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Rural Ohio Voters May Help Decide The 2020 Presidential Race

Earl Lehner on his farm in Delaware County.
Nick Evans
Earl Lehner on his farm in Delaware County.

Earl Lehner digs a big plastic scoop into a feed bin and dumps it into tray. There are four small pens next to one another, housing calves that are only a month or two old. The older cows are around the corner in the barn mooing for food.

Like most farmers in Ohio, Lehner grows corn and soy, but he also runs one of the last dairy operations in Delaware County.

Lehner, who chairs the Troy Township Board of Trustees, explains he’s been farming since 1982. In that time, he’s seen some of the lowest lows in the American agricultural sector, and some pretty high highs. At different moments he’s been happy—and frustrated—with presidential administrations on both sides of the aisle.

Donald Trump won Delaware County by 15 points in 2016. And when it comes to 2020, Lehner is unequivocal.

“I just think that it’ll be a lot more stable for the farm economy if we have four more years of Donald Trump,” he says.

That might seem counterintuitive, after Trump’s trade wars tanked grain markets. But Lehner, and many of his neighbors, believe confronting China needed to happen, and that a revised trade agreement with Mexico and Canada was a long time coming, too.

In the meantime, the administration poured billions into programs to get farmers through the slump. Now, soybean prices have climbed back up to the $10-plus mark they were at when Trump took office.

Ohio State University political scientist Herb Asher says Joe Biden's campaign hasn’t made a very strong pitch to the agricultural community.

“I haven’t heard the Biden campaign saying very much about agriculture,” Asher says. “The Democrats have a program for everything, but that’s not one of the things that’s been emphasized.”

Asher cautions that the ag sector isn’t a monolith, despite those bright red counties on electoral maps, and voters in those communities are highly sensitive to policy. For his part, Lehner worries Biden’s clean energy initiatives might force new and burdensome investments on farms like his.

While he admits it hasn’t always been rosy with Trump, Lehner believes the president’s record has been good enough to earn most farmers’ support.

“I think maybe the farm sector is maybe a bit heavier than they were in ’16,” Lehner says of support for Trump, “because they’ve seen what’s happened over the last four years—I think a majority. The rural vote, I don’t know. I’m seeing more of the other party’s signs in their yard than I’ve seen before.”

Next door in Licking County, Bryn Bird tracks support with signs, too. But she’s picking up on something different.

“I notice where the Trump signs are not this time,” Bird says. “There are so many Trump signs, and yes, you can go count a million, and there are a few Biden. But what I notice more are the big farm families or the people I know who are conservative for their [whole] life, and they do not have a Trump sign this time.”

Bryn Bird at her home Granville.
Credit Nick Evans / WOSU
Bryn Bird at her home Granville.

Bird is a Democrat, and a self-described progressive, living in a county that Trump won by a cool 29 points last time around. Bird also serves as a township trustee, and her family runs a produce farm selling at farmer’s markets and supplying large buyers like hospitals and schools. If you’ve had something with sweet potatoes at Northstar, they probably grew it.

Bird may be supporting Biden now, but she grew up Republican. She says she became skeptical of the GOP in college over issues like health care and immigration.

That background, Bird says, helps her empathize with people across the aisle. She finds many Republican voters are turned off by the president, but have a difficult time casting a ballot against a party they’ve identified with their entire lives.

“It’s a very personal thing that we’re asking people to do, and as much as these issues of immigration and health care and are important to me, there are other issues that are important to other people that I’m asking them to vote against,” Bird says. “It’s like the idea of, would I vote for a Republican and give up all these other things that are important to me? That’d be hard.”

Bird doesn’t expect Licking County to go blue in 2020, but she hopes some of those conversations can help shrink the margin.

Asher says that’s probably what the Democratic Party is trying to do, focusing on what he calls "ring counties" surrounding the urban centers.

“Like Delaware County, or Medina up north, even some parts of Butler and Warren County might be targets of opportunity,” Asher says. “Not necessarily to win them, but to lose them by lower margins than Obama lost them back in 2012 or Hillary lost them in 2016.”

In both Delaware and Licking County, the total votes cast early by mail or in person are already about 50% more than the entire early vote in 2016. Republicans are out-performing their 2016 mark, but only modestly, while independent voters and Democrats have nearly doubled their turnout already.

Nick Evans was a reporter at WOSU's 89.7 NPR News. He spent four years in Tallahassee, Florida covering state government before joining the team at WOSU.