Driving from Cleveland to Cincinnati along the I-71 is one of the harder drives to make, despite the fact that it isn't that long. I made it with my mother in 2013, content after a night at a baseball game in Cleveland and a morning at the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame. I love Cleveland, a take that always ends with me being mocked, and Cincinnati is a delightful city. I fell in love with the state.
Driving back from Cincinnati to Canton, Ohio, we decided to take a more rural set of roads, going east from Cincy before heading north to Columbus before heading directly to Canton. It was the south, for all intents and purposes, whatever anyone ever says about the state. Driving the I-71, there was a safety to the state, a trio of bustling cities that made me feel like I was in a kindred place - a feeling that was rare for a still-mostly closeted gay kid who had never known another gay person. Walking in downtown Cincinnati, I saw a version of my future - our best meal of the trip was a taco shop right by the water, and by the ball stadium, and seated nearby was a gay couple - a pair of professionals with their jackets off, ties loosened, and not noticeably gay to anyone who wasn't actively looking for it. Except, as I sat there, out to a few friends at school but not, notably, to my mother, it was everything. It made me feel like my future could actually work out, a depressingly rare occurrence.
Driving in the south of the state was more than a wake up call, it was a slap in the face. At lunch in some middle of nowhere diner, it seemed like every conversation was either about how terrible Black people are or how bad gay people are. Then-President Obama was a frequent critic, being called the N word more times than I wish to remember (at least a half dozen, if I recall correctly). Homosexuals - or, more accurately to the discussions being had, fairy faggots - were the real danger, though, as we were corrupting the world.
I didn't think Hillary would win Ohio in 2016, but that wasn't because I had some strong math-based rationale for it. I just didn't think she'd do as well as Obama had, so that meant Ohio was going. I was stunned by the result, though - an 8% drubbing - although that was a delayed reaction once I got over the fact that the GOP had, in fact, won.
This year I believed it was a swing state, and with little confidence, thought Biden could win it. I bought both the notion that Ohio could be a perfect Biden state - outrun Hillary wildly with suburban whites, as all polls said he would, and draw on the old Scranton background to outrun Hillary in the rurals. The logic made sense, and then it turned out that his suburban support wasn't nearly as strong as we thought. Go through the map, however, and you will see that Biden's worst counties compared to Hillary were all south of the I-71 - a line of demarcation that seems to explain a lot of the problems for Democrats.
Whether these voters are Republicans, or merely Trump voters, I don't know. But I do know that it shouldn't surprise me that they are still swinging to the GOP, that the Democrats can still bleed in places like this. It shouldn't surprise me that the county where I heard that language went from Trump +27 in 2016 to Trump +35 in 2020, all a great improvement on Mitt Romney's sub-2% win in 2012.
Obama was clearly the cause of much of that - a singular politician for the midwest, clearly - but it says something about the fights that politics used to be about. The men - and yes, it was mostly men - who were ranting about how people like me were coming for their sons, turning good ol Christian boys gay with our evils and sins… plenty of them voted for Obama. They have to have done so, there's no other way to make sense of it. Whether those voters were happy with Obama or just annoyed by the corporate cronyism of the Bush years I can't say, but it's clear that many of these voters voted against their cultural or social views - and now, that's over.
None of this is limited to Ohio, nor did it start with Donald Trump. But there's a difference between a theoretical understanding of the realignment, and having seen it in front of my eyes. That day should have been the moment I realized how in danger Democrats were - and, arguably, still are - in the midwest. Places like this are gone, and Ohio is going away from us. From voting ~1% right of the US in 2012, it voted 10% right in 2016 and just under 13% left in 2020 - a stunning collapse of Democratic fortunes. Drive up to Michigan and you'll find many counties not dissimilar from where I had to sit through a Bigot's Guide To The Universe, and those counties will have seen the same shifts.
It is long passed time for the Democratic Party to move on from places like Ohio and move them on, and focusing on the new, ascendant Democratic coalition has to be a huge priority for the party. Other than saving Sherrod Brown in 2024, no money should be spent on partisan statewide races in the state, and every effort to fortify the new coalition - Arizona, Georgia, and yes, Texas - has to be a higher priority than an ego-laden vanity project around increasingly red states. Rob Portman's retirement merely opens up a free Senate seat in a state that voted 13% right of the nation - which nobody should act like is particularly winnable. Waste time on Ohio and Iowa, and the Democratic Party will deserve its fate. No centre left party anywhere in the world has figured out how to stop the bleed of places like Ross County, Ohio rightward, and nobody is going to. It's a disaster for the party, but what's worse is trying harder to stop it than to build up the next Ohio.
2020 will be properly remembered as the election where a state that was crucial for decades faded into pure political obscurity. What it should also be remembered for is the moment when the Democratic Party decided to stop going for the votes of people they cannot still win and focused on those they could win. I have no idea whether Democrats will have the intestinal fortitude to do it, but winning Ohio seems like it is off the table for the next while, and just because it's giving us a notionally appealing target - an open Senate seat in an Obama state! - doesn't mean we should deny reality. Ohio is an incredibly hard lift even without Portman on the ballot, and nobody should delude themselves into thinking it's a good target. It's not.