Bernie Fell Short In Ohio

[ Posted Thursday, May 12th, 2016 – 17:01 UTC ]

Bernie Sanders, once again, is enjoying a resurgence of attention, after handily winning West Virginia's primary earlier this week. He'll likely pick up Oregon next week, and even has a good shot at Kentucky as well. If he hasn't dropped out by then, he's even got a decent chance to upset Hillary Clinton in the biggest blue state of all, California.

But in the midst of all this optimism for Bernie, the fact remains that he's still very likely to lose the race for the nomination. At the moment, Sanders has won 19 state primary contests, while Clinton has won 23. He'll win more delegates than any populist challenger in the Democratic Party since Teddy Kennedy (if you consider Teddy a populist, that is -- some do, some don't). He'll likely win three times as many delegates as Howard Dean, John Edwards, or Jesse Jackson ever managed -- Sanders already has more delegates than all three of these candidacies combined, in fact. That's impressive, and he'll only build on this total the longer he stays in the race.

But I can't help but keep wondering if things might have been different for Bernie if he had flipped the one state that Republicans always obsess over. If Bernie had won Ohio, could the ultimate outcome have been different?

Here's the map which has been giving rise to these thoughts. It's from Wikipedia (click on it to see their bigger version), and it is a compilation of all those county-level maps we've been watching on all the primary nights so far. Here, county by county, is how the voting has gone for Democrats this year. Bernie's wins, obviously, are colored green.

In general, that's a pretty stunning north/south divide. If you examine things closer, there is also a pronounced urban/rural divide as well (look at New York, for instance, which Hillary won by 16 points, but which is almost solid green outside of New York City).

There are a few caveats worth mentioning, however. Caucus states tend to be overwhelming victories, no matter who wins, and some states (Kansas, notably) don't report data by county. Even so, that's a pretty stark division. Bernie does better the further north you travel. Hillary does better the further south you go. Bernie generally also does better the further west you go.

This division isn't perfect, of course (nothing is). Bernie won Oklahoma, but didn't make any inroads into Texas. Bernie has done very well in the West, but Hillary won Nevada and Arizona. Bernie's biggest early embarrassment was probably losing Massachusetts, which borders his home state of Vermont (and is the biggest prize in New England).

Still, to me the glaring anomaly on that map is Ohio. Early on, Bernie got his biggest boost by surprising everyone by winning Michigan. In this case, Hillary couldn't rack up enough votes in urban areas to beat Bernie's big win in the rural districts. The polls didn't predict it, which left the pundits completely stunned. One week later, five states voted. Hillary won all of them: Florida, Illinois, Missouri, North Carolina, and the bellwether state of Ohio.

But while Hillary had healthy margins in Florida and North Carolina, Illinois was very close and her margin in Missouri was razor-thin (around 1,500 votes out of over 600,000 cast). But the state everyone was watching the closest was Ohio. Michigan and Ohio are similar in demographic makeup and their economies are both still heavily invested in the auto industry. So the big question was whether Bernie's appeal in Michigan could spill over into Ohio.

Looking at the map, it obviously didn't. Hillary not only won by 13 points (56-43), she also managed to win just about every county. She won almost all the rural counties as well as the coal country counties in the southeast of the state.

Which brings me to this article's premise. Of course (to get all the metaphors out of the way, up front), playing "woulda, coulda, shoulda" is always easy, since it is nothing more than Monday-morning quarterbacking, with perfect 20-20 hindsight vision. Yadda, yadda, yadda. I get it.

But suppose there had been two (or even three) weeks between Michigan and Ohio. What could Bernie have done with enough time and a big Michigan victory in his sails? Since that time, Bernie has chalked up impressive victories in neighboring Indiana and West Virginia. The Illinois map looks similar, and to a lesser extent so does Pennsylvania.

In politics (as in most things), nothing succeeds like success. If Bernie Sanders had been able to effectively make the case that he was the better candidate to take on the Republicans in the fall, and that he had a better plan for taking the country forward, Michigan might have been the start of a bigger wave of support than the one he's seen recently. Plainly put, people like to vote for a winner. If a candidate is seen as having a better chance of winning, it's easier to vote for him or her. "Waves" do happen among the voting public, and sometimes they develop in the final few days before an election (ask any pollster, they'll tell you).

