LISBON, Ohio (AP) — Skip Hawk is Ohio’s close political divide personified. The 66-year-old retired foreman pondered his fall ballot options over a gravy-slathered breakfast at the Steel Trolley Diner recently and figured he’ll probably pick Republican Donald Trump for president but local son Ted Strickland, a Democrat, in the race for U.S. Senate.
“It’s no big deal to me,” says Hawk, a Republican. “Whoever I vote for will probably lose.”
Losing is what just about all the candidates are worried about in this most unusual and unpredictable of political years.
Appalachian Ohio, a swath of rural and industrial counties running south down the state’s eastern border, is considered a small but mighty barometer this election cycle of how voter disillusionment and anger will play out. It’s a place where party labels mean even less than usual lately.
“We had a member of our central committee pull a Republican ballot in the primary,” said Patty Colian, who vice-chairs the Columbiana County Democratic Party whose headquarters sits just blocks of the GOP’s on Lisbon’s main drag.
Colian said her Democratic colleague may have wanted to vote for — or against— Trump or to support the now-suspended presidential bid of Ohio Gov. John Kasich, also a Republican. Neighboring Mahoning County, a storied Democratic and labor stronghold, had to print 6,000 extra GOP primary ballots because of such high demand.
“You’re dealing with individual people, so there are lots of things that can be simultaneously true,” said Justin Holmes, an assistant political science professor at the University of Northern Iowa.
Holmes said the extent of the partisan crossovers would be shocking in any other year. He said Trump is energizing working-class white voters, leaving other candidates of both parties weighing how often to reset their messages in response.
“Trump makes a mess of it a little bit because his positions are all over the map, and he’s not sort of traditionally Republican,” Holmes said. “Trump can be on three sides of an issue within the span of 12 hours. That’s a trait that’s concerning for him, but potentially dangerous for other candidates. They run the risk of alienating everybody.”
Democrat Hillary Clinton took political hits in coal country when she said in March that she would “put a lot of coal miners and coal companies out of business.”
She was responding to a question about how her policies would benefit poor white people in Southern states, but not long after the remarks political ally Strickland lost his long-time support from the United Mine Workers to Senate incumbent Rob Portman, a Cincinnati Republican.
Strickland went back to Ohio’s 6th Congressional District, where he served six terms in Congress, to remind voters of his roots in the area —a trip Portman described as “damage control.”
The 6th District is almost exclusively white and close to 9 in 10 residents lack a college education. The median home value is $98,400 and almost half the population is over 45.
Trump won most of the counties in the district in Ohio’s March Republican primary, a contest also marked by extensive voter crossover statewide. Ohio Secretary of State Jon Husted reported Republicans netted 1,030,752 newly affiliated voters and Democrats netted 747,275.
Holmes said white working-class voters hold a mixture of values that tend to transcend party platforms, such as disliking both big government and big business, and being both pro-gun and pro-labor. Another bloc of disenfranchised voters put their support behind Democrat Bernie Sanders, the Vermont senator who’s still running but pledges to help Clinton defeat Trump in the fall.
Back at the Steel Trolley Diner, 19-year-old Jenna Jackson said she’s planning to vote for Clinton.
“I want Hillary to win,” she said. “I don’t know. Trump’s just mean.”
Her friend Nicole Blosser, also 19, said she’ll vote for Trump. Neither had decided how they would vote in the Senate race between Strickland and Portman. Campaign and party committees, as well as national outside groups, are pouring tens of millions of combined dollars into swaying Appalachia’s choice.