Illustration de Kim Provent pour KIP

Ohio: home stretch in the Rust Belt

It’s raining on Cincinnati. Gray clouds have been hovering and rust has gained some ground  for a month now. As if the weather wanted somewhat to embody the uneasiness of this city’s inhabitants: for sixty years, their number has kept dwindling at each decennial census1Let’s notice however that the curse seems to have been lifted this year, since Cincinnati gained inhabitants. Rare are the traces of this city’s glorious past, which the United States must thank for its first professional baseball team, its first important railroad, and its first skyscraper in reinforced concrete2In 1869, 1880 and 1902 respectively.

Cincinnati’s neighboring cities Cleveland and Columbus could be portrayed the same way. “With God, all things are possible”, says Ohio’s motto; all things, except maintaining the economic and demographic momentum of the area. As an illustration of this decline, the number of presidential electors keeps decreasing: 26 electoral votes in 1968, 21 in 2000, 18 in 2020. The fate of this state seems to have been sealed by the inability of old industries from the 19th century to capitalize on the third industrial revolution, even though it used to be among the most prosperous and populated states of the country.

In spite of this rather glum observation, Ohio has asserted itself in the last few weeks as one of the crucial states3Commonly called “battleground” or “swing” states of the 2020 presidential election. Historically quite conservative, it has become a high-stake battlefield. For the Democratic Party, it would represent a substantial spoils of war:  Ohio could join the ranks of the “blue wall”, this constellation of northeastern states that are deeply anchored into the Democratic side, and within which Joseph Biden has family roots. Losing the 18 votes in the US Electoral College the state is providing is unthinkable for Donald Trump, since strong positions in Ohio are essential to launch an offensive against the neighboring states of Pennsylvania and Michigan – those were precisely the ones who made the Republican Party victorious in 2016. Beyond these purely strategic considerations lies also the fact that no Republican candidate has ever been elected without having won Ohio; this historical reality pushed Donald Trump’s campaign to deploy more staff than in 2016 and to commit a substantial amount of funds for advertising in that state.

At the present time, it is particularly hard to build a prognosis on which side Ohio will eventually choose. If the state is traditionally conservative, it has its own specificity as well. In fact, the counties of the Appalachian Ohio are known to switch colors at each election. Since their economic situation has not significatively improved in the last thirty years, they always want to give a chance to the new White House contenders, hoping that the latter will break their curse. Determining the results of the presidential election in Ohio would thus mean determining whether the local population considers Trump’s economic record to be strong enough to contemplate his reelection.

“It’s the economy, stupid”4“It’s the economy, stupid” is a quote ascribed to Bill Clinton’s electoral campaign of 1992, attributing the spectacular fall of George H.W. Bush in the poll to the excessive attention the latter would have given to the Iraq war, at the expense of the American economy.

Unlike what may experience other large American states, no big demographic or cultural upheavals can be observed in Ohio. In this state, mostly inhabited by White people 579% of the population according to the website and little open to the rest of the world in comparison to its neighbors, identity, environmental and international issues are secondary6 To avoid an oversimplification, let’s notice however that right after George Floyd’s murder, the topics of law and order wormed also they way into the political debate. Halfway between the Corn Belt and the Rust Belt, the stakes are without much doubt economic: for the two White House candidates, it is either a matter of defending the outcome of the ending presidency, or one of offering an alternative.

Until now, Joseph Biden had been focusing his campaign in Ohio on his post-COVID economic recovery plan. Barack Obama’s former vice-president tried to capitalize on the feeling, widespread in Ohio, that Donald Trump did not deliver on the promises he made during his 2016 electoral campaign. To do so, he brilliantly used the example of the General Motors factory in Lordstown, which closed in 2019 while the President, certain of being able to defend the jobs at stake, had advised the workers not to sell their homes and to stay there. The closure of the factory started a chain reaction that degraded the living conditions in the region even more. Facing this, Joseph Biden tried to remind voters of the role he played in the 2008 crisis, when he supported nationalizations and bailouts to save American jobs. He also managed how to wield the stakes linked to Obamacare and Social Security, and to mobilize unions, which are historically close to the Democrats7. In November 2011, a public consultation rejected a bill written by John Kasich, a republican governor, aiming at limiting the power of unions. This outcome was obtained thanks to the Democratic opposition’s engagement, which made several observers argue that the Democrats had made a deal with the devil by allying themselves with unions. This alliance was however nothing new, as it had already been sealed by John Fitzgerald Kennedy during his 1960 presidential campaign, to boost his electoral base.

