Ohio’s abortion vote and the American Nations

Buckeye State voters passed a constitutional amendment protecting reproductive rights, but the results varied across the state’s three settlement regions

Credit: John Liberty/Motivf

Ohio voters approved a constitutional amendment earlier this month that ensures access to abortion and various forms of reproductive health care, the latest in a chain of victories for abortion rights supporters since the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v Wade last year. The citizen-sponsored measure made the Ohio the seventh state where voters intervened to protect abortion access, and it passed by more than 13 points.

In regional culture terms, Ohio is a trifurcated state, sliced into horizontal east-west bands as a result of three separate early colonization streams. Yankee New Englanders settled a northern strip along Lake Erie that Connecticut had claimed as its Western Reserve. German-led Midlanders from Pennsylvania flowed through the middle of the state along the old National Road (which became U.S. 40 and then I-70) leaving a path of brick churches, capacious barns and Gothic cemeteries across the landscape. The southern tier was colonized via the Appalachian highlands and Ohio River by largely Scots-Irish people from what is now western Virginia, West Virginia and Kentucky.

“You have all these different people funneling through Ohio,” notes Ohio University geographer Tim Anderson, who studies the German-American diaspora. “There are Pennsylvania Germans spreading into western Ohio; Yankee New Englanders putting down roots in the north and keeping to themselves and Virginians coming into the south and really dominating the state’s politics and early governorships.”

At Nationhood Lab, we used the American Nations model to see if there were large differences between how voters in these three Ohio regions felt about the abortion amendment, which was Issue 1 on their Nov.7 ballot. Some of what we found was surprising.

As you can see from the map above there were substantial differences between the American Nations regions, with voters in the Yankee Western Reserve voting in favor of abortion rights (64.6 to 34.2%) by nearly twice the margin as their counterparts in Greater Appalachia (57.7 to 41.4%.) In the Midlands, however, the measure failed with voters, 45.7 to 53.1 percent, a more than 7-point margin.

What gives? Midland culture has been, historically speaking, middle of the road on most issues, a by-product of the tolerant (and pacifistic) attitude of the original Quaker leadership of the early Pennsylvania colony where this European settler-colonizer project got its start. Greater Appalachia, by contrast, was ground zero for the explosion of evangelical Christianity after the American Revolution, and polls have consistently shown evangelicals to be the religious group whose members are, statistically speaking, the most opposed to reproductive rights. Why would the Midlands be substantially more conservative on this issue?

We thought it might have something to do with the proportional distribution of rural and urban voters in these sections of Ohio. The Greater Appalachia section includes three of Ohio’s big metro areas, Cincinnati, Dayton and (controversially in some quarters) Columbus. The Western Reserve is dominated by Cleveland and has Akron to boot. The Midlands, by contrast, only has Toledo, though it still manages to comprise 30% of the state’s population. That’s a lot of non-metro voters. But that didn’t really explain things.

You can see the rural/urban split for each region in the table below. As expected, urban counties as a group were more supportive than rural ones across the state, but there were strong regional differences. Urban dwellers in the Midlands only backed Issue 1 by 3 points, whereas the figures in Greater Appalachia and Yankeedom were 20 and 22 points respectively. In Yankeedom, rural voters actually supported Issue 1 by a 1-point margin, while their counterparts in the Appalachian and Midland countrysides opposed it by 16 and 20 points respectively. What made the Midlands different from Greater Appalachia wasn’t so much its rural voters but the abortion-skepticism of so many of its urban ones.

Credit: Colin Woodard/Nationhood Lab

Why would these three regions have such different profiles on this issue, with rural Yankees nearly as supportive of abortion rights as urban Midlanders? We’ll soon have more to share about the geography of opinion on reproductive rights here at Nationhood Lab, but one factor is the religious landscape, and that landscape was very much determined by the settlement patterns laid out in the American Nations model.

Polling has shown that opposition to abortion rights is most pronounced among Protestant Evangelicals, least among non-religious people, and mixed among the two other largest religious categories, Catholics and Non-evangelical Protestants. As we’ll be describing in a forthcoming post, the prevalence of these different groups is enormously varied by regional culture, and that’s true of Ohio’s three sections as well.

Take a look at Ohio in the county-level maps in the Public Religion Research Institute’s 2020 Census of American Religion: Catholics – attracted by the jobs offered in industrializing Yankeedom – are much more prevalent in the Western Reserve than in Greater Appalachia. White Protestant Evangelicals, who’ve always faced headwinds in post-Puritan Yankeedom, are few on the ground; in Cuyahoga County, where Cleveland is located, they account for only 8% of residents, according to the PRRI census, and in no county do they reach 30%.

But to the south, in the Midlands settled zone, the religious landscape changes. Here the original settlers were often religious refugees from continental Europe or the descendants of the “Pennsylvania Germans” who’d come for the same reason, many of them belonging to denominations that sought to live more holy lives in communities of their own design: Mennonites, Amish, Dunkers, German Pietists. Later German immigration to the Midlands – in the 1840s and 1850s – had a lot more Catholics, mainline Lutherans and Calvinists and secular intellectuals fleeing the failed 1848 revolutions in Europe, but by that time the “frontier” for settlement was far west of Ohio. (Though several settlements in the “Black Swamp” of northwestern Ohio were founded by German immigrants in this period and in the 1960s were still speaking the dialects of their home villages in Westphalia and Lower Saxony, where the land has a similar appearance.) Today there are few counties in Midland Ohio where white Evangelical Christians aren’t 30% to 40% of the population.

Throughout Greater Appalachia – from South Carolina to Kentucky – it’s characteristic to find German enclaves amid a Scots-Irish dominated settlement matrix, and Ohio is no different. Cincinnati and Columbus had large German influences attested to by the incredible beer caverns and German Revival architecture of Cinci’s Over-the-Rhine neighborhood. But the region was defined by its “Virginian” settlers who colonized the southern swath of the state starting from the hills and mountains to the south and west, with lasting effects popularized by the odious J.D. Vance in Hillbilly Elegy, the memoir he wrote before his opportunistic conversion to MAGA-ism. The “hillbillies” were overwhelmingly evangelical and still are, reaching 35 to 45% of the population in many rural counties. We haven’t been able to get the underlying data from PRRI yet, but if you compare their white evangelical county map to our Issue 1 election results you’ll see a stunning degree of correlation.

Ohio’s Appalachian cities are much less white evangelical – comprising only 16% of people in Columbus, 13% in Cincinnati and 21% in Dayton — and supported abortion rights by a comfortable margin. Still these cities’ support was all softer than that of Cleveland, possibly because the latter city wasn’t a major destination city of the “Hillbilly migration,” an early 20th century movement of eight million Appalachian migrants to Great Lakes manufacturing centers recently probed in historian Max Fisher’s debut book, Hillbilly Highway.

November’s vote was predicated by Ohio voters in August having defeated a Republican measure that would have made it much harder to amend the state’s constitution. Notice the voting pattern in that election closely matches that of Issue 1, with the major metros, the “blue dot” campus of Ohio University, and the entirety of the Yankee Western Reserve joining forces to defeat the change over the opposition of the rest of the state.

Colin Woodard is the director of Nationhood Lab at Salve Regina University’s Pell Center for International Relations and Public Policy.