last paragraph of a column I was going to run over at Scrimshaw Unscripted, about how Tim Ryan's run for Senate in Ohio was going to end in defeat, no matter how much effort Democrats expend on the task. It was classic Scrimshaw - not in that it was something the greatest thing I had ever written, but it was an extended riff on the similarities between Ryan's precarious position and a former Independent member of the Australian Parliament - and yes, the metaphor made sense. The relevant part of it was that I was dead certain that Ryan was drawing dead, and that he had no chance to win (barring getting to run against Roy Moore or whatever). And then, in its place, I ran an extended rant and how the US Senate plays by the rules of Calvinball.

What changed? Well, I didn't believe my own argument anymore.

I have argued that 2020 was not about voters changing their minds to a more GOP friendly position than they held in 2018, but that of increased turnout. You can see it in Ohio - college white voters stayed consistent from the 2018 Governor's race to the Presidential race in 2020, while whites without a degree became Trumpier. What happened was the proportion of the electorate that was white without a degree went up from 52% to 55%, pushing margins from a 25% loss to a 29% one. Both logic and anecdotal evidence dictate that those surge voters broke more heavily for the President, meaning that as those lowest propensity voters exit the electorate, non-degree whites will be both less important, as a share of the electorate, but also more Democratic - as, again, those whites leaving were more pro-Trump than the group as a whole.

This is my argument for why Democrats are slight favourites in Wisconsin and fairly sizable ones in Pennsylvania, and it's even why I'm much more bullish than consensus on North Carolina. And yet, in Ohio, I was willing to dismiss it - I had thought about it, but, it couldn't happen, right. No way. I was right, and it was a fool's errand.

And then Lak decided to argue with me.

The path of Hyper Elastic territory down in the South East of the state? It's all of Democrats' worst areas, and the areas where they are currently bleeding the worst. It is the area where I had a deeply unpleasant lunch some years ago, an area full of social conservatives who think gay men are corrupting their straight sons. It's full of places that moved 20%, 30% in 8 years, from Romney's loss to Trump's win, and it's the kind of place where I don't have reason to believe Democratic messaging will accomplish anything. But that wasn't Lak's argument - his argument was that they aren't going to turn out like they did in 2020, which is obviously a hard argument for me to refute, when I have been making the very same point for the last two months.

Looking at his county elasticity map, it's clear that the path exists - low turnout and Tim Ryan getting some residual ticket-splitting in the rural southeast, big Black turnout in Cleveland, Columbus, and Cincinnati, and the suburbs of those three cities - especially Cincinnati - snapping left. It's not a super easy path, but it exists.

Part one of that is simple - rural whites didn't turn out in the same number in Georgia's runoffs as they did in November, even with the then-President holding control of the news cycle at all times and the high stakes of them. More long term, Whites without a degree made up 44% of the electorate nationally in 2016, 40% in 2018, and 43% in 2020. These voters just don't turn out in midterms, off year, and special elections like they do for the President, a fact that Lak's map shows as well.

Can Tim Ryan get some residual love with white working class voters? I have no idea, but he's the only chance Democrats in the state have, and many of these voters did vote for the Democratic State Supreme Court judge despite electing Trump overwhelmingly on the same ballot, so maybe? This one is unclear, and will frankly be so for a while, given the lack of faith I have in US polling to show anything resembling reality.

Can the suburbs snap left? Maybe. I know many people like to think of political realignments as a gradual process, but Ross County went from Romney +1 to Trump +25 in four years, so there's no reason to think that Democrats would find it impossible to outrun Richard Cordray's 2018 suburban margins by the roughly dozen points they'd  need to - especially since Democrats have already done it once, in the Sherrod Brown 2018 race.

This is all wildly optimistic, I'm aware - and stitching together rural revivals and suburban strength is hard to pull off. But, it's not an impossible task. The GOP would probably need to run an actively bad candidate to push the race out of Likely R, and I'm quite sure the first and only time I would ever believe Tim Ryan had won was once DDHQ had theoretically called the race for him. And yet, I've managed to be pulled from thinking the race was an unwinnable money pit to thinking that it's worth the effort. We'll probably lose, I'm sure, but I'm no longer nihilistic about Democratic prospects.

This is, also, how electoral discourse should work, not that it does, very often. I joked on Twitter that I hated Lak, but it should have been obvious to anyone who knew both of us that I wasn't serious - and this is how you should be. We shouldn't hold these immensely strong opinions about what will happen with elections almost two years out, and arrogant certainty is a disaster. Loosely held priors - situations are fluid, but the incentives of Discourse and Punditry are warped to the point of disincentivizing this kind of opinion change - and, certainly, to disincentivize being so public about it.

We will all get many things wrong in the course of the next 21 months, that's how this works. Smart people at prestigious institutions have been comically wrong in recent cycles, as have I. What matters isn't how you do, it's what you learn. Old, 2020 me would have stood by my argument out of arrogance and petulance. Now? It's a lesson in how to do a hard job just a bit better.


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