It took President Trump very little time to assume credit for Republican Troy Balderson’s apparent victory in Tuesday night’s special election in Ohio’s 12th Congressional District.
“When I decided to go to Ohio for Troy Balderson, he was down in early voting 64 to 36. That was not good,” Trump wrote on Twitter a bit after all the precincts were counted. “After my speech on Saturday night, there was a big turn for the better. Now Troy wins a great victory during a very tough time of the year for voting.”
Most of that is obviously untrue. The early vote was always expected to favor Democrat Danny O’Connor by a wide margin; he won it by about 27 points despite ending the night down a point in the overall vote. No turn for the better in that regard, given that Trump claims the margin was 28 points when he arrived. (It’s not clear how the votes actually broke down. Ohio only offered data on the party composition of the voters returning ballots.)
Nor was there a turn for the better in the polling. Two recent polls showed O’Connor and Balderson within a point of each other, both polls being completed before Trump’s appearance on the scene. It was also not necessarily true at the time Trump wrote his tweet that Balderson would emerge the victor. He’s likely to win, but the race hadn’t been called given the narrow margin.
Trump’s role at the end of the race, though, is a central concern for understanding what’s likely to happen in November’s midterm elections. His pitch is that there is a red wave building, pushed forward in part from sheer enthusiasm for his presidency. Trump last month suggested that he might campaign every day of the week to boost Republican candidates; after all, before Tuesday he’d gone 11-for-his-last-11 endorsements. In an election year where Democrats are said to have huge energy propelling them forward, Trump believes that the energy of his base can push right back.
The election in Ohio on Tuesday night was not a robust demonstration of that effect.
There are a number of reasons that’s the case, even setting aside the inertia in the polls over the past two weeks. Compared to 2014’s election in the district, the last lower-turnout contest there, turnout was down about 7 percent. Balderson got fewer votes in every county in the district than did Republican Pat Tiberi that year. O’Connor got more votes than David Tibbs, the losing Democrat that year, in four out of seven. In Franklin County, which made up 35 percent of the vote on Tuesday, O’Connor nearly doubled Tibbs. In Delaware County, O’Connor more than doubled him.
Delaware County ended up providing more than 3 in 10 of Balderson’s votes, a higher ratio than Trump earned in the county in 2016 or Tiberi earned in 2014. In part that’s a function of the size of the county, but in part it’s because the county moved to the left by a smaller margin than any county except rural Licking County and Muskingum County, Balderson’s home. (Muskingum is the only county to get more Republican than 2016; there, Balderson’s margin surpassed Trump’s.) The drop-off in the votes cast for Balderson in the county relative to Trump was smaller than the drop in the other six counties. Because of the results in Delaware County, Cook Political Report’s Dave Wasserman credits Gov. John Kasich’s (R-Ohio) endorsement of Balderson as the difference-maker, not Trump’s.
None of this definitively answers the question of the role Trump might have played, though. Perhaps the race had moved to O’Connor and Trump pulled it back? Perhaps he provided just enough of a turnout boost to get Balderson over the finish line? These things are hard to measure. We know, though, that the 11 for 11 in endorsements is misleading: Those were all Republican primaries featuring Republican voters who broadly like Trump. With a Balderson win in Ohio’s 12th District, Trump would move to 2 for 5 in Democrat-against-Republican contests where he’s endorsed before the voting — a much less impressive record.
The bigger picture, of course, is that four of those five races were all in districts that the Republicans already held, and generally by a wide margin. Trump won Ohio’s 12th District by more than 11 points in 2016. Balderson may end up holding it by only one point. A swing of 10 points to the other party in two years is not a sign of a red wave. Nor were the swings of four points, 17 points and 29 points in the races where Trump’s endorsed candidates lost.
There’s a weird dichotomy that’s established here. Trump’s success in the Republican primaries fostered an atmosphere in which candidates competed on Trumpiness in order to get his endorsement. In a general election in an even slightly contested race, though, that may be a disadvantage. (In Ohio’s 12th District, though, it’s as hard to say that Trump hurt Balderson’s chances as it is to say that he helped them.) One thing that almost certainly didn’t help was Balderson’s disparagement of Franklin County on Monday. That county made up a higher-than-expected portion of the total vote and accounted for just shy of half the votes O’Connor received.
Trump probably wants to assume credit for Balderson’s apparent win for a few reasons. The first and most obvious is vanity; this is a president who took credit for the lack of plane crashes in 2017. Another is that the perception that he can make or break a campaign is important for him to maintain in order to keep Republicans in line. But there’s little indication that his endorsement or visit to the 12th District had much of an effect, and solid evidence — the election result — that the district got a lot more friendly to Democrats than it was in 2016.
As it stands, Trump’s weighing in on special election candidates was equal to a coin toss in districts that backed him in 2016 by two, 11, 17 and 28 points.* The best way of measuring his usefulness to Republicans facing off against Democrats might be if he weighs in heavily on behalf of Balderson when he takes on O’Connor again in November. Maybe by comparing the two, we’ll have a sense of how important Trump’s role was in the result. By then, though, we’ll already know who won control of the House.
There is one important point obscured in the debate over the narrow result. That it was close at all was a function of the leftward shift of the country seen in other special election races since 2016. That shift is broadly and fairly attributed to Trump’s unpopularity.
In other words, Trump may have had no effect on an already close race when he visited Ohio over the weekend. But he had a huge effect on making it close in the first place.
* That’s Georgia’s 6th Congressional District, Ohio’s 12th, Pennsylvania’s 18th and the state of Alabama.