Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

Pandemic Complicated Closely Watched Presidential Election Year

Ohio Public Radio

A year ago, 2020 looked like it was going to be another busy election year in Ohio. But with the pandemic crowding out most other news and keeping candidates off the campaign trail, the presidential election took several unexpected turns. As part of Ohio Public Radio's series looking back on 2020, Karen Kasler reports.


President Trump held his first campaign rally of 2020 in Toledo. In spite of continuing questions about whether Ohio is indeed a bright red state or a purple swing state. The Democratic field was focused on early primary states. But after most candidates dropped out in early March, and the pandemic was just starting to gain ground, Bernie Sanders came to Ohio, as did Joe Biden.

Hours before the polls were to open on St. Patrick’s Day for the primary, there was a legal scramble by Governor Mike DeWine and Secretary of State Frank LaRose to close them because of the pandemic.


The election was moved to a mail-in-only vote with the deadline extended to April 28.


Sanders dropped out of the race in April, leaving Biden as the presumptive Democratic nominee.


In the midst of the pandemic, there were no rallies or door-to-door campaigning. Ohioans were prominently featured in the conventions, which were moved online. Republican National Committee co-chair and Trump Ohio campaign adviser Bob Paduchik said that showed Ohio’s importance.


"The fact of the matter is that it is important, it's a barometer for the rest for the country," Paduchik said. "It's not insignificant that attention has been put on Ohio. So many resources have been put in place in it. We know the state matters to the president's electoral victory and we're not taking it for granted." 


Trump only stayed off the campaign trail for a few months. He came to Ohio in August, and DeWine got a positive COVID test result that scuttled a meeting with Trump. But two further tests showed that positive was false.


By this time DeWine was battling some fellow Republicans over the pandemic, and was repeatedly asked about Trump’s dismissal of masks and criticism of COVID restrictions – including before he met Trump between a pair of rallies in Toledo and near Dayton in September.


“This is a tough time. We have some people who are unemployed. We have people who, you know, don't want to wear a mask and, you know, a lot of different things. So I'm going to continue to focus on what I need to do. I think that's my job. I think it's what people elected me to do," DeWine said.


As Trump held those rallies, and counties that hosted them saw COVID case increases, there were Republicans who were frustrated.


Ex-Governor John Kasich spoke at the virtual Democratic National Convention. And his former presidential campaign adviser John Weaver helped formed the Lincoln Project and state level offshoots, including Ohio’s Operation Grant. Former state lawmaker Rocky Saxbe was among those encouraging votes for Biden from GOP critics of Trump.


“He has the party and party leaders held hostage and we are being led over the cliff," Saxbe said.


Cleveland hosted the first presidential debate in September, and afterward Biden, who hadn’t been campaigning much in person, began a whistle-stop tour of several states starting in Alliance.


A few days after the debate several people, including Trump, tested positive for COVID. After a weekend hospital stay, Trump started rallies again, including one in Circleville. He also discouraged early voting by mail, which Ohioans have done since 2006 – while flyers went out to Republican voters promoting voting early for Trump.


Polls through the fall showed Biden with a lead in Ohio, and as early voting began in October, Democratic affiliated voters flooded boards of elections with absentee ballot requests. But Republican pollster Neil Newhouse said GOP voters were motivated too, even before big events like the death of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.


“I think the intensity in this election was already a 12 on the 1-to-10 scale. And this just ratchets it up to, like, 15," Newhouse said. "It's hard to see how people could get any more focused in this election.”


Turnout bore out that analysis. A record of nearly 6 million Ohioans cast ballots, and Trump easily won Ohio by 475,000 votes, as noted by Republican strategist Mark Weaver.


"The big surprise is that pieces of eastern Ohio that used to be Democrat, reliably so are now turning Republican, Mahoning County perhaps being the most prominent of those," Weaver said.


But this marked the first election since 1960 in which a Republican won Ohio but lost the White House.


Republicans in Ohio also netted three seats in the state House and one in the Senate. While Democrats won one of two Ohio Supreme Court races, they also lost their party chairman, David Pepper, who said the party needs new leadership. No new chair has been named yet.




The Statehouse News Bureau was founded in 1980 to provide educational, comprehensive coverage of legislation, elections, issues and other activities surrounding the Statehouse to Ohio's public radio and television stations. To this day, the Bureau remains the only broadcast outlet dedicated to in-depth coverage of state government news and topics of statewide interest. The Bureau is funded througheTech Ohio, and is managed by ideastream. The reporters at the Bureau follow the concerns of the citizens and voters of Ohio, as well as the actions of the Governor, the Ohio General Assembly, the Ohio Supreme Court, and other elected officials. We strive to cover statehouse news, government issues, Ohio politics, and concerns of business, culture and the arts with balance and fairness, and work to present diverse voices and points of view from the Statehouse and throughout Ohio. The three award-winning journalists at the bureau have more than 60 combined years of radio and television experience. They can be heard on National Public Radio and are regular contributors to Morning Edition, All Things Considered and Marketplace. Every weekday, the Statehouse News Bureau produces in-depth news reports forOhio's public radio stations. Those stories are also available on this website, either on the front page or in our archives. Weekly, the Statehouse News Bureau produces a television show from our studios in the Statehouse. The State of Ohio is an unique blend of news, interviews, talk and analysis, and is broadcast on Ohio's public television stations. The Statehouse News Bureau also produces special programming throughout the year, including the Governor's annual State of the State address to the Ohio General Assembly and a five-part year-end review.
Related Content