During a tour of a Miamisburg training center Aug. 16, Republican Sen. Portman talked at length about the prospect of Ohioans splitting their votes in November, voting one way in the presidential race and another way in the Senate race.
“Voters get that,” he said. “They can make that distinction between the presidential campaign and my campaign. That shows up in the polls.”
But decades of political history in Ohio shows the party that wins the presidency normally prevails in the Senate race as well. Since 1948, Ohio voters have backed one party for president and the other for the U.S. Senate only three times — each time choosing a Republican for president and a Democrat for the Senate.
Portman in recent polls is running well ahead of the GOP presidential nominee, Donald Trump, in terms of voter support, and he appears to have a healthy lead in his race against Democrat Ted Strickland.
A Real Clear Politics compilation of recent polls in the race gives Portman a 6.4 percent advantage over Strickland.
But as Hillary Clinton opens up a lead in the presidential race — Clinton had a 10-point lead in a Reuters/Ipsos poll last week — analysts say Republicans in down-ballot races could be vulnerable, particularly if the presidential race results in a landslide.
A split ticket “is pretty unusual in recent history of Ohio,” said Mark Caleb Smith, director for the Center of Political Studies at Cedarville University.
Ohio ranks in the bottom half of states for the number of times voters have split between the presidency and the Senate, according to a study of voting patterns over the last 100 years by the University of Minnesota’s Smart Politics.
But it doesn’t happen very often anywhere. Just three states — Montana, North Dakota and Rhode Island — had split results in at least half of the races during that time span.
Ticket splitting has become increasingly rare as the electorate becomes more polarized.
In 1984, for example, roughly half of the states holding U.S. Senate races chose a Senate candidate from one party and a president from another. Even Minnesota, the lone state won by the Democratic nominee, Walter Mondale, went for a Republican, Rudy Boschwitz, for Senate.
But by 2012, only one in five states holding Senate races split tickets, said G. Terry Madonna, director of the Center for Politics and Public Affairs at Franklin and Marshall College.
The difference, analysts say, is polarization: Voters increasingly vote a straight-party ticket. While research indicates more voters than ever identify themselves as independent, their votes tell another story.
Richard Born, a political science professor at Vassar College, said Senate candidates bucking a presidential trend can break through, but it takes a concerted effort to pick an issue that stands out in voters’ minds.
Portman’s first few TV ads focused on his work on opioids, highlighting parents who had lost children to the state’s drug epidemic. Those ads don’t even mention Strickland’s name.
Money also helps. As of June 30, the last reporting period, Portman had $13.2 million to Strickland’s $3.7 million. Portman has been airing ads since June, while Strickland began airing his first TV ad in August.
The last time Ohio voters backed a Senate candidate from one party and a presidential candidate from another was 1988, when Democrat Howard Metzenbaum won the Senate race while George H.W. Bush took Ohio on his romp to the presidency.
Peter Harris, a retired Democratic consultant who managed Metzenbaum’s 1988 campaign, said the candidate focused his initial ads on positive messages aimed at defining Metzenbaum to voters. The focus, he said, was getting “to the voter with the most credible message first.”
Portman appears to be following a similar script, although some of his ads have taken shots at Strickland for presiding over an economic downturn during his governorship.
Polls show Portman has relatively low name identification with voters, despite a lengthy career in politics. As a result, he has worked to reach beyond his usual base of support by touting union endorsements and reaching out to traditionally liberal college students with SnapChat geofilters that advertise his work in the Senate. He just finished a two-week RV tour of the state.
Born said of all the endangered Republicans this cycle, Portman has performed the best.
“Portman is kind of an exemplar of how to survive the perilous times in 2016,” he said.
‘No one can survive a giant margin’
Strickland spokesman David Bergstein doesn’t buy the Portman survival theory, saying he has a “fantasy strategy” that ignores his support for Trump. That support, said Bergstein, puts Portman “out of step with Ohio voters of every political persuasion.”
Strickland has worked persistently to link Portman to Trump, whose campaign has attracted some voters with his “Make America Great Again” theme and stance against political correctness while turning off others with incendiary statements about Muslims, Hispanics and women.
Whether Portman gets hurt by the party’s presidential nominee may depend on if Trump can mount a comeback during the next three months.
“No one can survive a giant margin,” said Larry Sabato, director for the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia. “You don’t have that big a disparity between the top of the ticket and the very next line.”
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