During elections, the word ‘bellwether’ often crops up and is assigned to a state or county or other region or to this or that indicator as people decide where to focus their attentions on. Given the many factors at play, people try to identify things that have in the past been good indicators of the larger mood. Most people know the meaning of this word as signifying a leader or indicator of trends. But where does this strange word come from?
It looks like a compound word but the second part ‘wether’ has an unfamiliar spelling. In the effort to make sense of it, sometimes the word is misspelled as ‘bellweather’, perhaps in the vague belief that it arose from the wind causing a bell to toll and thus alert people that something is happening. It does not make too much sense as a metaphor but many idioms have strayed far from their origins.
But I learned recently that ‘wether’ is an actual word and is the label given to a male sheep or goat castrated before sexual maturity and that such animals would be chosen by the shepherd to have a bell attached to them and be used to lead the flock and alert the shepherd as to where the flock was heading by the sound of the bell, even if the flock was out of sight.
So there you are. The metaphor is appropriate after all.
Ohio used to be considered a bellwether state mainly because it seemed to reflect the overall population of the US. But recently it has not mirrored the general demographic trends in the US and is instead becoming older and whiter. As a result, it is predicted that soon Ohio will be a solidly red state, according to Nathaniel Swigger of Ohio State University, and in the last election, Donald Trump won Ohio comfortably.
In recent elections, Ohio has been considered a bellweather that mirrors nationwide results. For example, in 2008 and 2012 President Obama’s margin of victory in Ohio was roughly the same as his margin nationwide. The partisan balance in the electorate has made it an important, competitive swing state for decades.
The story of Ohio elections is a familiar story in American politics: Urban areas are dominated by Democrats; rural areas are dominated by Republicans. The urban-rural split in Ohio is primarily due to the concentration of Democratic blocs such as young voters and African-Americans in cities.
However, while cities like Columbus and Cincinnati are thriving, rural areas and the state as a whole are not. Demographic trends in Ohio should worry Democrats beyond 2016. Ohio ranks near the bottom in population growth and has an aging population.
While the country as a whole is becoming more diverse, this is not really true of Ohio. The state is only about 13 percent African-American and 3 percent Latino, whereas Latinos make up about 17 percent of the national population. Those numbers haven’t risen much. If the polls are accurate, the Clinton coalition will consist of young people, Latinos, African-Americans and college-educated white voters. In the state of Ohio, none of those groups are likely to grow in size in the foreseeable future.
If these trends continue, Ohio is more likely to become a dependable red state like Indiana.
I used to commiserate with my friends who lived in deep red states that were overwhelmingly populated by people who did not share their social values. It looks like very soon I am going to be one of them, though the small suburban town that I live in will likely still be progressive for some time.