Soon candidates will have to attend different state fairs. Less Iowa, more North Carolina.

Photographer: Scott Olson/Getty Images

The Harsh Electoral Math: Ohio Will Be Forgotten

Conor Sen is a Bloomberg View columnist. He is a portfolio manager for New River Investments in Atlanta and has been a contributor to the Atlantic and Business Insider.
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Iowa and Ohio have long wielded outsize influence in presidential elections, but their reign may be coming to an end.

Because of demographic trends reshuffling some of the traditional relationships in this presidential election, these two states will find that the Democratic Party is no longer catering to them. The party may in fact start to ignore them, because it pays to invest only in states necessary to get to 270 Electoral College votes -- and Iowa and Ohio would be superfluous.

For 50 years, the rule of presidential politics has been that if you want to win, you have to win Ohio. Beginning with Johnson in 1964, every president has won it. It's the longest such streak in the country. While that makes for a nice bit of trivia, only in two of those elections, 2000 and 2004, did Ohio mean the difference between victory and defeat. In every other election, Ohio served to increase the margin of victory rather than act as a decisive state.

This notion of what constitutes a "tipping-point state" is where 2016 breaks from a half century of history. To determine what constitutes a tipping-point state, according to FiveThirtyEight, rank all the states by their margin of victory for the winning candidate. Start removing states and their electoral votes from the win column beginning with the smallest margin of victory. When the state removed means that the candidate would no longer have 270 electoral votes, that last state removed is the tipping point state. Every state previously removed is superfluous as far as the winner is concerned -- you don't get any bonus points for winning 370 electoral votes instead of 270. For instance, in 2012, President Barack Obama won 332 electoral votes. His closest three states were Virginia, Ohio and Florida. Subtract those and he still would have won 272 electoral votes. The next closest state was Colorado, without which he would have lost. Therefore, Colorado was the tipping-point state, and he needed Colorado and all other states he won in order to hit the magic number of 270.

Which brings us to 2016 and Ohio and Iowa. The demographic story of this election has been the support of Donald Trump from white men without a college degree, while women, nonwhites and people with college degrees have been more likely to support Hillary Clinton. Ohio and Iowa have a lot of white men without college degrees, while Southern coastal states like North Carolina and Florida have growing numbers of nonwhite voters and young people with college degrees. As a result, for Democrats in this election, Ohio and Iowa are nowhere close to being tipping-point states. According to the latest FiveThirtyEight forecast, Clinton could pick up 322 electoral votes without either Ohio or Iowa. In both 2008 and 2012, Iowa was a part of President Obama's first 270 electoral votes. In 2016 it's about as important to Democrats as hitting a grand slam when you're already up by seven runs in the ninth inning.

Even if the race were to tighten up, neither of those states would get key resources. Ad dollars would be more likely to be deployed to Pennsylvania, New Hampshire or Florida, states more likely to be decisive on the road to 270. Such crucial states would also get more attention from Clinton and from party surrogates like the Obamas and Vice President Joe Biden. Ads won't get made with messages tailored to undecided voters in Des Moines or Dayton. There's no credible reason to allocate resources to states that are no longer a good demographic fit for the party -- and are unneeded anyway.

This lack of investment will accelerate the shift of the Midwest away from the Democratic Party. As it is, Republicans hold the governor's office in Wisconsin, Michigan, Iowa, Illinois, Indiana and Ohio. Democratic congressional leadership positions are increasingly being held by long-tenured coastal representatives. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, Dick Gephardt of Missouri was the House Democratic leader and Tom Daschle of South Dakota was the Democratic leader in the Senate. In 2017, it's likely those two positions will be held by Nancy Pelosi of California and Charles Schumer of New York. In a Democratically controlled Senate, it's likely that the biggest winners within the caucus will be Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and Bernie Sanders of Vermont rather than increasingly rare long-tenured Midwestern senators.

All of this means that traditional Midwest issues like organized labor and agriculture are likely to become less important to Washington Democrats, who will be more focused on appealing to their new base in places like Colorado and Virginia, or the suburbs of growth states like North Carolina, Florida, Georgia and Arizona. Should Republicans lose their third straight presidential election, this Midwestern opportunity may be their greatest silver lining. They too could shift resources away from those past battleground states, to focus on newly contested territories.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Conor Sen at csen9@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Philip Gray at philipgray@bloomberg.net