We'll know soon enough (next Tuesday) how valid all this speculation might be. If Bernie wins in Kentucky, then Ohio will become an island surrounded by green in that map. It'll become more obvious how important it was to ultimately winning the Democratic nomination.

Let's give full wing to this flight of fancy. Let's say Bernie not only won Ohio, but also managed a slim victory in Missouri as well. Perhaps he could have even taken Illinois -- which would have been crushing for Clinton, since it's one of her home states. The news media narrative would have shifted to reflect this reality, and Clinton would have been dogged by stories about how she couldn't win the states Democrats were going to need in November. Of the states which have voted consistently Democratic in the past six elections, Hillary would only have won one (Massachusetts), while Bernie would have five in his column (Minnesota, Vermont, Maine, Illinois, and Missouri). Even without flipping Missouri and Illinois, Bernie would have been stronger in this regard. "Why Can't Hillary Win Blue States?" would become the go-to headline, at that point.

After Ohio voted, Bernie went on to win six of the next seven contests. It's not inconceivable that he could have done much better in the mid-Atlantic primaries which followed this string of victories. New York was probably always out of reach (Clinton's real home state, these days), even if Bernie did manage to paint the state's county map an overwhelming green. But Pennsylvania might have been within reach, if some of those western counties had voted the way Michigan and Ohio had.

Once again, "what might have been" is an easy game to play. Bernie, sadly, didn't win Ohio, so we'll never know. But, looking at that map, I still wonder why he didn't do better in the Buckeye State. If he had a message that spoke to people in Michigan, West Virginia, and Indiana (and, possibly, Kentucky), it is hard to understand why that message didn't resonate better in Ohio. Perhaps Clinton just had a far superior campaign organization there, or perhaps Sanders just didn't have enough time to get his message out to enough people (before Michigan, most of the press was still treating Bernie's campaign like a joke).

We'll never know what might have been for Bernie Sanders, in an alternate universe where he won the state of Ohio. Or, perhaps, if Ohio had voted a little bit later in the game. Ohio itself likes to brag that it is the key state in every presidential election, and there is a certain degree of truth to this boast. Since the Republican Party was founded, no Republican has ever won the White House without winning Ohio. Not one. Democrats have managed this feat, but even today it is almost impossible to put together a plausible 270-vote majority in the Electoral College for any Republican candidate without adding in Ohio.

So all I'm really saying (by pondering what might have been) is whether Ohio was also the key state in the Democratic primary race this year. Perhaps in the future, Democratic candidates will plan for this (especially a hypothetical future progressive candidate). No matter where Ohio falls on the primary calendar next time around, it's pretty obvious that it's worth expending some major resources in Ohio, for any campaign that wants to win. When all the counting is done, it's looking like Ohio will be seen as a key turning point in 2016. It could even wind up being considered by historians as the point where Bernie fell short, and Hillary cemented her lead.

-- Chris Weigant


Follow Chris on Twitter: @ChrisWeigant


5 Comments on “Bernie Fell Short In Ohio”

  1. [1] 
    Paula wrote:

    It's funny -- I live in Ohio and I like it, but can't really understand why it has the significance it does politically...

  2. [2] 
    nypoet22 wrote:


    there are a number of reasons why ohio is more politically balanced left to right than any other state in the nation. for starters, it's near the junction of the northeast, south, canada, midwest and appalachia. from columbus it's a six hour drive to chicago, saint louis and nashville, seven to philly and toronto, even closer to pittsburgh and indy. so it gets cultural diffusion from many major centers. there's probably a deeper history to ohio's bellweather status, but i don't know it.


  3. [3] 
    Speak2 wrote:

    Hey, CW, you mention the string of victories Sanders had after Ohio. It was actually more than that (like 10 of 11, if we count Dems abroad or something).

    However, the population of his entire string combined is barely larger than the population of the state of Florida.

    That's important.

  4. [4] 
    TheStig wrote:

    Paula - 1

    18 electoral votes and neither party owns it with respect to Presidential Elections. One of the few states where your vote really matters - for POTUS at least, not your gerrymandered House of Reprobates.

  5. [5] 
    Michale wrote:

    Speaking of Ohio...

    Hillary already worrying about Ohio — and it’s only May

    Trump is not going to be the cake walk ya'all want to believe he is...

    President Trump is slowly becoming a frightening reality, eh? :D


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