If Donald Trump wants to win the White House, experts say he needs to win Ohio.
And so far Trump seems to be performing well in the Buckeye State, but with a very different strategy than past Republican nominees.
Despite Hillary Clinton’s well-tuned ground game, and a feud with Gov. John Kasich that left many wondering if the Ohio Republican Party would help Trump, polls show him performing strongly in Ohio.
The latest polls have Clinton and Trump in a virtual tie in Ohio. And the most recent poll from Public Policy Polling gives Trump a three-point edge here.
The key seems to be his appeal to working class white men, including some union members who are traditionally loyal Democrats but seem to like his anti-trade message.
“There is a strain of people looking for a change,” said Ohio Republican Party Chairman Matt Borges. “You’re working your tail off. You have not seen your wages significantly go up under Obama as president, so you’re probably thinking another path might not be such a bad thing.”
Trump is even attracting blue-collar white men in Democratic strongholds such as Youngstown.
“Donald Trump is clearly making a play there and we have to make sure we’re collectively countering it,” said Ohio Democratic Party Chairman David Pepper.
Democrats will rely on labor leaders and popular progressives such as Sen. Sherrod Brown to speak against Trump in places such as Ashtabula and Mahoning counties surrounding Youngstown, Pepper said
“We need to message very well,” Pepper said. “This is not someone who has any track record of being for the worker.”
While Trump is polling very low nationally with African Americans and Hispanics, he has a strong base of support among working class white men.
“It’s the competitive, white male stereotype, who are very angry with the way things are. And Trump appeals to them,” said Ohio State University political science professor Paul Beck. “Democrats will try to pull those voters away from him.”
But Borges doesn’t think Democrats will succeed
“The Democrats just don’t really get it,” Borges said. “Donald Trump appeals to a lot of voters who they (Democrats) are relying on to show up for them.”
Suburban women are key
Meanwhile Democrats are fine-tuning their own strategy to win Ohio: Energize high turnout in urban centers such as Columbus, Cincinnati, Cleveland and Dayton, which delivered big for President Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012.
They also hope to attract disillusioned moderate Republicans who don’t like Trump and suburban women, particularly in counties such as Warren, Butler and Clermont, and the Cincinnati suburbs of Hamilton County.
“There’s an opportunity to narrow the margin of victory that Republicans can have in places like Warren County,” Pepper said. “We can pick up votes in moderate and independent areas where we normally wouldn’t.”
While Pepper doubts Clinton can win in many of Ohio’s traditionally strong Republican counties – such as the 72 counties Mitt Romney won in 2012 – he believes this year Democrats can narrow their margin of loss.
“If we lose in those townships 60 to 40 instead of 65 to 35 or 70 to 30, that’s how you win elections,” Pepper said.
Trump also needs to do well in those Republican leaning suburbs surrounding Cincinnati and Columbus, said Kyle Kondik, managing editor of Sabato’s Crystal Ball, at the University of Virginia Center for Politics and author of the book, The Bellwether: Why Ohio Picks the President.
“I expect he’ll win those counties, but not by the margins Republicans are used to,” Kondik said.
No Republican has ever won the White House without winning Ohio. And with just a handful of other swing states with big electoral counts -- Florida, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Virginia -- the stakes are even higher for Trump in Ohio.
“I really do think Trump needs to win Ohio to win the election,” Kondik said.
Will Trump fans vote?
Experts predict a close race in Ohio.
“You’ve got to count on Ohio being close. It always is,” Pepper said. “In a close race, the ground game makes the difference.”
And Clinton clearly has the early advantage with 100 party field organizers already on the ground.
“We have a bigger staff here in Ohio than he (Trump) has in the entire country, and we’ve been doing this since October,” Pepper said.
Trump’s campaign has been slow to launch in Ohio. He didn’t hire his first staffer until late June, when he tapped veteran campaign manager Bob Paduchik as his state director.
Then Trump’s feud with Kasich at the Republican National Convention left many wondering if the state party would actually help him.
Kasich refused to endorse Trump or attend the convention in his home state. This brought a strong rebuke from Trump’s campaign manager, Paul Manafort who called Kasich "embarrassing" and "petulant." Then state party chairman Borges jumped into the dispute, telling reporters that if Trump didn’t stop criticizing Kasich, he would lose.
Yet in an interview this week, Borges seemed optimistic about Trump’s chances of winning Ohio.
“Every indication is that Democratic turnout will be down. It was down in the primaries in Ohio and Republican turnout has been way up,” Borges said. “We should win Ohio.”
He added that 50 Republican staffers have been working on get-out-the-vote efforts for Sen. Rob Portman, who faces a tough re-election, for more than a year. Now those staffers will also help Trump.
“We are enveloping the presidential effort into what’s already been going on,” Borges said.
Joint fundraising between Trump and the RNC is raising millions, which will get funneled into key states like Ohio, Borges said.
“I don’t think from a resource standpoint we will lack anything we need,” Borges said.
Yet some doubt if Trump’s ground game will be good enough to counter Clinton’s well-organized campaign machine.
“This is where the go-it-alone strategy is really put to the test,” said University of Cincinnati political science professor David Niven. “Officially the Republican Party in Ohio is supportive of Trump, but in practical terms they’re not going to do a darn thing for him.”
But Kondik believes Trump will get at least some help.
“We know the state party will work hard for Portman, so indirectly they kind of will be working hard for Trump too,” Kondik said.
“I don’t think he’ll have the sophisticated ground operation that the Clinton campaign has,” Kondik said. “He’ll have to hope his supporters turn out without the door knocks and phone calls.”
Will Trump’s fans show up at the polls in November?
“It’s a great question. The Trump folks say their supporters are uniquely motivated,” Kondik said. “I guess we’ll find out.”