The Cleveland Indians lost the World Series Wednesday to the Chicago Cubs, blowing a seemingly insurmountable 3-1 series lead. Even if you don’t like baseball, the game was a classic. Game-saving home runs, questionable manager decisions, a “God Hates Cleveland”-inspired, momentum-killing rain delay and extra innings that ran until almost 1 a.m. Of course, there is no time to really reflect on the game when Ohioans are now thrown back into the battle between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton in their quest for the state’s vote next week.
The Buckeye State is in the middle of a fascinating transformation. While the World Series loss is painful overall, the last two years have been great for Ohio sports. Ohio has gone from being the 50-year sports laughingstock to the home of MVPs, champions and runners-up across several sports. At the same time, Ohio has moved from being the most important bellwether state for presidential elections to a political afterthought. After Wednesday night’s exhausting and exhilarating loss, what does it feel like for the people in this state, who for years have defined themselves by their relationship with lovable-loser sports teams mixed with political importance, to suddenly see those relationships flip?
Like a Facebook relationship status, it’s complicated.
“Is this racist?”
A slim white kid in an Indians T-shirt and jeans looked pleadingly around the room. It was a reasonable question. We were all in the Office of Multicultural Affairs at Hiram College, a liberal arts school just outside Cleveland. Everyone else in the room was black. I sat on the office couch, a couple of students stood in the doorway and the dean was behind her desk. It was Tuesday, Oct. 25; Game 1 of the World Series was just a few hours away. The shirt was fine. But the moccasins? The moccasins were a bit much. I broke the silence:
“Yeah, man, that’s pretty racist.”
Everybody else chimed in after that, trying to perk up the now crestfallen college sophomore. A week ago, most Ohioans were optimistic about the Indians’ chances, but rooting for the team also put you in the unenviable position of rooting for a blatantly racist mascot. This office talk between college kids was a metaphor for Ohio’s political position right now, too.
The polls are currently deadlocked, and Ohio’s place as the most pivotal swing state in American politics is on the line. But the scenarios for the state’s political future are cloudier than Wednesday night’s rain delay. If Ohio votes Trump and becomes part of an incredible electoral upset, Ohio will remain an important swing state, but possibly at the expense of electing a dangerous racial demagogue. If Ohio votes for Clinton, the state gets lost in a shuffle of other swing states that helped her to a large Electoral College victory.
However, the worst-case scenario for Ohio might also be the most likely: If Clinton wins the presidency without winning Ohio, the state will cease to be of importance in national politics. Why would national campaigns with limited resources spend all that time and money in all those Ohio media markets (Youngstown, Cleveland, Dayton, Columbus, Cincinnati, Toledo and Canton) for one state when you can still win the White House with younger, more diverse, more educated states like Virginia and North Carolina by driving down Interstate 95?
“Which would you rather have happen: The Indians win the World Series or your candidate win the presidential election?”
This was the call-in question on a local AM radio station I heard driving from Canton-Akron airport to Cleveland during the World Series. The final poll results? Sixty percent wanted their candidate to win and 40 percent wanted the Indians win. That fact that it was even that close tells you something about the way in which political importance and sports overlap in the state of Ohio. It wasn’t always this way. Going back decades, being the nation’s presidential bellwether state was all most Ohioans could look forward to.
As a political science professor for years in Ohio, I found that my students would rattle off the importance of their state in the grand game of presidential elections. Eight presidents were either born in or came to the White House from the state of Ohio. Since Abraham Lincoln’s election in 1860, only three presidents have ever been elected without carrying Ohio, and no Republican has ever done it, etc., etc. Outside of Iowa caucus voters, there are no more entitled ballot-droppers in America than folks in Ohio.