In August Ohio voters rejected “Issue 1” a proposed constitutional amendment which would have increased the threshold for amending the state’s constitution. The vote – which was a precursor to a further referendum on abortion rights in the state – has been seen by some commentators as good news for the Democratic Party in Ohio heading into the 2024 elections. Examining changing voting patterns in the state since 2000, Kevin Fahey writes that the referendum’s outcome may have been driven by the Republican “No” vote and a maximized pro-choice vote. These factors, combined with the sharp turn to the right in many areas of the state, mean that the state may not expand abortion rights this year or turn to the Democrats in 2024.
- This article is part of ‘The 2024 Elections’ series curated by Peter Finn (Kingston University). Ahead of the 2024 election, this series is exploring US elections at the state and national level. If you are interested in contributing to the series, contact Peter Finn (firstname.lastname@example.org).
On the 8th of August, 2023, Ohioans were asked to vote on a proposed constitutional amendment to the state constitution. This amendment, named “Issue 1,” would have raised the threshold of success for future constitutional amendments from 50 percent to 60 percent. It was widely seen as an attempt by the state legislature to block an expected, second, autumn amendment to protect and enshrine abortion rights in the state constitution. Moreover, the election took on clear partisan overtones, with Republicans campaigning for the amendment and Democrats against. Ultimately, the August amendment was rejected by voters, 57 to 43 percent.
Figure 1 – Maps showing the outcome of the 8 August 2023 referendum to change the Ohio Constitution’s amendment process from a majoritarian to a super-majoritarian system.
In the wake of the result, Democrats felt emboldened. The party, which had performed poorly in 2016, 2018, and 2020 – save Sherrod Brown’s re-election as senator – could credibly claim that the state was again competitive for national campaigns. Is this the case? In evaluating the results, Democratic optimism may be unwarranted.
Comparison of amendment results to presidential election results
On the surface, the amendment results appear to resurrect Democrats’ ‘’inverted C’’ coalition that was successful for the party in previous elections. Compare Biden’s 2020 result to Barack Obama’s win in 2008. Opposition to the amendment was strongest in Ohio’s Northeast, along with a few counties in the south of the state – notably the metropolitan counties of Cincinnati, Columbus, and Dayton. This resembles Barack Obama’s five-point win far more than Biden’s eight-point loss and suggests to Democrats that the party could win the coalition of voters who voted against this amendment.
Figure 2 – Ohio Democratic presidential election results in 2008 and 2020
Note: In 2008, Obama maintained some support among the remnants of the old ‘Inverted C’ coalition of New Deal Democrats. By 2020, this coalition had been replaced with the urban-rural divide seen elsewhere in the Midwest.
However, if you examine the counties that have shifted the most between the 2020 presidential election and the 2023 August result, more than a few counties trending away from the Democrats stand out. ‘No’ earned 57 percent of the vote, a 12-percentage point difference from Biden’s 45 percent in 2020. If we examine the 48 of Ohio’s 88 counties whose shift from Biden to ‘No’ was at least 12 percentage points – ostensibly those counties where Democrats believe they have the greatest opportunities – the contours of the state’s changing politics become more apparent.
Figure 3 – Map of Ohio, emphasizing counties that voted at least 12 percentage points more ‘No’ in the 2023 August constitutional amendment than the 2020 presidential election.
Note: Share of the vote for the 2020 election on the left, share of the No vote on the right.
Most counties that overperformed the average come from the state’s rural – and reliably Republican – south and west. Some counties – the suburbs of the three ‘C’ cities of Cleveland, Columbus, and Cincinnati – may represent actual pickup opportunities for the Democratic party, which is targeting suburban women. Many other counties, however, are solid Republican counties. This latter group are not likely to return to the Democrats – or to Democratic-affiliated policies. An historical analysis shown in Figure 4 below demonstrates how poorly Democrats have done in recent elections; as recently as 2012, former President Barack Obama was able to keep Republican margins in small rural counties low. This is reflected in the large number of counties where Democratic candidates overperformed the ‘No’ vote.
