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.
At the same time, the state’s sports identity was almost the polar opposite. While there have been some occasional success with the Cincinnati Reds and the Ohio State Buckeyes, it’s the Cleveland teams (and at one point the Cincinnati “Bungles”) that have exemplified Ohio futility. There was literally an ESPN 30 for 30 called "Believeland" about the lifetime of crushing and embarrassing sports defeats that have befallen the state. Cleveland was proud of their lousy Browns, they took puckish pride in being ditched by LeBron James, and who cared that the Indians were a bad team with a mascot so old-fashioned and racist, only Mr. Burns could love it?
Yet now, for some reason, these identities are reversed. Sportswise, since 2014, Ohio's won the first College Football Championship; LeBron came back and the Cavaliers won a thrilling NBA Finals; the Columbus Crew MLS team made the finals in 2015; the Lake Erie Monsters minor league hockey team won the championship; and UFC champ Stipe Miocic is from suburban Cleveland. So even after Wednesday night’s loss, my Cleveland friends were defiantly proud, posting “We’ll be back” messages all up and down my timeline.
While Ohio sports love has gotten to “NSFW” levels, the political love has petered out. Like a boyfriend who goes from calling every day to occasional texts to intermittent Facebook tags, Ohioans have started to notice they aren’t getting equal love from the presidential candidates.
Trump has to win Ohio to have any path to victory and has spent days there, along with his vice presidential pick Mike Pence and children Ivanka and Eric Trump, rallying through the state. Clinton sees Ohio more as a luxury; she barely visited over the summer, and in these closing weeks, while far-flung states like Arizona got big-time surrogates like Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, Ohio got Anne Holton (Clinton vice presidential pick Tim Kaine’s wife). Clinton will make a visit to Cleveland Friday at a free "Get Out the Vote" concert starring Jay Z, but that’s on her way between trips to crucial firewall states like Michigan and Pennsylvania.
Ohio sport and political identities will crash into each other this weekend, the final time to vote before the election Tuesday. Early voting in heavily Democratic Cuyahoga County, home of the Cleveland Indians, is down, and social science shows us that cities that lose championships right before elections can see a dip in turnout for the incumbent party. What might all of this eventually mean? I asked an Ohio sports and politics expert for final perspective.
“Elections are about changing identities. … And sports are about local pride and achieving greatness or defeat through the hopes and dreams of people out there competing for us," said Nicole Williams, a public relations consultant in Washington, D.C., and the former communications director for John Kerry’s Ohio campaign who hails from the Cleveland suburb of Beechwood. She bleeds the Cavaliers wine-and-gold and was there for every major Cleveland sports moment from the shot, the drive, the fumble, the Decision and even the block.
"I think if given a choice, if Ohioans could be known as the state of champions or the state that put Donald Trump over the line to the White House, they’d rather be the a state of champions. Of course, we may not have a choice," she said.
Ohioans may come to finally embrace their sports over politics identity or their politics over sports identity, but after next week, they probably won’t be able to do both.
Jason Johnson, political editor at The Root, is a professor of political science at Morgan State’s School of Global Journalism and Communication and is a frequent guest on MSNBC, CNN, Al-Jazeera International, Fox Business News and SiriusXM Satellite Radio. Follow him on Twitter.