Listen to this article
Only a couple of months ago, Matt Borges, the chairman of the Republican party in Ohio, had plenty of reasons to feel pessimistic about the prospect that his state would propel Donald Trump to the White House.
First, the man he supported in the primary, Ohio governor John Kasich, refused to endorse Mr Trump as the party’s presidential nominee. Then, Mr Trump spent weeks over the summer veering wildly off message. And Mr Borges’s wife, Kate, would not let him hammer a Trump sign into the front lawn of their suburban Columbus home.
But as Mr Trump beat his Democratic rival Hillary Clinton in a succession of polls in the Buckeye State in September — driven by his move to moderate his rhetoric on the advice of his campaign manager — Mr Borges started to feel more confident that the New Yorker could become the first Republican to win Ohio since George W Bush in 2004.
“A few months ago, I was not saying that he would carry Ohio,” says the 44-year-old Mr Borges, who has urged Mr Trump to tone down his rhetoric and focus on attacking Mrs Clinton — advice the candidate appeared to be following until his outbursts after last week’s presidential debate.
Mr Trump has been campaigning heavily in Ohio — he held nine events in the state in September, compared to Mrs Clinton’s one — highlighting how essential it is for him to win the White House. No Republican has won the presidency without taking Ohio, and the last Democrat to enter the Oval Office without Ohio was John F Kennedy in 1960.
Located in the heart of the Rust Belt and 80 per cent white, Ohio’s demographics are in Mr Trump’s sweet spot. His promise to “Make America Great Again” by bringing back industrial jobs has resonated strongly in Ohio’s eastern counties, which have traditionally been heavily unionised Democratic enclaves. In the state’s Appalachian region — once the home to prosperous steel mills and coal mines — Democrats say they are frustrated that the party has prioritised social issues over efforts to boost their economic prospects.
Such sentiments are common in Mahoning County, once a powerhouse of steel production and a Democratic stronghold. Local Republicans sense an opportunity to change that this year.
Outside the Republican headquarters in Boardman, a town in Mahoning, a pick-up truck sports a sign imploring Democrats to “Cross Over, Vote for Trump”. Inside the building, which serves as the Trump campaign’s “victory” office, Mark Munroe, the county’s party chairman, says he was stunned by Mr Trump’s performance in Ohio’s March primary.
The results showed that 34,000 people had cast ballots in the Republican primary contest. “I was stunned because there were only 14,000 or 15,000 Republicans in Mahoning County,” he says. “That is pretty heady for a Republican county chairman who has been knocking his head against the wall for 40 years . . . in a heavily, heavily Democratic area.”
While Mr Kasich won Ohio in the primary, Mr Trump took Mahoning and the other eastern counties that run along the Ohio River. According to the Ohio secretary of state, more than 6,000 registered Democrats voted as Republicans in the 2016 primary, while another 21,000 voters with no affiliation came into the Republican fold.
Tom Mackall, the president of a coal mining company in Columbiana County, says Mr Trump “scares” him, but he will take a gamble because he sees no alternative. Mr Mackall, who has been forced to shut coal mines, says many people in the region were very angry when Mrs Clinton suggested more coal miners would go out of business amid a shift to renewable energy.
Who is winning in Ohio? Check our US poll tracker
Rich Birkhimer, a coal miner who Mr Mackall had to lay off last year, personifies the pressures in Appalachia. He says comments like Mrs Clinton’s and the fact that no one has helped people in his area is one of the reasons that his Democratic family are going to vote for Mr Trump in November. The Republican candidate has been heavily critical of trade deals such as the North American Free Trade Agreement, which remains deeply unpopular in the state.
At the Democrat headquarters in Mahoning, the challenge facing Mrs Clinton in the county of 231,000 people is obvious. The Saturday before the first presidential debate on September 26, four cast members from The West Wing visited Mahoning to help her effort to get out the vote. But the stars were met by only a few dozen volunteers. On Monday, Mrs Clinton made her first appearance in Ohio in almost a month, and Bill Clinton heads there this week.
Brian Beck, one of the volunteers, says Mr Trump was peeling off Democrats not because voters preferred him to Mrs Clinton but because they were “fed up with career politicians” — a common view at Trump rallies.
Sitting in the Republican headquarters in Columbiana, Dave Johnson, the party chairman, cites another piece of evidence that Mr Trump is sparking more excitement in the region: Republican officials are selling Trump yard signs for $4 or $5. Usually, they struggle to give them away.
Mr Johnson has been forced to lay off workers and close factories in his family’s ceramics business because of low-cost competition from China and Mexico. He says Republicans and Democrats see something in Mr Trump that gives them hope. “There is something different about this guy. It is kind of like Brexit in England,” says Mr Johnson.
Taking the bait on the female vote
While Mrs Clinton will struggle in parts of eastern Ohio, she has an advantage with another segment of the electorate: women voters.
Her campaign hopes she can press that advantage even further after Mr Trump stirred up more controversy last week. After she baited him in the first presidential debate by referring to Alicia Machado, a former Miss Universe winner whom he had once called “Miss Piggy”, he embarked on a week-long tirade, which included tweeting that the former beauty queen had filmed a sex tape — an allegation that has not been proved.
