Mike DeWine doesn’t resemble President Donald Trump in the least, but a snapshot of his Ohio victory last week is similar to Trump’s in 2016.
Tuesday’s gubernatorial election answered one question hanging from the presidential contest two years ago: Could anyone duplicate Trump’s big margins in rural Ohio while staving off Democrats in urban and suburban areas?
DeWine answered that question with a resounding “yes” — and it’s attributed at least in part to the president’s help.
“The Trump realignment is real,” said Dayton Mayor Nan Whaley, a Democrat, during an election postmortem last week.
It’s one point on which the parties agree.
“Mike DeWine’s victory followed a Trump pattern — he retained ground in traditional Democrat strongholds in Northeast Ohio that President Trump flipped in 2016, and he turned out rural Ohio voters in droves,” said Mandi Merritt, Ohio spokeswoman for the Republican National Committee.
“His support of Republican candidates had a noticeably positive impact on voter turnout, helping Governor-elect DeWine and many others across the country over-perform on Election Day,” she said.
That "Trump effect" over-performance was pivotal in DeWine's success. Sources from both campaigns said their final internal polls showed Democrat Rich Cordray ahead of or, at worst, tied with DeWine.
Trump rolled up seldom-seen margins in many areas of the state in 2016, but DeWine beat or came within 2 points of Trump’s totals in 41 of Ohio’s 88 counties, and he came within 4 points in 24 more. In Franklin County, DeWine's share of the vote was only 0.03 of a percentage point from Trump's amount. The 2018 totals will be finalized after provisional and remaining absentee ballots are counted.
In five of six Ohio regions, DeWine came within 1.6 points of Trump's percentage, calculations by election statistics analyst Mike Dawson show. The only exception was southeastern Ohio, where Cordray made inroads that Hillary Clinton did not. Still, DeWine won that area with 61 percent of the vote.
The closeness of DeWine's numbers to Trump's was especially noticeable in Ohio's large five metropolitan areas, with a difference of only 0.14 of a percentage point. For Franklin and surrounding counties, the variance was even smaller: 0.10 of a percentage point, according to figures from Dawson, who once worked for DeWine and whose wife is heading his transition team.
“It’s hard to transfer presidential enthusiasm to off-year gubernatorial elections,” said Aaron Pickrell, who couldn’t make it happen as Democratic Gov. Ted Strickand’s campaign manager in 2010 after Barack Obama won Ohio two years earlier. “But Trump managed to do that.”
Ohio Democratic Chairman David Pepper said it wasn’t just Trump’s visits to Ohio — including one the day before the election, in which DeWine for the first time appeared by the president’s side — but also the frenzied foment he generated using the hearings on Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh and labeling as a national threat the caravan of Central American refugees slowly winding its way toward the southern U.S. border.
Ohio Gov. John Kasich tweeted Friday afternoon: “A week before the election all voters heard about was the #caravaninvasion. Now, all that fear mongering has seemed to cara-vanished.”
But exit polls showed that Ohioans — more than 1,400 miles from the Mexican border — considered immigration as the No. 2 issue in Tuesday’s election, behind only health care. And among the 58 percent who said Trump’s immigration policies are about right, or not tough enough, DeWine won more than 80 percent.
The exit polls — conducted as voters departed polling places — showed that Ohio is more Republican than the country as a whole. And while U.S. voters overall gave Trump a 45 percent approval rating, 52 percent of Ohioans offered a thumbs up.
The polls also demonstrated that Ohio is older, less diverse and less educated than America.
Democrats lament that Cordray rolled up more than 2 million votes — fifth most in Ohio history — but still lost.
"We have to figure out ways to be able to communicate and appeal to a lot of these rural voters while still retaining the urban areas," Pickrell said.
He credited DeWine for walking the tight rope of lining up backing from outgoing Gov. John Kasich and finally appearing with Trump, Kasich's political enemy, at the end of the campaign. Pickrell also took note that Trump's children appeared in smaller cities around the state, while an ad showing Kasich's support was confined to carefully selected digital outlets.
"It wasn’t popping into somebody’s feed in Mercer County," Pickrell said of the rural county in western Ohio.
He pointed to the obvious exception to Tuesday's Democratic defeat, saying that Sen. Sherrod Brown should not only be the face of the Democratic Party nationally but also its 2020 presidential nominee.
The exit polls showed that 14 percent of those who voted for Brown crossed party lines to vote for DeWine.
"I think Sherrod knows how to go and relate to a lot of these white, working-class folks that we seem to have lost over time,” Pickrell said.
“We just have to figure out how to be relevant to folks and get in front of them.”
Columbus Dispatch reporter Jim Siegel contributed to this story.