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Ohio’s Hamilton County may test whether Trump’s divisiveness will help or hurt him in 2020

Supporters wait in line to purchase Trump-branded items before the president’s rally at U.S. Bank Arena in Cincinnati. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

CINCINNATI — When President Trump railed against Baltimore and other diverse American cities as dangerous and “broken” during a campaign rally on Thursday, supporters cheered Trump’s assessment.

“Our city is very chaotic politically,” said Alex Triantafilou, the Republican Party chairman in Hamilton County. “That resonates with people. People are moving a little further out, a little further out, whenever they can.” 

But Trump’s rhetoric was also welcomed by David Pepper, the Ohio Democratic Party chairman from Cincinnati, who is heartened by recent polling that shows former vice president Joe Biden winning the state over Trump and 2018 midterms data that showed many suburban areas swinging away from the GOP.

“The irony is he is giving his speech here, in a city that is doing well,” Pepper said of Trump. “They are already losing Hamilton County suburbs. To the extent that he brings his rantings and ravings and tweets to town, to the extent that he comes to Cincinnati and Hamilton County, it’s a symbol of where he is losing ground and why. We take it as a badge of honor that he and his campaign are coming back every week. They know they’re in trouble.” 

Hamilton County, is shaping up as a test case of whether Trump’s demonization of some cities — along with their liberal, diverse populations — will help or hurt him in 2020, especially in suburban areas of the Midwest.

Bishop Bobby Hamilton, the senior pastor of Word of Deliverance church in Forest Park, a suburb of Cincinnati, said he had never seen people so activated on all sides.

“I’ve never seen people so enraged,” he said. “For those that are for Trump, it doesn’t matter what he does. For those against him, they’re dead set against him. But that middle crowd, they’re watching and they want to do what is right.” 

Hamilton County is distinctly not Trump country. With about 800,000 people, the county is one of four in Ohio where Trump in 2016 underperformed compared with Mitt Romney four years earlier, losing by nearly 40,000 votes to Hillary Clinton even as he sailed to an eight-point victory statewide. The county has trended toward Democrats since 2008, when it flipped for the first time since 1964 for then-Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) Former Ohio governor John Kasich, one of Trump’s few Republican foes, won 60 percent of the county’s vote in 2014.

Trump’s campaign team is eager to buttress his support in places like Hamilton County, particularly given a July Quinnipiac poll that showed Biden beating Trump in the state by 50 percent to 42 percent. Biden was the only Democrat who topped Trump in the state, and some Democrats here said another nominee would struggle to defeat him.

Among the president’s campaign advisers, Ohio is seen as a likely win, though not a guarantee, and they want to compete strongly in places such as the Cincinnati suburbs. His early trip to the county, advisers said, showed how seriously they take the area.

Mike Dawson, the creator of an election statistics website who conducted an analysis of 2016 Ohio voting patterns for The Washington Post, said “the statistics would seem to indicate he’s less popular” in the state but that his “significant win” in 2016 will be difficult for Democrats to overcome.

“Hamilton is probably never going to vote Republican again,” Dawson said. “In nonpresidential years, Ohio is clearly a red state. In presidential years, it’s not quite so clear.”

On Thursday night, the riverfront U.S. Bank Arena held more than 15,000 supporters, with many lined up for blocks trying to get in underneath the glow of a large Ferris wheel. Some spilled into upscale restaurants wearing Trump shirts and waving flags.

During the rally, Trump largely avoided attacking Cincinnati — only referencing the mayor as a Democrat when protesters were taken out of the venue — while lambasting other cities such as Los Angeles for homelessness and crime.

He took particular aim at Baltimore and Rep. Elijah E. Cummings (D-Md.), who has angered him with oversight investigations and criticism, and suggested without offering evidence that Maryland’s largest city had a higher homicide rate than Afghanistan. On Friday morning, Trump continued his attacks by offering sarcastic sympathy to Cummings after news of a break-in at Cummings’s house.

“If you just look at the cities that have Democratic mayors and councils, they are just going downhill,” said Marilyn Bourquein, a 75-year-old Trump supporter who attended the rally. “Part of that was caused by economics and businesses being lost, but I agree with him.”

Sean Boster, 35, added: “I agree with everything he said tonight. Look at the cities, look at San Francisco and Chicago — everything they touch they destroy.”

Triantafilou, the GOP chairman, said that in Cincinnati, many people despised a streetcar project downtown and have retreated into the suburbs with new strip malls and large neighborhoods.

He said there was a “standing-room crowd” for a meeting of Republican volunteers and activists earlier in the week that would normally only attract seven or eight people. Triantafilou also said he had been “surprised” by how many African Americans wanted to be part of the Trump movement locally, though he did not have data. “I believe he is helping,” he said.

“I’ve been active for Republican politics for 20-something years here, and I’ve never seen a crowd or energy like that,” he said of the rally. “The energy is just tremendous.”

Pepper, the Democratic chair, said he also saw tremendous energy in organizing against the president.

“Democratic performance increased by more than 1 million votes from 2014, more than doubling, and was higher than in any other midterm election save 2006,” he wrote in a memo after the midterm elections.

Although Ohio is trending red, Pepper said performing well in Hamilton County could give Democrats a strong chance. He said the president’s rhetoric is particularly off-putting to suburban female voters and black voters.

Black residents in Cincinnati said they were particularly aggrieved. Meeka Owens of Cincinnati, one of the organizers of a protest outside the rally site, said Trump’s statements, including his comments about Baltimore, have galvanized people who see them as a thinly veiled attempt to stoke division for political gain. 

 “I’m absolutely offended by his statements about Baltimore,” Owens said. “It could have easily been statements he made about Cincinnati. What he’s really doing is targeting African Americans, particularly ones in the legislature who don’t agree with him.” 

 She opposed Trump in 2016 but said that even lukewarm supporters she had spoken with were turned off by the president’s statements. 

 “I don’t know if he’s actually engaging with new people,” she said. “You have the opposite of that — people who are quietly disappointed with him and not being vocal about it. Around here, I think a lot of those folks are suburban folks. I think you have folks who are in suburban America who are probably not becoming re-engaged by Trump or not re-excited by him because of statements like the one in Baltimore.”

State Sen. Cecil Thomas, a Democrat from Cincinnati, said the president’s words struck a nerve because people in and around Cincinnati realize that fixing a city’s problems takes a collective effort. 

“Cities are beginning to rebound,” Thomas said. “This is nothing new that our cities have had problems. They will continue to have problems. And this is why we rely on our state and local and federal government to all work in collaboration to try to address problems that are happening in our urban cores.”

Bert Richardson, the president of the Cincinnati branch of the NAACP, said there are many people who are put off by Trump’s words but that he is successful at times.

“It works sometimes,” Richardson said. “I don’t know what it will be a year and a half from now. In the last election in Ohio, when Trump talked about a caravan of migrants storming the border, I think that swayed some people to vote who might not have.”

Among voters outside Cincinnati, some said they had not made up their mind. In Reading, Rachel Heard, 23, said, “I voted for him last time, but I’m just not sure if I’m going to vote for him this time.”

Another voter, Jo Nickley, a 71-year-old retiree, said “I like him, but it depends who the Democrats have got running against him and what they are going to do.”

“There are some good men in there, and you’ve got to give them a chance,” Nickley said. “I think the wall is stupid; it’s not going to work and people are still going to come through. Trump says a lot of things, but the only person who can judge is God.”

Hamilton, the suburban pastor, said he sees people on the left being increasingly activated, but he is also seeing more engagement from “those people in the middle.” 

“I believe that his statements and actions are moving them away from them,” he said.