CLEVELAND, Ohio – Ohio’s election results will not be official for some time, but there are some key things to watch as updates are released Tuesday night and likely going into Wednesday morning that will provide clues on how the final, official tally will end up.
1. The early returns
Most of the early vote, mailed in or conducted in person, will be among the first results released soon after polls close at 7:30 p.m. When you see a vote total with 0% of the precincts reporting, these are votes each Board of Elections had in hand by Election Day.
Historically, this is a pretty good indicator of how the final tally will turn out. A cleveland.com analysis of this early vote in local elections for Cuyahoga County last year found the typical swing from this first count until the end of the night was just 1.5 percentage points. For 109 of 115 head-to-head races or issues, the leader in absentee balloting remained ahead when the counting was done for the night.
But there are some caveats. Historically speaking, Republican candidates tend to do better with in-person voting (Donald Trump has been pushing that narrative). Polling indicates Republicans are more likely to vote Tuesday than Democrats, perhaps widening that gap. And the early-vote this year has been bigger than ever before.
If all this holds true in 2020, expect the Republicans to do better as the in-person voting results come in during the night.
2. Big county votes from Cuyahoga, Franklin, Hamilton
Increasingly in recent elections, Republicans have built up wide support in the smaller counties; Democrats in the urban centers.
In Ohio’s three biggest counties combined – Cuyahoga (Cleveland), Franklin (Columbus) and Hamilton (Cincinnati) – the Democratic presidential candidates carried at least 60% of the vote in each of the last three elections, including Hillary Clinton’s 60.5% to 35% win over Trump in those three counties in 2016.
Trump made up that 407,981-vote deficit in the three big counties by winning the combined vote in Ohio’s other 85 counties by a whopping 854,822 votes, 58.5% to 36.6%.
If there are a lot of outstanding votes in the big counties as the results arrive, Republicans should be concerned. Same goes for Democrats if the small-county voting largely is not yet tabulated.
Consider this: Barack Obama ran up a 256,613-vote lead in Cuyahoga over Mitt Romney in 2012, enough to provide the difference in the election. This made up for losing the rest of the state, the combined vote for the other 87 counties, by 90,343 votes.
In 2008. Obama beat John McCain by 258,542 votes in Cuyahoga County. In the other 87 counties, Obama out-polled McCain by just 3,682 votes.
Here’s what to look for Tuesday.
Is Biden building upon the voting shares won by Clinton in these large counties – 66% in Cuyahoga, 60.4% in Franklin and 52.7% in Hamilton? Cuyahoga and Franklin were her best showings in all of Ohio.
3. Will Trumbull County flip back?
Trumbull County, which includes the city of Warren and is just north of Youngstown, gained a lot of attention for how it voted in 2016 – for good reason.
Trump’s win in Trumbull marked the latest tumbling of what had been a blue wall of sorts in much of Eastern Ohio.
Starting with Jimmy Carter’s election in 1976, six Ohio counties had reliably voted for Democratic presidential candidates each time. Those streaks ended in 2012 for three Eastern Ohio counties built on steel and coal – Jefferson, Belmont and Monroe.
But even as those Ohio River counties switched over to red, Trumbull, Mahoning and Cuyahoga stayed Democratic in 2012, each giving at least 60% of their vote to Obama.
Trump then turned Trumbull four years ago, beating Clinton, 51.1% to 44.8%.
If that Trumbull margin holds Tuesday, good news for Trump. If it evaporates, Biden backers could be celebrating.
4. Republican strongholds
Unlike the Electoral College, where most states are winner-take-all in presidential elections, counties can only offer trends and insights.
Yet, just like Democrats have done in the large counties, winning Republican candidates have been successful in building up their margins in their counties of strength.
Trump received his highest shares four years ago in these five counties – Mercer (80.6%), Putnam (79.7%), Auglaize (79%), Holmes (78.9%) and Darke (78.5%).
As results come in Tuesday, it’s worth checking whether his strength has built up or shrunk.
5. The vote counting does not end on election night
Warning here, in case you haven’t heard already. The vote counting in Ohio, by law, does not end on election night, or even the day after.
Counties have until Nov. 18 to complete their official tally, adding in provisional votes and absentee ballots mailed in time and arriving by Nov. 13, whether they were mailed domestically or under federal law from overseas-stationed military members and their families.
Democrats Clinton, Obama and John Kerry all did thousands of votes better than their Republican counterparts in post-election day counting, cleveland.com research found.
Trump gained 69,021 Ohio votes between the unofficial count on the day after the election and the official count weeks later. Clinton added 77,163 votes, closing the margin by 8,142.
Obama widened his margin over Romney by 59,029 votes during this later counting in 2012, and by 56,911 over McCain in 2008. And in 2004, Kerry closed his gap on George W. Bush by 17,620 votes.
Keep these numbers in mind if the unofficial tally is close.
6. Ottawa County, Ohio’s bellwether
If all this is too complicated, boil it all down to Ottawa County, a place more well known in non-election times as a vacation retreat for summer homes and cottages on the mainland or the Lake Erie island experience of Put-in-Bay.
The fall-time residents who make Ottawa County their voting home have gone with the winning presidential candidate in 14 straight elections, starting with Lyndon Johnson in 1964.
No other Ohio county has followed this winning trend so long.
Yes, Ohio has also picked the winner for the same 14 elections, by far longer than any other state.
But if the results are in early from Ottawa County, this could be an early indicator.