Watergate, Trump and Ohio's Unpredictable Voters


Trump could trigger an avalanche of Democrats like the Watergate scandal did, but the 1975 race for Ohio Governor could’ve set a chilling precedent for the 2020 presidential election.



Date: November 1, 2020
Author: Taylor Dorrell

Richard Nixon boarding Army One upon his departure from the White House after resigning the office of President of the United States following the Watergate Scandal in 1974.

    “I’ve done more in 47 months than you did in 47 years”, Trump famously proclaimed in the first presidential debate of 2020. This statement and the subsequent attention it received afterward were compelling, mainly because the last 4 years have felt like 47 years, but not in a positive sense.

            It seems like Trump has had an uncountable amount of supposed career-ending scandals, or Watergate moments, since he took office. From the Muslim ban and putting kids in cages to being impeached for withholding aid to Ukraine and now treating the deadly pandemic, along with the recession, with indifference and self interest.

            It’s hard to predict what will happen next in our hypernormalized state where 230,000 dead Americans are seen as a hoax. But if just a few of Trump’s Watergate moments can find traction in the minds of voters, we in Ohio could potentially see the same results that took place after the Watergate scandal in the 1970s.

Anti-Watergate

            In 1970, two years before the start of the Watergate scandal, Ohio had its own corruption scandal. Republican officials were found investing state money in questionable financial instruments. This was known as the Crofters scandal and ended up contributing to a distrust in the Republican party. Ohioans subsequently voted in a wave of Democrats including Governor John Gilligan in 1971.

            The Watergate scandal, taking place between 1972-1974, was met by Americans communicating their intolerance for corruption through protest and subsequent elections. Voters, in response to Nixon’s corruption, caused an avalanche of Democratic candidates to take office across the board. This fueled the preexisting avalanche in Ohio for years to come.

Today’s Watergate(s)

            There is a similar local and national scandal taking place for the Republican party today. Ohio was plastered across the news when the HB6 controversy started to unfold this year. The scandal includes the arrest of Republican Ohio Speaker of the House, Larry Householder, for accepting bribes to fund failing nuclear power plants.

    Republican officials are then put in a position where they have to choose between following suit with Trump or breaking with him, causing many to call out Republicans like Governor Mike Dewine who consistently dodges questions about Trump as COVID numbers skyrocket. This state scandal combined with Trump’s constant scandals (most recently the pandemic and recession he’s currently trying to play down and ignore) leaves a potential for voters, who are setting records for early turnout (usually beneficial for Democrats), to send an avalanche of Democrats into office, similar to the post-Watergate avalanche of the 1970s.

    Although Democrats made huge wins throughout the state in the 1970s and sent a Democrat (President Jimmy Carter) to the White House in 1977, what’s most necessary for reflection in our current election, is to remember Republican Jim Rhodes, who had already served 8 years as governor, was elected governor again in 1975. Rhodes ousted the single term Democratic Governor Gilligan, greatly contrasting the nationwide Democratic surge fresh from the Watergate scandal.

Governor Jim Rhodes walking into the Ohio House of Representatives, 1971.

Rhodes and Trump

            Governor Rhodes was most known for his ordering the National Guard to counter anti-war protests at Kent State in 1970 against university and city officials' wishes. The National Guard ultimately opened fire on the unarmed protesters, killing four students. Nobody was held accountable for the Kent State massacre. Rhodes was called out for his labeling the students (prior to the shooting) as “worse than the Brown Shirt [nazi] and the communist people that we harbor in America.” His few years out of office were spent using his connections he gained as Governor to make a fortune in real estate and elsewhere before deciding to pursue a third term in which he refused to release his tax returns. Trump’s militaristic response and rhetoric used against protesters, as well as being a businessman hiding his tax returns, sparks a deeper parallel to the current presidential election in relation to how Ohio might vote.

Potential Rhodes Forward

    It’s not just the fact that Rhodes won that is inciteful, but how he was able to win over Ohio voters. In his 2005 dissertation on Rhodes, William Coil characterized Rhodes’ campaign as the following:

    Rhodes and his political aides played to the anger of working class people and the desire to escape the control of reformers… Rhodes attacked Gilligan’s intellectual, cosmopolitan image, slyly connecting that to the negative perception of liberal Democrats as effete, out of touch reformers who know nothing of the world of working-class men.1

            Rhodes mounted an assault of false claims including consistently, and counterfactually, saying that Gilligan would double taxes. His campaign was solely based on delegitimizing Gilligan, while Rhodes himself avoided voicing any substantial plans of his own. Rhodes used Nixon’s southern strategy: giving the voters what they want to hear, their suppressed desires, even if it’s immoral, false or misleading.

            In a radio interview Gilligan described Rhodes’ campaign saying “They spend money to put on television some of the best commercial advertisements telling people ‘you’ve got to grab for everything you can get in this life.’ All we’ve been saying the last four years is ‘How about thinking a little about the elderly or the mentally retarded.’ But it’s like holding a candle in a wind tunnel.” Trump has used this same playbook in his campaign: giving voters what they want to hear, selling an individualist fantasy image, attacking his opponent’s ‘establishment’ image while delegitimizing and lying about his opponent's policies, like taxes - at the same time avoiding addressing his own plans or corruption.

2020 Trump ad.

    Ohio is hard to gauge. Voters could be enticed to show up for the Democrats in opposition to the overwhelming scandals that have defined the Trump administration and now degraded reputation of Ohio Republicans. However, voters could just as easily be swayed by Trump who, like Rhodes, seizes on the imagination and desire of voters.

    The 2020 presidential elections could see a version of the 1975 election of Governor Rhodes, with Trump playing the role of the winning Republican candidate. On the other hand, Trump could be another one of the Republicans voted out of office in the face of scandals and controversy.

    Ohio voters might no longer be as simple as Rhodes’ characterization, claiming that the “average Ohioan wants a job and wants to be left alone.”The uncontrollable popularity of right-wing media along with Republican officials that have pushed Trump’s downplaying of the virus and other conspiracy theories suggests that Watergate moments could potentially be a thing of the past; that, in our media saturated present where everything is a hoax, the symbolic or imagined tv image of a candidate, if utilized effectively and en masse, can overpower the realities of their policies and corruption.

Governor Rhodes poses with Flippo the Clown, a Columbus TV personality, December 1, 1977.

1.    William Russell Coil, “New Deal Republican: James A. Rhodes and Transformation of the Republican Party, 1933-1983” (PhD diss., The Ohio State University, 2005), 313, 315.

2.    Tom Diemer, Lee Leonard, Richard G. Zimmerman, Ohio Colossus(Kent, OH: The Kent State University Press, 2014), 73.