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Ohio may decide who the next president is—and right now, it’s pointing to Trump

Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump campaigning in Ohio earlier this year.
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Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump campaigning in Ohio earlier this year.

If history is any guide, this election could come down to one state: Ohio.

You can almost bet that whoever wins the Buckeye State — Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton — will win the White House.

The reason isn't Ohio's 18 electoral votes — plenty of battleground states like Florida and Pennsylvania are worth more. And it isn't because Ohio is a so-called "blue collar" state, because Ohio is harder to define in any singular way. In fact, it's Ohio's incredibly diverse demographic, economic, and geographic makeup that makes it matter so much in elections.

I learned that 20 years ago when I was working at Cleveland's WJW-TV. During my first week, one of the older reporters sidled over to my desk and said: "Kid, let me tell you something. This might be a local station, but we cover the national news every night because every national story ends up involving someone from Ohio. And that includes stories about Americans overseas. Get used to it."

Sure enough, he turned out to be right. At first I thought it was a coincidence, but as I traveled the state more extensively for professional and personal reasons, I realized why it was true: Ohio might as well be six states instead of one.

The Cleveland/Akron/Toledo regions are pretty much their own state, not unlike truly blue collar areas like we also see in Michigan and western Pennsylvania.

Cincinnati and its environs have the look, feel, and often the climate of more Southern-esque states like Kentucky and West Virginia.

Dayton, home of the massive Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, resembles the military installation-heavy states in the western U.S. And its large population of military families is often why Ohio-natives are among our troops engaged in overseas battles and operations.

The Columbus area resembles much of the upper middle class white-collar Northeast. But it also includes Ohio State University, which is very much a city and civilization unto itself resembling major college towns spread out through other regions of the country.

America's corporations have known this for generation. In fact, Ohio remains an actual test market for a lot of consumer product corporations, as they still primarily preview almost everything from makeup to fast food in the Buckeye State.

Ohio is important in national elections because it's almost like a one-stop shopping test market for candidates trying to gauge their overall appeal. The numbers prove it: In each of the last four presidential elections, the statewide results in Ohio were almost exactly the same as the national results. In 2012, Barack Obama beat Mitt Romney in Ohio, 51 percent to 47 percent, just like he did nationally. In 2004, George W. Bush beat John Kerry in Ohio, 51 percent to 49 percent, also just like the final national results.

And I know you think the 2000 election was all about Florida, but many critics say the Gore campaign really blew the election when it packed up and left Ohio about a week before Election Day to concentrate on Florida. It turns out, if they had fought harder in Ohio, where Gore narrowly lost, Florida might not have mattered.

The lesson in all of this is that it's almost impossible to win over Ohio's diverse and representative voters and flop everywhere else that matters. And the converse is also true: If you fail to win over the voters of Ohio, it's not likely you will be able to make up for it "elsewhere." Because Ohio is "elsewhere," or at least a significant portion of it is.

All of these facts about Ohio's crucial role in elections looked like they might be out the window this time because of Governor John Kasich's presidential candidacy followed by his subsequent and continued resistance to Trump. But Trump's surge in the state, where he now leads according to three polls and owns the advantage in the average of all polls (despite the pushback from Kasich) proves that his campaign really is gaining formidable strength among a wider national sampling of the electorate.

Clinton may be ahead in a lot of the polls right now but it seems like a pretty significant pattern: If you've won Ohio, you've won the nation. And right now, Trump is winning Ohio.


Commentary by Jake Novak, CNBC.com senior columnist. Follow him on Twitter @jakejakeny.

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