However, voters also remember that even before the pandemic, the economic situation had substantially improved in Ohio, with a clear recovery of the job market that contrasted violently with the anemia of previous decades. To this day, half of the Ohio voters still consider that Donald Trump’s economic policy was globally beneficial; only 42% think that Biden’s recovery plan will help the economy restart and 56% state that Donald Trump will be more active than Joseph Biden to help protect local employment8 Donald Trump can therefore portray himself with a certain legitimacy as the one who actively defended American employment against China, against the wait-and-see policy of Obama and his Vice-President9Even if the unemployment rate of Ohio was 17,3% in April 2020 – a record since such data has started being collected – the situation has greatly improved since, and the state had a very low rate in January. He can also capitalize on the fear of a socialist wave among the Democrats, a topic that is still very vivid in the US. Finally, he can rely on the outcome of the policies implemented by the Governor of Ohio, moderate Republican Mike DeWine, who acted quickly and professionally towards the pandemic.

If Donald Trump wants to win, he will however have to go beyond his simplistic speech on the economy. Ohio workers know very well that stock exchanges, which currently are doing particularly well, do not necessarily reflect the economy as a whole10Even though more than half the Americans have 401k and saving plans in shares, meaning that the rise of stock indexes does not only benefit Wall Street. He will also have to amend for his past political mistakes such as the boycott of Goodyear, a company that was essential to the local economy, but whose dress code dared to ban MAGA caps. Finally, and even though Ohio is an agricultural state, the current inhabitant of the White House will have to succeed in mobilizing suburbanites as well as young people in order to be reelected. Only in the light of this can we understand the recent moratorium required by the president against the expulsion of tenants in Ohio11

A pretended debate?

The partisan fights taking place in the plains of Ohio and the bombastic speeches of both candidates must not make us forget, however, that there was and there still is a bipartisan consensus on the American economy; a consensus that threw Ohio in an economic distress, and that is unlikely to get the state out of it.

Thus, this year, neither Donald Trump nor Joseph Biden are offering substantive measures to overcome the divide between white collar workers, whose expertise is the economy of knowledge and the high tech industry, and voters from rural working classes, left behind in the post-industrial globalization. Ohio is a dark illustration of this divide, all the more since its economy was based on the iron and automotive industry, which is now massively laying off. So far, the United States has taken a stationary stance consisting in ignoring this structural problem and addressing it through subventions and the looting of natural resources.

Nothing was made to overcome the same problem that ignited the 2008 crisis either: the Ohio inhabitants were hit hard by the economic crisis due to the Covid-19 pandemic, because they had not spared enough12In fact, each American has an average of 4 credit cards and because the economic growth in America mostly relies on debt. The isolationist and self-centered model advocated by Donald Trump is hence possible only if American households decide to take on no more debts and to use their prior revenues to invest or spare. Without such a change, the structural dependence of the US towards its foreign partners will endure, and no trade war will ever change that.

The last part of this deadly consensus is an unequal economic system, in which lingers an actual market of political influence, with sellers (elected officials) on one side, and buyers (companies) on the other. As an illustration, we may mention the former speaker of the House of Representatives of Ohio, a Republican now entangled in a 60-million-dollar corruption scandal13 The aim was to adopt House Bill 6, which involved the bailout of two nuclear plants of the state, that would have been financed by taxpayers. For more information, refer to Even if the example is older, we could also mention the Coingate: the scandal linked to an illegal funding of George W. Bush’s campaign in Ohio.

Who benefits from a global economy? This is the real question raised by this electoral year, in a country where inequalities skyrocket as much as public debt. Neither candidate is offering to solve the aforementioned problems that are inherent to the American capitalism, which would not necessitate promises of tax raise14 In the sense that powerful lobbies like ATR will strive to minimize those, at least for those who can afford their services. The American tax code is already particularly complex and includes legions of niches or the use of business unilateralism, but rather a deep reform of the American political and financial institutions.

Adrien Martin

Adrien Martin

Étudiant français en Master in Management à HEC Paris et en Master de Droit des Affaires à la Sorbonne (Promotion 2023). Ancien rédacteur en chef de KIP et contributeur régulier.

French student in Master in Management at HEC Paris and in Master in Business Law at Sorbonne University (Class of 2023). Chief editor of KIP and regular contributor.

Tara Ollivier

Tara Ollivier

Etudiante française en Master in Management à HEC Paris (promotion 2023)
Membre de Kip et traductrice

French student in Master in Management at HEC Paris (class of 2023)
Member of Kip and translator

Kim Provent

Kim Provent

Etudiante française en Master in Management à HEC Paris (promotion 2023). Membre de Kip, ancienne responsable illustration et traductrice

French student in Master in Management at HEC Paris (class of 2023). Member of Kip and translator