The Ohio Democratic Debate Shows that Ohio is Still in Play for 2020

With more and more workers dropping their once powerful support for Donald TrumpTrump, the Ohio Democratic Party (ODP) is turning its eye to white suburban voters in Ohio, who overwhelmingly leaned right in 2016. Part of the Democratic National Committee’s (DNC) offensive for Ohio in 2020 was to hold a primary debate in suburban Ohio. They finally settled on Otterbein University in Westerville, OH, just 20 minutes outside of downtown Columbus. On Oct 15, thousands of journalists, partisans, and students descended upon the small liberal arts school to see 12 Democratic presidential candidates, the largest primary debate in American history, battle to charm the voters of Ohio (and the nation).

When then-presidential candidate Donald Trump took Ohio by only 51% of the vote in the watershed 2016 presidential election, the state and national Democratic Party immediately launched an offensive to reclaim the state in 2020. Since the late 1970’s, Ohio has been recognized nationwide as a swing state with no consistent partisan leaning, and both sides argue that they have the necessary votes to send the state in their favor. Many Democrats with boots on the ground in Ohio, like myself, are weary of the Democratic Party’s immediate optimism: in rural and industrial Ohio, of which Springfield is a tumultuous intersection of both, President Trump is still very much a rallying point.

The cracks are forming, though. Trump’s trade war with China has damaged profits for farmers and metal workers, many of whom have been left to fend for themselves in paying tariffs to export their goods. Trump’s rash decision-making style and realist approach to foreign policy has also cost him the support of many moderate Republicans and truly neutral independents, though those losses don’t necessary translate into Democratic votes next fall.

Beyond just its size, the Otterbein debate was a handful of firsts. It marked the first time far-left “woman of the people” Elizabeth Warren was a frontrunner for the primary, the first time billionaire Tom Steyer had made it to the debate stage and the first campaign event Senator Bernie Sanders, a self-avowed democratic socialist, had participated in since he suffered a heart attack two weeks prior.

The debate was also seen as a last-ditch effort for lesser-known candidates like Tulsi Gabbard, Amy Klobuchar, Corey Booker and Julian Castro to make an impression and gain traction in the polls. Frontrunners Elizabeth Warren, Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders and arguably Pete Buttigieg needed to consolidate support and prove that they were capable of managing the nomination.

As the president of Wittenberg’s chapter of College Democrats of Ohio, I had the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to attend the debate and meet several candidates. Being an as of yet undecided voter myself, I watched intently to eke out some understanding of who I might consider voting for when primary season rolls around in the early spring. As an audience member, I had the opportunity to see sides of the candidates that the cameras did not or would not catch.

The performances and reactions to the debate told me several things: first, OH is still in play for the Democrats in 2020. The scenario is perhaps not as optimistic as the ODP has made it out to be, but it is possible. With the cracks in Trump’s voter infrastructure crumbling and eyes, campaigns and dollars on Ohio like never before, Democrats can turn Ohio blue in 2020 with the right combination of grunt work and candidates. Perhaps it will need to be a perfect storm, but lightning can still strike.

Second, Republicans, and Trump in particular, are scared of losing Ohio. Trump’s own campaign team visited a handful of universities around Ohio on Sept 18 to launch the collegiate Trump Victory Leadership Initiative, urging college Republicans to do something in 2020. Just like the DNC, the RNC is pouring money into the state to maintain its lead both in the presidential election and in state and local elections. Without myself divulging too much trust in polling data, Republicans have seen the latest numbers — and Ohio looks very bad for them. They’re clearly worried about the increasingly real possibility of Ohio flipping in 2020.

Third, Democrats need to stop the bickering. While it is important to determine the optimal nominee in terms of policy, an equally important decision to make is finding a candidate who actually has the ability to mobilize lean Democrats, independents and even lean Republicans to vote blue. Minute policy questions and silly insults are not the way to define unity and moral superiority.

Fourth, anything is still possible. With over a year to go before Election Day 2020, every vote, name, and inch of ground forward for all parties is still completely up in the air. Both Democrats and Republicans are convinced that they will take the state next year. Until Nov 3, 2020, Ohio, and cities like Springfield will be subject to intense campaigning on both sides. For the sake of honest voting and decision making, I hope that people will set aside their partisan interests and cast a vote that is most beneficial for the people of Ohio and the people of the United States.

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