CINCINNATI – During a background briefing with reporters in December, President Donald Trump's reelection campaign team gave only passing mention of Ohio. Certainly no one suggested a full-scale fall advertising strategy for the state he carried convincingly in 2016.
But less than four months until this November's election, Trump is facing an unexpectedly competitive landscape in Ohio because he has lost ground in metropolitan and suburban areas, threatening the overwhelming advantages he has in rural areas, state data show.
Trump's campaign has budgeted $18.4 million in television advertising in Ohio for this fall, second only to Florida, according to campaign advertising tracking data.
Joe Biden, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, has named Aaron Pickrell, a former top Ohio adviser to Barack Obama's presidential campaign, as a senior strategist, Biden campaign officials said. Four other campaign staff members in the state were announced Friday. But the Biden campaign has not gone so far as to book its own television advertising in Ohio, where 18 electoral votes are at stake. Trump won Ohio by 8 percentage points four years ago.
Still, Trump's heavy investment in Ohio and a series of midterm and municipal government gains by Democrats since 2016 suggest the president probably will have even more difficult terrain in other pivotal states in the industrial heartland — Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin — that he won by much smaller margins.
“These are all big, flashing warning signs,” said former Obama senior adviser David Axelrod. “If he were a patient, and you were a doctor, you’d look at this and say, ‘You’ve got problems, buddy.’”
Republican presidential candidates have been steadily losing support in Ohio's once reliably GOP suburbs around Cleveland, Columbus and Cincinnati. But Trump's fall was particularly sharp, according to state voting data and census records compiled by Mike Dawson, a public policy consultant and creator of ohioelectionresults.com.
For instance, in the affluent northern Columbus-area suburb of Upper Arlington, Republican George H. W. Bush won by 34 percentage points in 1992. Twenty years later, Republican Mitt Romney's winning margin there was 8 percentage points. In 2016, Trump lost Upper Arlington to Hillary Clinton by 16 percentage points.
A similar picture emerged in the 10 wealthiest suburbs outside Cleveland in Cuyahoga County. In Franklin County outside Columbus, Trump lost nine of the 10 most affluent suburbs, a sharp decline from other Republicans over the past 24 years.
The trend was worst in suburban Hamilton County outside Cincinnati, where Trump's losing margin in the 10 richest suburbs was at least 50% of Republicans' total decline since 1992.
“College educated suburbanites in Ohio, particularly college educated women, were not as supportive of the president in 2016 as they’ve traditionally been of Republican presidential nominees, and that will continue in 2020," said Karl Rove, senior adviser to President George W. Bush's presidential campaign in 2004, when the Republican won election in part by narrowly carrying Ohio. “Trump has a problem with them.”
Andrea Granieri, 34, from the eastern Cincinnati suburb of Anderson Township, had been a lifelong Republican, until Trump.
“I could not vote for Donald Trump. I just couldn’t do it," Granieri said, noting the explanation she would owe her two children some day. “I could not endorse the way he talks to people and how he talks about people."
Still, Rove said that Trump maintains a clear path to carrying Ohio: “It’s to repeat his 2016 performance in 2020."
That includes matching and, in some instances, exceeding his overwhelming margins in the GOP-heavy counties along the Indiana border and the struggling industrial Mahoning River Valley corridor and along the Ohio River to the south.
But Rove said Trump must also “do what he did in 2016 in suburban Cincinnati, Dayton, Cleveland and Columbus."
History suggests that's going to be hard, some Ohio Republicans say.
“Can the electoral leakage for Republicans in these first- and second-ring suburbs continue to be offset by running up the score along the Ohio River?” said former state Republican Party Chair Kevin DeWine, a former state representative and second cousin to Republican Gov. Mike DeWine. “We have to be honest as Republicans and say we are dangerously close to that tipping point.”
During an August 2018 special election, Danny O'Connor came within 1,700 votes out of more than 200,000 of becoming the first Democrat in 36 years to win Ohio's 12th Congressional District, which includes once solidly Republican Delaware County. Trump came to campaign for O'Connor's opponent, Rep. Troy Balderson, and helped pull him to victory.
Democrats continued making inroads in 2018, picking up six suburban state legislative seats.
That November, Erik Yassenoff, in losing his bid for a northern Columbus-area district, became the first Republican candidate for Ohio General Assembly to lose Upper Arlington.
“I think you’re seeing people in the suburbs align more with the urban populations," Yassenoff said.
Ohio Democratic Party Chair David Pepper has watched as younger, educated and often more racially and ethnically diverse families have sought the top schools and other comforts of Ohio's booming suburbs since the mid-2000s.
The trend was especially clear last year as Democrats scored victories in local suburban elections.
"This is where the fundamental shift has happened, what used to be the base of the Republican Party, these larger, generally white-collar suburbs around Cincinnati, Columbus and Cleveland and Akron," Pepper said.
In Yassenoff's Upper Arlington, voters elected their first Democrats to its City Council. In nearby Hilliard, Democrats won their first seat on the City Council in three decades. There were similar Democratic municipal gains in Republican-leaning suburbs around Toledo and Dayton, as well as in communities outside Cleveland.
Perhaps most telling, southeast of Columbus in the old Republican suburb of Reynoldsburg, Democrats swept the municipal elections and elected three Black female council members, a first for the city.
“What it tells us is that more people are becoming engaged and involved," said Meredith Lawson-Rowe, among the new Reynoldsburg council members.
Even as Trump’s standing began to fall after the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, Ohio was not seen as a concern, campaign officials said. But polls in other states showing close races in Iowa, Georgia and even Texas have also now shaken the firm grip on Ohio.
Biden's team and national Democrats think they can compete at a minimum to force Trump to defend Ohio, perhaps with money that could be spent in its must-win regional neighbors.
Spokesman David Bergstein of the Democratic National Committee put it simply: “I’d say Trump is clearly facing headwinds in Ohio and he’s being squeezed."
Beaumont reported from Des Moines, Iowa. Associated Press writer Jonathan Lemire in Washington contributed to this report.