How Donald Trump could win the vital swing state Ohio, but still lose the White House

The midwestern state is a must-win for the Republican candidate, but unusually for such a reliable electoral barometer it’s not so crucial for Hillary Clinton.

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“As Ohio goes, so goes the nation” – or so they say. No candidate from either party has won the White House without carrying the Buckeye State since John F Kennedy in 1960, and it’s regularly considered pivotal.

In 2004, it was so crucial that the Guardian urged its readers to write to Ohio voters, pleading with them to vote for John Kerry. It didn’t work: Kerry lost the state to George W Bush by just over 2 percentage points. Had he won it, he’d have won the election. When the networks called Ohio for Barack Obama in 2012, it clinched the election for him and sent Karl Rove into meltdown.

Ohio is important this year, too. Its 18 electoral votes make it the third largest swing state, behind only Florida and Pennsylvania. And it’s looking very close: Hillary Clinton currently leads by just 1.5 points according to FiveThirtyEight’s now-cast.

But Ohio might not matter as much on election day as that famous saying suggests. Although there’s a good chance that Trump will win Ohio (a 49 per cent chance, according to FiveThirtyEight’s polls-plus forecast), there’s also a good chance he’ll do so while losing the election.

That’s because Ohio is more Republican-leaning this election – relative to the country as a whole – than it has been since the days of JFK. In 2004, for example, Bush’s 2.1-point margin in Ohio was just slightly smaller than his 2.5-point margin nationally.

Obama carried Ohio twice, though by smaller margins than he won the national popular vote. In 2008, the state was 2.7 points more Republican than the country as a whole, while in 2012 it was 0.9 points more Republican.

This year, however, Clinton’s 1.5-point lead in Ohio is 4.5 points smaller than her six-point lead nationally in FiveThirtyEight’s now-cast. It’s one of a handful of swing states where Trump is actually polling closer to Clinton than Mitt Romney finished against Obama four years ago, despite doing worse nationally. (The others are Iowa, Maine, Michigan and Nevada.)

So why does Trump’s demagoguery seem to be going down better in Ohio than elsewhere? There are clues in the state’s demographics: 80 per cent of people in Ohio are white, compared to 62 per cent in the United States as a whole.  Just 26 per cent have a college degree, lower than the national rate of 29 per cent. And 56 per cent say religion is very important in their lives, according to Pew’s 2014 Religious Landscape Study, making Ohio one of the most religious states outside of the South.

Since Trump is performing best among white, religious voters without a college degree, all this makes Ohio relatively fertile ground for him. It helps to explain why he’s doing better there compared to Romney, but not in other swing states like neighbouring Pennsylvania (where the population is more highly-educated and less religious), North Carolina (which has more African-American voters and more college degrees) and Florida (which has more Hispanic voters).

So Ohio is leaning more Republican than usual this election. That means Trump could well win the state, but it also means that losing it might not be as disastrous for Clinton as it was for Kerry 12 years ago.

That’s because Clinton has enough states that look significantly more favourable for her than Ohio to give her the 270 electoral votes she needs. She currently leads by at least six points in states worth 272. And even if she were to lose one or two of those (New Hampshire, Colorado, Pennsylvania or Wisconsin perhaps) she’d be more likely to make up for it in Florida, North Carolina or Nevada – all states where she’s doing better than in Ohio.

Of course, Clinton would love to win Ohio. It would almost certainly guarantee her the presidency. But she doesn’t necessarily need to win it. The same can’t be said for Trump. He really does need to win Ohio if he’s to become President – and a number of less promising states besides.

Jonathan Jones writes for the New Statesman on American politics.