As national politics dominate, will local issues get less attention?
Last week, Democratic political newcomers Mary Lightbody, Beth Liston and Allison Russo beat strong Republican candidates in traditionally Republican Franklin County suburban statehouse races. The margin of victory for these wins was 11 percent, 13 percent and 14 percent, respectively.
Do these results sound familiar? If they do, you probably have been following these races closely: Hillary Clinton won these house districts by 9 percent, 14 percent and 11 percent, respectively, in her 2016 presidential run.
After the results came in Tuesday night, I pulled together the results for Democratic House candidates across the state to see how close their outcomes were compared with Clinton's 2016 outcomes. It turns out that Clinton's 2016 outcomes explain about 80 percent of the variation among Democratic House candidates' outcomes statewide in 2018.
The relationship between the 2016 presidential election and 2018 state elections gets even closer if you throw out uncontested races. Democrats made a concerted effort this year to put someone in the ballot in every statehouse race. Republicans did not do the same, choosing not to run candidates in eight blue house races where Trump averaged only 27 percent of the vote in 2016.
If you take out these uncontested races, the relationship between 2016 presidential outcomes and 2018 statehouse outcomes jumps to 90 percent! This means that statehouse races in 2018 were, at the very most, only 10 percent impacted by local factors and 90 percent impacted by national factors very similar to the 2016 presidential race.
These numbers get even crazier if you look at state Senate outcomes. Using the same technique, 2016 presidential outcomes by state Senate district explain 98 percent of the variation in 2018 state Senate outcomes. This means that state Senate votes were, at the very most, only 2 percent driven by local factors.
Politics in Ohio are becoming increasingly nationalized. Rather than focusing on local issues such as how to adjust to the rapid growth Central Ohio is experiencing, or acute localized public health issues such as infant mortality rates and the opioid crisis, voters are casting their local ballots in 2018 in much the same manner as they cast their national ballots in 2016.
There can be some benefits to this approach. We are, after all, the United States of America. Less geographic tribalism and more focus on the national political situation could be a good thing for national unity.
On the other hand, our federal system is built on the assumption that people are more attached to their states and localities than the country as a whole. University of Pennsylvania Political Scientist Daniel Hopkins writes in his book The Increasingly United States that increased nationalization of local politics can drive local candidates to pay less attention to local issues and focus more on national ambitions. This could mean lower-quality governance at the local level right here in Central Ohio.
One thing is for certain, though: Politics are becoming increasingly less local nationwide. And we're seeing that trend play out here in Central Ohio.