Tight race in a reliably Republican Ohio county could spell trouble for Trump

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Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump arrives for a campaign rally in Canton, Ohio, U.S., September 14, 2016.  REUTERS/Mike Segar - RTSNSRV

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GWEN IFILL: In Ohio, Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton appear to be in a dead heat. But the stakes are higher for Trump. The Buckeye State has voted for the winning candidate in every election since 1964, and no Republican has ever won the White House without it.

Tonight, we begin a two-part look at two counties that tell the tale.

John Yang starts our reporting in a suburb outside Columbus.

JOHN YANG: September in Delaware, Ohio, means the annual All-Horse Parade, the biggest event of its kind east of the Mississippi. And among those gathered along the parade route, we found enthusiastic supporters on both sides in the presidential horse race.

Retired educator Gail Carpenter is voting for Donald Trump.

GAIL CARPENTER: We need a bull in a China shop to break things up. It’s not working. The economy’s bad. I’m very worried about Iran and North Korea. I feel like he will do what he needs to do to keep us safe.

JOHN YANG: Jen Villanueva Henkle, who works with children, backs Hillary Clinton.

JEN VILLANUEVA HENKLE: She’s done a lot for women and children and people living in poverty for the entire history of her career. We support her and we’re excited to see her be our next president.

JOHN YANG: But there were also folks like Julie Lamb.

JULIE LAMB: It’s been a crazy ride for the last year. And I’m Republican, so that’s probably the way I’m going to go, but not that necessarily that crazy about that candidate.

JOHN YANG: And here in the most Republican county in Ohio, that could spell trouble for Trump.

Polls in the state show him locked in a tight contest with Clinton. No Republican has won the White House without winning this state. Both campaigns have opened field offices in Delaware County within the past week. This is Ohio’s wealthiest and fastest-growing county. Farmland is quickly giving way to manicured lawns and big houses.

Republican presidential candidates have won this county in every election since before this diner opened in 1932.

KYLE KONDIK, University of Virginia Center for Politics: You would expect a Republican to run 10 to 15 points better in a place like Delaware than they do statewide.

JOHN YANG: And that’s where we met Kyle Kondik of the University of Virginia Center for Politics. He’s written a book on Ohio’s role in picking presidents, “The Bellwether.”

KYLE KONDIK: What a Republican needs to do is run up the score in Ohio in the conservative rural counties and also the high-income, highly educated suburban counties that again are typically very Republican.

JOHN YANG: Like Delaware County.

KYLE KONDIK: Like Delaware County. And that’s the path to victory. And I think we saw that with George W. Bush in 2000 and 2004.

If Trump isn’t doing quite as well as Republicans typically do in some of those places, that might be a problem for him and he will have to make up the votes elsewhere.

JOHN YANG: Which is why voters like John Stark, who owns a construction company, are a threat to Trump’s chances.

Your first election, presidential election was what year?

JOHN STARK, Sunbury, Ohio Resident: 1984.

JOHN YANG: You voted for?

JOHN STARK: For Reagan.

JOHN YANG: And which party’s candidate have you voted for ever since?

JOHN STARK: The Republicans.

JOHN YANG: Until now?

JOHN STARK: Yes, I think this will be the first time not to, honestly.

JOHN YANG: Was that a difficult decision for you, as someone who has voted for the Republican candidate every time since 1984?

JOHN STARK: No. When I first saw Trump, I knew I couldn’t vote for him.

(LAUGHTER)

JOHN YANG: Nothing Trump has said or done since has swayed him.

JOHN STARK: The Republican Party to me is a party of small government, low regulations, low taxes. And here we’re not really sure what he stands for, except himself. He likes to talk about himself a lot.

JOHN YANG: Trump’s economic message doesn’t resonate with voters in this prosperous county like Stark. He says business is good. And his son got a job as an audio engineer a within a week of graduating college. Voting for Clinton was never an option.

His candidate? Libertarian Gary Johnson.

Do you worry that voting for Johnson could help Clinton?

JOHN STARK: I guess I don’t care.

You know, I got — you got to have principles, right?

JOHN YANG: But it’s not as if Clinton’s having an easy ride here. Cathy Okunlola was an enthusiastic Barack Obama supporter in 2008 and 2012. This time, she’s backing Clinton, but without that same excitement.

CATHY OKUNLOLA, Ostrander, Ohio Resident: She’s not going to get up and have those huge inspiring rallies that Obama did, you know? It’s not like a big party when you walk in the room for Hillary, but she gets the job done. And she really wants to help people, I think. Like, she’s doing it for the right reasons, I think.

JOHN YANG: A stay-at-home mother of two young daughters, Okunlola said her main goal on Election Day is to beat Trump.

CATHY OKUNLOLA: I really dislike Trump. I never really believed he would be the nominee, but, hey, here we are. So, yes, so I’m voting for Hillary.

JOHN YANG: She struggled to put her feelings about Clinton into words.

CATHY OKUNLOLA: There’s that kid in your class that just plugs away at everything, you know? They’re not exactly the popular kid, and they’re not exactly super talented at music or anything, but they just — they study hard, and they show up, and they’re always the talk of the class.

Obama would have been the prom king and everybody would’ve loved him. And everybody went to school with somebody like that, you know, that everybody wanted to be around. And she’s not that person, but she is somebody where, if you were in trouble, that’s who you wanted, you know?

JOHN YANG: Voters like Stark and Okunlola could well decide who wins Ohio and perhaps, the presidency.

Analyst Kyle Kondik:

KYLE KONDIK: I would suspect the margin between Trump and Clinton in Delaware County will be smaller than the typical margin between a Republican and Democrat in this county, and that could be very helpful to Clinton, but Trump may have opportunities to make that up in some more traditionally Democratic places that might be a little bit more Republican this time.

JOHN YANG: As voters face very unpopular choices and try to pick a winner in the presidential horse race.

For the “PBS NewsHour,” I’m John Yang in Delaware County, Ohio.

GWEN IFILL: Tomorrow, John crosses the state to report from a traditional Democratic stronghold where Donald Trump is hoping to make inroads.

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