Analysis: What does J.D. Vance gain from a Trump visit to Dayton?

If former President Donald Trump and Republican J.D. Vance are hoping to win over undecided voters with a rally in Montgomery County on the eve of the Nov. 8 election, chances are they will come up short, according to local political scientists.

The experts said the high profile visit from the controversial ex-president likely will appeal to the Republican base, but could also motivate Democrats to vote for U.S. Rep. Tim Ryan, D-Howland Twp., who is Vance’s opponent in the race for U.S. Senate.

“I think Trump’s appearance in Ohio is not designed to persuade undecided voters. Instead, I think the goal is to generate enthusiasm in the Republican base and thereby drive up GOP turnout,” said Mark Caleb Smith, director of the Cedarville University Center for Political Studies. “If the goal were to reach undecided voters, Trump would be the wrong messenger. He is too polarizing to reach truly undecided voters.”

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Trump scheduled a Monday 8 p.m. rally at Wright Brothers Aero Inc., at 3700 McCauley Drive at the Dayton International Airport, announcing he would campaign for candidates he supports, including Vance. Doors open at 3 p.m. and tickets are available at Trump’s Save America website.

Ryan also will rally in Dayton, holding his Workers First rally tonight at the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 82, 6550 Poe Ave., Vandalia. Doors open at 6 p.m. for the 6:45 p.m. rally. It is open to the public and tickets are not required.

“There is some evidence from political science research that campaign visits can mobilize voters on the other side just as much as, if not more than, the party organizing the event,” said Christopher Devine, an assistant professor of political science at University of Dayton who has written a book about presidential campaign visits.

“For example, one study shows that Trump’s visits in 2016 increased local donations to his campaign, but also increased donations to Hillary Clinton’s campaign,” Devine said “It’s possible, in this case, that Trump’s visits could galvanize Tim Ryan’s supporters or alienate undecided voters, especially if Trump goes off-message or creates controversy, as he’s known to do.”

Credit: Larry Burgess

Credit: Larry Burgess

Smith called Trump’s visit “a double-edged sword.”

“It may help Vance generate enthusiasm among Republican supporters, but it may also do the same among Democrats. Perhaps most critically, it may also remind the squeamish Republican voters, the ones who supported (state Sen.) Matt Dolan in the GOP primary, of why they supported Dolan,” Smith said. “While the current Republican Party is clearly Trump’s party, there are at least some Republicans not that thrilled about it.”

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Smith said Democratic Party candidates benefit if people perceive the midterm elections as being about Trump.

“That means the election is less about (President Joe) Biden and the economy, and more about Trump’s role in current American politics,” Smith said. “I am sure the Ryan campaign is secretly happy about his presence. It shows that Vance is concerned, and it helps remove the spotlight from more complicated issues for Democrats.”

Credit: Tom E. Puskar

Credit: Tom E. Puskar

With less than a week to go before Election Day, increasingly smaller numbers of voters are undecided in the race, which public polls consistently show is tight. Devine said the people who attend campaign rallies tend to be those who’ve already decided on the candidate, but there is a small chance that afterward they could then persuade acquaintances to support the candidate.

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With little time left to change minds about a candidate the key with these late rallies is to make sure people take time to vote, said Lee Hannah Jr., associate professor of political science at Wright State University.

“My guess is that Vance is doing pretty well with turning out the base, (with) much less crossover appeal than Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine, but that there are some voters who question his authenticity when it comes to his support of Trump,” Hannah said. “This rally is an effort to shore up that support.”

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Trump’s rallies in Ohio and elsewhere test his influence with voters and are designed to make him appear powerful, said Daniel R. Birdsong, senior lecturer in political science at the University of Dayton.

“If they have the event and Vance wins, it gives Trump the appearance that he helped,” Birdsong said. “If Vance loses, then the story will be how Trump hurt him, or that Vance’s past anti-Trump comments hurt him, or that voters didn’t really trust Vance.”

Montgomery County is close to Vance’s Middletown hometown, which he depicted in his book “Hillbilly Elegy.” It is a good media market for candidates and competitive for Republicans after Trump took 48% of the countywide vote in 2020, Smith said.

“So there may be an effort to increase Vance’s vote totals in the county as well. If this is a close election, those votes could matter,” Smith said. “In a state that is trending red, that Trump won handily in 2020, the assumption seems to be that Trump’s presence can help replicate that result for Vance. Given the political climate in the nation, this is probably a reasonable assumption.”

A campaign visit by a former or current president always garners plenty of media attention but Ryan has not campaigned with Biden, who has struggled nationally in public opinion polls.

“Respondents give Joe Biden low marks for his job approval (36%) and his handling of the economy (33%). Donald Trump continues to have strong support in the Buckeye state (55% favorability),” according to a mid-October poll of likely voters in Ohio by the Institute for Civics and Public Policy at Ohio Northern University.

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Ryan has distanced himself from some of Biden’s policies and from the national party and said he supported some of Trump’s trade policies.

“He’s talked a lot about his efforts to unseat Nancy Pelosi from the (House) speakership and he said he doesn’t think Biden should run in 2024,” Hannah said.

It isn’t unusual for presidents to stay away from some races, he said, listing President George Bush in 2006, President Barack Obama in 2010 and 2014 and Trump in 2018.

“Some candidates can use the juice from a major national leader appearing for them,” Hannah said. “But given that Ohio is a red-leaning state in a good environment for the GOP, Ryan is better served to associate himself with other leaders, like hosting campaign stops with U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin, D-WV.”

The local experts say the Ryan-Vance race to replace retiring U.S. Sen. Rob Portman, R-OH, is one of the most consequential in the country, and one that is surprisingly tight given Republican dominance in Ohio.

“It really does feel like this race is too close to call. It’s worth noting that statewide polls going back to 2016 have underestimated Republican support. And we won’t know until Election Day whether or not they have corrected,” Hannah said.

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“Clearly, a Ryan win would be a significant get for the Democrats and would close off a lot of pathways for the Republicans to retake the Senate. And by keeping it close, Ryan has forced the national Republican Party to spend over $30 million to shore up this seat,” Hannah said.

“So, even if Ryan loses, he might serve an important role by forcing the GOP to siphon resources towards Ohio, money they might have thought they would spend on Pennsylvania and Georgia.”

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