As Northern Kentucky and Cincinnati have grown similar in many ways, one stark difference stands out: politics. Hamilton County has roughly twice as many registered voters as Boone, Campbell, and Kenton counties combined, and its role in national and statewide elections far overshadows Northern Kentucky’s thanks to control of the TV airwaves and the fact that Democrats win occasionally on the Ohio side of the river.
Northern Kentucky reliably delivers large numbers of Republican votes in a solidly Republican state, so there’s little drama during campaign season there. Meanwhile, Hamilton County has become a swing county in a swing state, attracting national money, media coverage, and candidate visits every election cycle.
Ohio has backed both Democrats and Republicans for president, and since 1964 whoever won Ohio has won the presidency, from Bill Clinton and Barack Obama to Richard Nixon, both Bushes, and Donald Trump. Hamilton County was itself reliably red through the years—for presidential, statewide, and local candidates—until Obama broke through in 2008. And now Democrats have won the county’s presidential vote in three straight elections, including Hillary Clinton beating Trump by 10 percentage points. The 2018 Democratic blue wave was a local tsunami: Every Democrat who ran statewide last year—from U.S. Senator Sherrod Brown to Richard Cordray for governor to attorney general, secretary of state, and auditor—won in Hamilton County, while all but Brown lost across Ohio.
There isn’t much blue in Northern Kentucky politics, except for State House seats representing Covington and Newport and some local city councils and mayors. The 4th Congressional District, which stretches from Louisville’s suburbs to Ashland, has been held by Republicans since 1967, except for Ken Lucas in the early ’00s. GOP standard-bearers Trump (2016), Rand Paul (2016), Matt Bevin (2015), Mitch McConnell (2014), and Mitt Romney (2012) won all three counties in their races, mostly by 60–40 margins.
You’d think big-name candidates would clamor for votes across Northern Kentucky—Boone, Campbell, and Kenton are three of the state’s eight largest counties, after all. But because the region’s television advertising, a major engine in modern political campaigns, originates from Cincinnati stations, Kentucky candidates often skip spending money or time here because so much of their messaging is wasted on Ohioans. In return, a lot of Northern Kentucky voters skip the elections. Voter turnout in the three counties was 42 percent in 2018 and 58 percent in the 2016 presidential contest; Hamilton County turnout was 57.5 percent in 2018 and 72 percent in 2016.
Political feedback loops in Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky seem to be moving in opposite directions these days. On one side of the river, voters are engaged by competitive races, are courted by candidates of both parties, and turn out to cast ballots; the other side, predictability and malaise are more common. Yet there’s one positive trend that both places share: Voter registration is up 17 percent in Northern Kentucky (between 2012 and 2018) and up 6 percent in Hamilton County.