A Trump Victory in Ohio Would Spell Bad News for Free Trade

March 12, 2016, 5:52 PM UTC

The threat of violence running through Donald Trump’s rallies took on a newly menacing shape in Chicago on Friday. With thousands of protesters massing inside and outside of a downtown arena, and the specter of bloody chaos looming, the candidate canceled the gathering there. Then Trump called around to cable news shows and refused to accept responsibility for the tone of his events, despite repeatedly encouraging violent countermeasures against protesters from his podium. So much for a pivot to a more restrained campaign.

If past is prologue, this latest Trump-centric outrage will swallow the news cycles between today and Tuesday, when a round of key primaries could reset the trajectory of the race. Nevertheless, the fight for Ohio, in both parties, deserves special attention.

Last Tuesday, voters’ anti-trade anger helped propel Trump and Bernie Sanders to a pair of big victories in Michigan — in Sanders’ case, a poll-defying upset. Hillary Clinton’s campaign acknowledged the damage the issue did, signaling she’s recalibrating her economic message to emphasize her opposition to trade deals ahead of this week’s voting. And Sanders plans to recycle his Michigan game plan in Ohio, focusing on Clinton’s past support for the agreements to continue drawing a contrast.

The Republican fight could be even more revealing, as it’s shaping up as a showdown between a protectionist Trump and John Kasich, the state’s popular governor and a longtime free-trade champion. Kasich, for example, embraces the Trans Pacific Partnership, which Trump has roundly trashed.

If the Buckeye State ratifies Michigan’s results, it should prompt a new order of alarm for those still hoping the United States approves the TPP. At first glance, the two states have much in common beyond a border: Ohio’s manufacturing strength historically has derived from its auto parts makers that supplied Detroit’s Big Three car companies.

But the state’s economy has diversified. Growth in healthcare and professional services helped Ohio bounce back from the recession faster and stronger than Michigan. Chinese investors are rebuilding Toledo’s waterfront. Honda’s plant in Maryville is the state’s biggest auto factory.

“In so many ways, Ohio looks more like the rest of the U.S. than Michigan does,” says Steve Cochrane of Moody’s Analytics.

Michigan was ripe for anti-trade appeals; if Ohio goes for them, too, it will be a bellwether of a wider hostility to the deals.

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