As you drive through the backroads in rural Butler County, it’s easy to see what the prevailing political sentiment is: “Trump 2020” and “Keep America Great” signs pepper the lawns in these areas.
But as you continue heading northwest, the Trump signs eventually start giving way to Joe Biden ones.
That’s how you know you’ve reached Oxford.
Though Miami University carries a reputation of being relatively conservative, Oxford has been a small blue bubble in an overwhelmingly red county for the past several elections.
For example, in the 2016 presidential election, Oxford voters favored Hillary Clinton over Donald Trump 67 to 33%, while just 31% of Butler County as a whole voted for Clinton, compared to 61% for Trump.
Two demographic groups, which are more plentiful in Oxford than the rest of Butler County, are responsible for these stark differences: young adults (aged 18-35) and adults with postgraduate degrees.
According to the Pew Research Center, more than half of young adults nationwide identify as Democrats while just a third identify as Republicans. Similarly, more than half of people with postgraduate degrees identify as Democrats, compared to a third as Republicans.
Though Republican candidates have dominated Butler County in every election since 1952 (with the exception of 1964), the county was once a Democratic stronghold – between 1856 and 1948, just two Republican presidential candidates won the county.
References to most 19th-century elections are difficult to find in university archives, but it’s known that Abraham Lincoln lost in Butler County in both 1860 and 1864, even though Ohio was part of the Union and Lincoln won the state of Ohio in both elections.
This can likely be attributed to Butler County’s proximity to Kentucky, a Confederate state. Because of this proximity, hundreds of Miami students served in the Confederate army during the Civil War.
One of the earliest election references that can be found in The Miami Student archives was in the November 1888 issue, which discusses the recent election of Miami alumnus and Phi Delta Theta member Benjamin Harrison.
“Among the first of his congratulatory telegrams were those from members of his fraternity,” the article says of Harrison. “Phi Delta Theta is congratulated on the election of one of her most talented members to the presidency.”
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Ironically, though, Harrison — a Republican — lost in Butler County by nearly a third of the vote.
In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, The Student hardly made any mention of the elections that occurred, and Butler County continued to vote for Democrats. But in the 1950s, a shift occurred.
During the 19th century, the Republican Party’s major focus was ending slavery and — once that was accomplished — improving conditions for Black Americans. The Democratic Party, which dominated the south, strongly opposed civil rights and was responsible for racist Jim Crow laws.
But around the turn of the 20th century, the Republicans’ main priority shifted to protecting the rights of large businesses while the Democrats represented rural and agrarian interests. Though the latter party had long prided itself on its conservative values, some Democrats — namely 1896 presidential nominee William Jennings Bryan — advocated for a larger central government, and that soon became a major aspect of the party’s platform.
Though the Democratic platform began shifting dramatically during the early 20th century — culminating in Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal, which greatly expanded the government’s role in regulating all aspects of society — Butler County consistently supported Democratic candidates until 1952.
Following World War II, many Americans began to fear the growing influence of the Soviet Union and communism. This caused a rightward shift in popular politics, which was reflected in both Oxford and Butler County as a whole.
“IKE-DICK TEAM SWEEPS COUNTRY” was printed in massive letters on the front page of the Nov. 7, 1956 issue of The Student, which ran a day after Dwight Eisenhower was reelected as president. The entire front page was also dedicated to the results of the election, which sharply contrasts the general disinterest in politics found in previous issues.
In that same issue, an editorial written by a student sharply criticizes former presidents Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman for their “presentation of the truth in a half-baked manner,” suggesting that some Miami students had begun to adopt the same pro-Republican viewpoints as most Butler County residents.Oxford’s conservative streak continued in 1960, when nearly two-thirds of the city voted for Richard Nixon over John F. Kennedy, according to the Nov. 8, 1960 issue of The Student. An editorial in that same issue criticized voter apathy amongst the Miami community.
“We cannot afford to leave our elections to fifty per cent or less of our potential voters,” the editorial reads.
By the end of the 1960s, though, the apathy had washed away. Like many other American universities, Miami students became increasingly politically active and overwhelmingly supported Democratic candidates.
The tone of the Nov. 8, 1968 issue of The Student, published three days after Richard Nixon beat Hubert Humphrey in the election, is somber.
One student, Gary Setnik, produced a poem about the weather the day after the election, which was fittingly dreary after Humphrey’s “throbbing defeat.”
“I must go buy some waterproofing now,” Setnik wrote. “Four years of rain will surely dampen my spirits, flood my mind, drown my soul.”
Though Butler County remained strongly conservative, Miami students continued to rally behind their Democratic opponents in the 1970s.
In 1972, Richard Nixon beat George McGovern by more than 500 electoral votes — the widest electoral margin at the time. Still, Miami students expressed fondness for the defeated Democrat, with one student even referring to him as a “tragic hero” in an editorial.
Since the 1980s, students’ political views appear to have mellowed somewhat. The Student described perceptions of Ronald Reagan’s 1984 reelection as “mixed,” and it has reported on both sides’ reactions to each election since George H.W. Bush’s 1988 victory.
Despite Miami’s increasingly balanced political climate, Butler County Democrats are still a small minority. However, Ohio, which Trump won by 500,000 votes in 2016, will remain an extremely important swing state in this year’s election.