Figure 4 – Overperformance by county, comparing presidential elections, 2000-2020, to August 2023 constitutional amendment results.
Note: Counties ‘above’ the line are those where ‘No’ outperformed Democratic presidential candidates, while counties ‘below’ the line are those where Democratic presidential candidates outperformed the ‘No’ campaign. Dots are scaled to county electorate; larger dots reflect more individuals on voter rolls. Color refers to the size of the performance; the brighter the orange, the more ‘No’ overperformed Democratic presidential candidates, while the deeper the green, the better the Democratic presidential candidate overperformed relative to the ‘No’ campaign.
Alternative explanations for the “No” victory
Yet 2016 and 2020 upend this dynamic; in both elections, ‘No’ overperformed both Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden in every one of Ohio’s 88 counties. This suggests a structural problem with the state’s Democratic Party, but it may also hint at other plausible explanations for the ‘No’ campaign’s resounding victory. By examining a few counties closely, we can start to inspect these explanations.
In the following section I look at the nine counties where ‘No’ overperformed Biden by 15 percentage points or more and discuss their political trajectories since the 2000 election. There is clear evidence that Democrats should focus on suburban areas around major metros but should avoid trying to appeal to former ‘Inverted C’ counties in the state’s south and east.
Belmont, Coshocton, Hocking, Jackson, and Vinton counties provide us with an (albeit incomplete) picture of the changes happening to Ohio’s Appalachia region. Belmont (67,000 people) and Coshocton (37,000) are in the center-east of the state and have both seen long-term declines in their population as manufacturing, mining, and labor-intensive agriculture have all declined. Belmont’s largest city, Martins Ferry, has less than half its pre-WW2 population. To the south, Hocking (28,000), Jackson (33,000), and Vinton (13,000) counties have also seen large declines in population, likewise associated with the decline of manufacturing and mining sectors. Child poverty is high. Economic stress is similarly high.
Barack Obama and Donald Trump ran on appeals as outsiders to ‘shake up’ politics and change the economic trajectory of this region. Neither have succeeded in convincing Appalachian voters. While turnout in the 2020 presidential election rose by 6.5 percent nationally, in Ohio it only rose by 4 percent; turnout in these five counties was substantially below Ohio’s statewide turnout average of 65 percent. This indicates apathy towards politics and politicians, rather than any clear ideological lean to this region.
The 2023 August constitutional amendment likely fits this pattern of depopulation and low turnout. Pro-choice advocates likely turned out at larger-than-expected rates in these counties, while anti-abortion voters likely stayed home. Statewide turnout for the measure was 38.2 percent; in Coshocton and Hocking it was 36 percent, in Vinton turnout was 30 percent, and in Belmont and Jackson, 29 percent.
The takeaway is that pro-choice voters should not expect similar results to the August amendment in November, when a constitutional amendment to protect abortion rights is on the ballot. Raising the relevance of the amendment would likely increase turnout rates for anti-abortion voters, while pro-choice turnout may already be maximized.
Lake (population 232,000), Medina (182,000), and Portage (162,000) counties give us a sense of the changing nature of the Cleveland metropolitan area. Once a Democratic bastion, Northeastern Ohio has suffered with the decline of manufacturing. Unlike central Cleveland (Cuyahoga County, population 1.2 million), or nearby Summit and Mahoning counties (wherein reside the Rust Belt cities Akron and Youngstown) none of these counties have experienced a strong decline in population. As suburbs of Cleveland, they have survived the decline of manufacturing – Medina and Lake have some of the highest family incomes in the state.
These counties do not represent post-manufacturing- era Appalachia. Nor do these counties represent the ‘Old’ Republican party – wealthy, highly-educated suburbs of major cities, some of which have started to trend towards Democrats. Instead, what they have in common is racial homogeneity – all three counties are 94 percent White or higher as of the 2020 Census; they represent counties where racial resentment predicts support for Donald Trump and his fellow travelers.