Speaking after the debate, Mr Borges was once again exasperated with his candidate’s rhetoric. “Hillary Clinton is a criminal, she is a liar. She is the ultimate establishment figure in a change election,” says Mr Borges. “It was beginning to look like a safe bet that she wouldn’t win. What I don’t understand is why we are talking about anything that does not help us win over the next five weeks . . . Why are we talking about sex tapes?”
Such concerns resonate in places like Delaware, a Republican county north of Columbus, where Mr Trump performed worst in the Republican primary.
Rachel Laing, a former prosecutor in Delaware, has opened the Ohio chapter of “Republican Women for Hillary”. She says her choice came down to “values over party” due to Mr Trump’s stance on women. “You can’t downplay his life-long pattern of commenting on women,” she says. “It is derogatory and insulting.”
At a Clinton campaign event in Delaware, Ann Marie Thomas, a teacher, says she is volunteering because she feels Mr Trump is not qualified to be president, and scares her in a way that Mitt Romney didn’t in 2012.
But Sara Marie Brenner, Delaware county chairman for the Trump campaign, says most Republican women will back the candidate because they are more concerned about the kind of liberal judges that Mrs Clinton would appoint to the Supreme Court.
Cheryl Grossman, an Ohio Republican state representative, agreed that many Republicans who are wary about Mr Trump will eventually support him because of the Supreme Court. She added that there was more support for Mr Trump among women than people realised because some fans were “keeping their cards close to their chest because he is so abrasive”. But some Clinton supporters argue that a similar phenomenon is occurring in Republican areas where women do not want to advertise the fact that they are preparing to vote for Mrs Clinton instead of their party candidate.
Bob Paduchik, a veteran Ohio strategist hired by Mr Trump to run his campaign in the state, also dismisses suggestions that the candidate has suffered with Republican women, pointing out that he has made big gains recently. “If you look at the polling and see the advancements that we’ve made over the last several weeks, those are the Republican base voters who that are coming home to support Mr Trump.”
Falling out of step
One factor that will help determine the Ohio race is how good the campaigns are at getting voters to the polls. Mr Trump was widely perceived to have had a slow start building a ground game in Ohio, partly mirroring his weak efforts nationally, but also because some Republicans close to Mr Kasich were nervous about angering the governor. In interviews with dozens of Republicans and Democrats in Ohio, opinion is divided over whether Mr Kasich’s failure to support the candidate would hurt Mr Trump in the state.
Doug Preisse and Robert Klaffky, two Kasich advisers, say the governor was not interfering in the campaign. Mr Preisse, who is Republican chairman of Franklin County, says he was doing everything asked by the Trump campaign. But he says they are less integrated with the party’s state organisation.
“It worked for [Trump] to be a loner in the primaries. In a sense that approach is informing the general election too. Might work,” says Mr Preisse. Mr Klaffky adds that the Trump campaign is now “starting to look more like a traditional campaign, but just smaller”.
One person close to the Clinton team says her rival should not be underestimated. He notes that Mr Trump had “just as sophisticated” an operation to use data to identify voters as the Clinton team and has an experienced campaign hand in Mr Paduchik. He adds that it is crucial for the Clinton campaign to get out the African-American vote, a group that tends to vote Democrat.
John Green, a politics expert at the University of Akron, says Mr Trump has struggled with white suburban women and professionals, but support for him among those groups had risen before the debate.
“What is making the difference is that some of these traditional Republican constituencies are much more open to voting for Trump,” he says. “The gender gap has narrowed. His support among college-educated voters has increased. His support in the suburbs looks better . . . but he is still getting the Appalachian vote.”
Kyle Kondik, author of The Bellwether: Why Ohio Picks the President, says the state has long been one of the best gauges of the election as shifts in Ohio tended to mirror changes nationwide.
But as the rest of the US becomes more ethnically diverse, that parallel is slowly changing. Mr Kyle says Mr Trump could win Ohio but lose the election — which has only happened twice in the state in the past 124 years.
Mike Curtin, a Democratic state representative and former deputy editor at the Columbus Dispatch, says Mr Trump is doing well partly because Ohio is less representative of modern America. Recent census data show that Ohio is 82 per cent white compared with 73 per cent nationally, while Hispanics make up 3 per cent of the population compared with 17 per cent for the country.
“The US continues to become more diverse, but Ohio lags behind badly,” says Mr Curtin. “This is the major reason that Ohio’s longstanding reputation as a political bellwether is eroding.”
The demographic trends appear to be pushing Ohio more Republican. According to state data, each of its 88 counties has become more Republican over the past four years.
Urban counties, such as the ones containing the cities of Columbus, Cincinnati and Cleveland, have seen a 7-10 per cent shift from the Democrats, while Mahoning and Columbiana were near the top at 22 per cent.
In most swing states, including Florida and Colorado, Mrs Clinton has gained since the first presidential debate. But the latest Quinnipiac poll — the only survey in Ohio over the past week — shows Mr Trump with a five-point lead, mainly because his advantage with white men and independents outweighs her support from women.
Mr Borges is hoping that Mr Trump will not damage his chances with the same kind of rhetorical antics that were on display in the debate and over the past week. “I have a feeling that we will have another conversation sometime soon. It is my duty to not just sit on my hands and not speak up,” says Mr Borges.
But there is one thing that he cannot fix. Asked if his wife was still unwilling to allow a Trump sign on the lawn after the debate, Mr Borges responds with a simple “Yes”.