There are elegant attempts to appeal to voters, and there are clunky ones. In an NBC News report published Sunday, Americans were introduced to one of the clunkiest: Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’s (R) effort to portray himself as an Ohioan in spirit.
“I was geographically raised in Tampa Bay,” the article by Henry Gomez quotes from DeSantis’s recently published book, “but culturally my upbringing reflected the working-class communities in western Pennsylvania and northeast Ohio — from weekly church attendance to the expectation that one would earn his keep.”
To some extent, DeSantis is simply tapping into the core value proposition of his state: Florida is where you arrive from somewhere else to live out your life. It’s just that his particular claim on Midwestern values is Lamarckian, passed to the governor not from experience in northeast Ohio or Pennsylvania but, instead, by way of his parents. This framing — born and raised in one place but claiming another indirectly — spurred a flurry of ungenerous social-media mockery, for understandable reasons.
From a political perspective, though, DeSantis’s challenge isn’t really that he’s claiming the swing-state of Pennsylvania only tangentially. It’s that his effort to claim kinship with voters in that region before a likely 2024 presidential bid is an attempt to claim kinship with a voting base that’s already nestled in Donald Trump’s pocket.
I myself was geographically raised in northeast Ohio — as well as western New York, where I was born and lived until I was a teenager. (Culturally, my upbringing was online.) I attended high school in Howland, Ohio, in Trumbull County, just north of Mahoning County, home to Youngstown and, at one time, DeSantis’s maternal grandparents. The governor still has family in the area, Gomez reported, including both an aunt and an uncle who hold positions with the Catholic church.
Much of what Gomez describes in his portrait of the area — his article is more about DeSantis’s cultural motherland than the governor himself — resonates with my experience in the region, including the heavy (and, perhaps to outsiders, unexpected) presence of Italian Americans in the region, for example. When I was in high school, the DeBartolo family, owners of the San Francisco 49ers, were something akin to local royalty. In 1998, Ed DeBartolo Jr. pleaded guilty to a federal charge of failing to report a solicited bribe. When Donald Trump pardoned him nine months before the 2020 election, it seemed clear that the then-president was hoping to send a message to voters in the area.
But northeast Ohio was already Trump country. From 2004 to 2020, Mahoning and Trumbull counties shifted to the right by 35 and 41 points, respectively. In 2008, the two counties voted Democratic by a combined 25 percentage points. In 2012, it was 26 points.
Then came Trump. The two counties backed Trump over Hillary Clinton by 1.1 percentage points. In 2020, Trump’s advantage jumped to 6 points.
Only six of Ohio’s 88 counties have moved to the left relative to the national vote margin since 2004 — three near Columbus and three near Cincinnati. Mahoning and Trumbull Counties, like other working-class counties in the eastern half of the state, moved sharply to the right.
That term “working-class” is important here. Places with more White people without college degrees are places that Trump fared better in both 2016 and 2020. That Mahoning County is a place with a lot of White voters without degrees is a central reason that it moved to the right in 2016.
There’s a correlation between education and the 2020 vote by county in Ohio, as seen below.
Mahoning and Trumbull counties are more moderate than other counties with equivalent percentages of the population that don’t have a college degree. That’s in part because each has a relatively large non-White population compared to other counties in the state. Youngstown has a lot of working-class Italian Americans. It is also more than 40 percent Black.
It’s the former group with whom DeSantis is hoping to establish communion, so to speak. But, again, this is already a region that’s fallen under Trump’s sway. A former Republican official told NBC News’s Gomez that DeSantis had an appealing background for voters in the area: “Ethnic. Catholic. Conservative.” And also: “The people here like a lot of the Trump stuff. [DeSantis] adopts a lot of that.” Though not as much as Trump.
Polling of the Republican primary field (of which DeSantis is not yet officially a part) indicates that Trump and DeSantis are running 1 to 2. One division? Education. Republican primary voters without degrees are much more heavily supportive of Trump than DeSantis, particularly men.
It’s likely that DeSantis’s book is meant to be a general campaign tome and not just a primary one. (There’s no question that it’s a campaign tome, of course.) He’s making a pitch for October 2024, when he hopes that he’ll be the Republican nominee, and locking up support from his father’s home territory of western Pennsylvania. But first he needs to get past Trump.
Trump, incidentally, was geographically raised in Queens but, by recent appearances, brought up culturally in Staten Island: hostile to Manhattan elites and sympathetic with the sorts of conservatives who display their national heritage with flags hanging by their front doors. Ironically, while DeSantis has second-order roots in the northeast Ohio area, it’s Trump who better gets the vibe there.
And quite possibly the votes.