Is the once dark blue Mahoning Valley moving towards the middle politically? That is the question being asked after the Mahoning Valley, for the second straight major election, failed to deliver the wide margins needed for the Democrats to be successful at the statewide level. This piece will analyze the election results in the valley from the 2016 Presidential election and the 2018 Midterm election.
Historical Election Background
Before I jump into the 2016 and 2018 elections, I thought it would be important to provide some context for this article by using some historical data. I went back to the 1960 Presidential election and the 1990 Gubernatorial election, the oldest years countywide election results were readily available on the web, and compared the margins at the state level to the margins at the county level for Mahoning, Trumbull, and Columbiana County. The y-axis of the charts below shows the Republican margins exceeding the Democrat margins as positive percentages, while the Democratic margins exceeding the Republican margins as negative percentages. These charts are fully interactive as you can hover over the stars for each election year to see the margin of victory for the GOP (+ %) or Dems (- %).
As is evidenced by the Presidential chart above, since 1960, Mahoning and Trumbull County have always been more Democratic at the county level when compared to the state level. For the most part, the same was true of Columbiana County until the 2004 Presidential election, when the county was slightly more Republican (4.7% GOP margin) than the state, which saw a 2.1% GOP margin. Since 2004, Columbiana County has gone from what Dave Skolnick of the Youngstown Vindicator described as a 50/50 GOP/DEM county, to one that is now deep red. The county had a remarkable 41.7% margin for Donald Trump in 2016, while Ohio went by 8.13% for Trump. It appears that Columbiana County will remain dark red for years to come.
Now to the two larger counties in the valley, Mahoning and Trumbull, which in 2016 again trailed the margins at the state level. Nonetheless, the margins were much closer than in most recent elections. Trumbull County, for the first time since 1972 when it delivered for Richard Nixon, went Republican by 6.27%. However, Mahoning County was victorious for Hillary Clinton, but by just 2.99%. Furthermore, Hillary Clinton failed to get to 50% of the total vote in Mahoning County. The failure of Mahoning and Trumbull to deliver the typical 59-62% Democrat total share of the vote, compounded by the rural GOP surge across the rust belt, led to Trump greatly outperforming the Buckeye State polls in 2016 on his way to victory.
At the Gubernatorial level, the results have followed a similar trend as the Presidential level. Columbiana has become much more Republican than the state over the past two elections, while Mahoning and Trumbull continue to lean more Democratic. It is worth noting that the two latter counties have backed Republicans for the governorship during this span of time by supporting George Voinovich in 1994 and John Kasich in 2014.
In the two charts above, it is noticeable that the red and yellow lines representing Mahoning and Trumbull have narrowed much closer to the statewide figures in blue in 2016 and 2018, signalling a more competitive political environment in the valley. The question remains, will that trend continue into 2020? If it does continue, the Democrats fortunes of winning this state may become more challenging as they will have to make up for these votes elsewhere.
Success in Local Races
I would be remiss not to mention the newfound success of the Mahoning County Republican Party, which is becoming a player in area politics. I have to give credit where it is due, Chairman Mark Munroe has recruited some stronger candidates to make that happen. In 2014, Republican Ralph Meacham, CPA edged Democrat Michael Sciortino, who was under indictment at the time, for Mahoning County Auditor. This was a major victory for the Mahoning County GOP who had failed for 30 years to deliver a victory in a partisan race at the county level. This year, the Democrats failed to even run a candidate against Meacham. As quoted in an August 17, 2018 piece by Dave Skolnick in the Youngstown Vindicator, Dave Betras said “I tried to recruit a number of people, and no one wanted to run… They said, ‘I can’t beat him. He’s done a good job.’”
In the Ohio 33rd State Senate seat currently held by term-limited Democrat Senate minority leader Joe Schiavoni, valley businessman Michael Rulli (R) knocked off veteran politician and current OH 59th State Representative John Boccieri (D) 52.51% to 47.49%, or 6,269 votes. The district is comprised of all of Mahoning County and Columbiana County. It is true that Boccieri won the Mahoning County portion of the district 54% to 46%, but Rulli ran it up in deep red Columbiana County, where he makes his home, by a 69% to 31% margin. Although this district has had different geographic make-ups since 1950, it has always encompassed Youngstown and has never been won by a Republican during that time. Based on Rulli’s name recognition and anecdotal evidence of his yard signs all across the suburban portions of Mahoning County, I felt Rulli had a chance to win if he could run it up in Columbiana County and keep it somewhat close in Mahoning County, and he did just that.
In my eyes, the upset of the night was Don Manning (R) defeating Eric Ungaro (D) for the OH 59th State House seat currently held by John Boccieri. Ungaro, son of former Youngstown Mayor Pat Ungaro, seemed to be a victim of the geographic footprint of the district. The 59th encompasses all of Mahoning County, with the exception of the City of Youngstown and most of Austintown Township. Without those two communities, the district is a bit more favorable for the Republicans as it contains all of the rural portions of the county, as well as Canfield and Poland where Republicans can be quite competitive. The following map from the Mahoning County Elections website provides a visual depiction of the results. The blue areas went to Manning, while the green areas went to Ungaro. In the end, Manning defeated Ungaro by a razor thin 50.39% to 49.61% margin, or 409 votes.
The wins by Meacham, Rulli, and Manning, coupled with Bill Johnson’s victory in the 6th congressional district, mean four Republicans are now representing all or part of Mahoning County at the county, state, and federal level in races that were all partisan on the ballot.
2018 Gubernatorial Results by Municipality (Mahoning County)
The following table is based on an export of the 2018 election results courtesy the Mahoning County Elections website. By providing this data in a stacked bar format, you can see the stark contrast between the more urban parts of the county that are more Democratic and that have more votes vs. the rural portions which tend to lean more Republican and have fewer votes.
It is far too soon to determine whether Mahoning and Trumbull County will continue the trend of the past two major elections (2016 and 2018) in which each county has moved from being dark blue to a lighter shade of blue or purple in competitive local, state, and federal races. In each county, Democrats were still successful in winning by larger margins (Mahoning D+21%, Trumbull D+16%) for Senator Sherrod Brown (D) in a race that ended up much closer than the polls had indicated. Also, outside of the seats mentioned above, Democrats hold most other state and county seats in each county and have party registration advantages as well.
With the cities of Youngstown and Warren being the largest population centers in Mahoning and Trumbull and also being the most Democratic areas of each county, the suburban/rural areas will need to move further right in the years ahead to enable the GOP to have further success in the valley. In my opinion, that will be the most interesting dynamic to watch as we move forward to the 2020 Presidential election.
In my next posting, I plan to take a dive into the Republican Party’s success in winning most of the state office contests dating back to 1990.