Turnout for the 2023 August constitutional amendment was between 43 and 45 percent in Lake, Medina, and Portage; mirroring very high turnout rates in the 2020 presidential election. In all three counties, ‘No’ won in August, but Trump won in 2016 and 2020. It would be a gamble for Democrats to assume the turnout composition in August would mirror that of November, but another possibility remains: that reliably Republican voters turned out to vote against the Amendment not due to shifting views on abortion but as part of a tendency to vote against all constitutional amendments. The takeaway, then, is that pro-choice activists should be wary of campaigning in these communities in November, as they may drive up turnout among this ‘reflexive contrarian’ bloc.
Union County neighbors Delaware County, which is rapidly trending towards the Democrats. Like Delaware, Union County is experiencing a major population boom; between 1990 and 2020, the county doubled in size. This in in part due to the growth of Dublin, a Columbus suburb largely populated by highly educated professionals trending toward the Democrats. The county’s other town, Marysville, is also trending towards the Democratic party and has nearly tripled in size since 1990. These trends are occurring even as the rest of Ohio experiences population stagnation if not outright decline.
The line graph of these nine counties shown in Figure 5 is most revealing: in 2000, Union County was the least-Democratic of the group, whereas by 2020 it was the fourth-most Democratic. If Union County is trending towards the Democrats – delayed compared to Delaware, perhaps – then this represents an actual pickup opportunity for the party and where they should deploy their resources. Union County is emblematic of a set of counties in the Columbus-Dayton-Cincinnati southwest of the state where people are moving and having more children, and these new arrivals are more left-leaning.
Figure 5 – Democratic vote share in Ohio counties 2000-2020
Turnout in Union County was 44 percent, and in 2020 turnout surged 10.5 percentage points, from 67.8 percent to 78.3 percent. No county in Ohio had a larger increase in turnout. Union County may be a legitimate ‘pickup’ opportunity for pro-choice activists in November, mobilizing the younger, new-arrival demographic of the county, and ‘netting’ several thousand votes in what may be a close contest – although recent polling suggests that support for protecting abortion rights is quite high.
Pro-abortion turnout and the Republican “No”
While Democrats may have some opportunities to make gains in the suburbs around the cities of Cleveland, Columbus, and Cincinnati, the areas of the state that helped deliver the ‘’No’’ campaign’s resounding victory are not going to return to the Democratic fold. Instead, they are from parts of the state that have moved sharply to the right in recent decades.
I propose two possible – and complementary – explanations for the lopsided ‘’No’’ win. First, abortion rights politics in the country have shifted after Dobbs v. Jackson and now abortion proponents have an enthusiasm edge. This may contribute to higher Democratic, and lower Republican, turnout in elections, particularly lower-salience elections. While Ohioan Republicans may still turn out for Trump and statewide Republicans like Governor Mike DeWine, Democrats and left-leaning advocacy campaigns may overperform down-ballot or in special elections. This turnout gap might explain results such as safely-Republican Geauga (52 percent No) and Lake counties (58 percent No) in Ohio’s Northeast – who last voted for Democratic presidential candidates in 1964 and 2008, respectively.
The second explanation comes from a phrase of a friend from school, when I was growing up in Ohio: ‘Vote straight Republican and “No’’ on all the issues.’ A look at these results certainly could lend some credence to that phrase. A sizeable number of Republicans, employing a generations-old shorthand to conserve the past, may have voted against the proposed amendment in August. When abortion advocates campaign this autumn to protect abortion rights, they would do well to avoid over-interpreting one result. Doing so may increase turnout among this contrarian bloc of voters. Instead, abortion advocates should spend their resources in the Northeast and the urbanizing Columbus, Dayton, and Cincinnati metros if they hope to win.
If my analysis is incorrect, then activists should see success across the whole of the state, with support for protecting abortion rights outperforming Democratic candidates in 2022 and 2024 by a substantial margin. If, however, pro-abortion turnout was already maximized in August, and contrarian voters do exist in substantial numbers, then we should expect much lower support for this measure in Appalachia and the Cleveland exurbs, a far closer result than polling indicates.
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- Note: This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of USAPP – American Politics and Policy, nor of the London School of Economics.
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