COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) — For the first time, working-class whites make up less than half of Ohio's eligible voters, part of a demographic shift in a key Midwestern swing state that is pushing political parties to widen their appeal beyond the once-dominant bloc.
Nationwide, working-class whites — defined as those ages 18 to 64, with less than a bachelor's degree — are more likely to be socially conservative, less optimistic about their futures and skeptical of big government. But in Ohio, the group has been much more politically divided: encompassing deeply religious, GOP-leaning conservatives in rural areas as well as unionized blue-collar Democrats in cities.
Now, those voters are getting older, moving some of them into a 65-plus group that is more likely to back the GOP. The shift is one facet of a changing political order — and both parties say they are getting the message. The state, which a Republican National Committee panel is backing to host the 2016 GOP convention, has gone with the winning presidential candidate in every election since 1964. In 2012, President Barack Obama won Ohio by fewer than 200,000 votes out of more than 5.6 million cast.
"You can't ignore any quarter in Ohio, it's too balanced. If you put too much effort in one part over another, you lose," said Greg Haas, a long-time Democratic strategist who ran Bill Clinton's winning 1992 Ohio campaign.
About 4.1 million, or 48 percent, of eligible voters in Ohio are working-class whites, according to unpublished 2014 census data. That's down from 50.5 percent in November 2012. As recently as 1980, that number was 66 percent.
Most of the change is because they're aging out of the workforce: eligible white voters 65 and older in Ohio increased from 17.1 percent to 18.9 percent in 2014. In contrast, whites with at least a college degree edged up from a 17.4 percent share to 17.7 percent, and nonwhite eligible voters rose from 15.1 percent to 15.3 percent.
William H. Frey, a Brookings Institution demographer who analyzed the census data, said the narrow GOP-Democrat divide makes the shifts notable.
"Working-class whites in Ohio are not nearly as strongly Republican-leaning as those in most other states," he said.
Nationally, that demographic broke for Republicans by about 20 points on average in recent presidential elections. But in Ohio it's a narrower 10 points, according to exit polls.
As the working-class white vote shrinks, Ohio Democrats are working to paint themselves as the party of diversity — their 2014 statewide ticket features three white men, two white women and one black woman compared to the Republicans' all-but-one-male, all-white line-up — and appeal to women of all economic groups. The party staged a bus tour last month through Columbus, Cleveland and Toledo, led by U.S. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi.
Chris Redfern, Ohio's fiery Democratic chairman, said his party has long sought to expand outreach by hiring African-American voting coordinators around the state, which Obama won in 2012 thanks in part to strong black turnout.
"We're investing in those communities, we're not just paying lip service one month out of four years hoping we can turn out the vote," he said.
State GOP Chairman Matt Borges bluntly acknowledged that Republicans have often ignored non-white voters but said they can offer moderate candidates capable of winning the support of blacks and whites alike.
"You've got to be in these neighborhoods talking to voters," Borges said. "To some extent, we just have to be honest with ourselves: Over many cycles we've gotten away from that."
Republican Gov. John Kasich's campaign sometimes uses his office to highlight issues important to senior citizens — last September, he launched a statewide fall-prevention initiative — while the Republican National Committee courts a new wave of potential Ohio voters, including suburban women under 40 and young college conservatives. In April, RNC Chairman Reince Priebus addressed students at Central State University, a historically black college, during the launch of a College Republicans chapter.
The type of voters both parties seek includes David Vernon, 18, of Columbus, who will be a freshman at the University of Akron this fall. An avid user of social media who describes himself as moderate, Vernon said he has seen a steady increase in tweets from both parties aimed at attracting younger African-American voters to get involved in political campaigns.
Vernon said he appreciates the increased outreach and believes young adults like himself will be open to supporting either party this fall if candidates are forceful in addressing issues such as rising college loan debt, improving economic opportunity and ending the gridlock in Washington.
"Many young people I talk with are tired of both parties — they're almost burned out," he said.
AP Director of Polling Jennifer Agiesta contributed to this report.
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