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By Kim Palmer
CLEVELAND (Reuters) - As a perennial swing state and one that yields 18 electoral college votes, Ohio has long been coveted territory for U.S. presidential candidates who pour piles of cash every election cycle into wooing its voters.
Since the 1860 election of Abraham Lincoln just three presidents, and no Republican contender, have gone to the White House without winning the "Buckeye State."
During this year's Republican party primaries, Donald Trump's pro-coal mining, anti-free trade message resonated with many of the state's 7 million voters, especially in southeast Ohio communities facing high unemployment.
East Liverpool, known in the 1800s as the "The Crockery City" where more than half the country's ceramics were made, has fallen on hard times since the 1970s as the population dwindled and the local steel mill shut down.
The town of 11,000, where almost a third of the population lives below the poverty line, has also become a center for the state's problem of opiate addiction.
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In 2014, Ohio reported more drug overdose deaths than any state except California. This September, a photograph of two adults passed out in a car from an apparent heroin overdose, with a 4 year-old boy in the back seat, went viral on social media after it was published by police.
"It's the drugs," said one East Liverpool resident, Jeff Fischer, 23, standing outside a shop selling vape products. He bemoaned the lack of other activities for young people.
"There is nothing to do," he said. "There are drugs. That is pretty much it. It's a shame, it really is."
After reports that voters in Ohio's large urban areas, including the state capital Columbus, waited up to seven hours in line to vote during the 2004 presidential contest, Ohio passed a law making early in-person and absentee voting available weeks before Election Day.
About one-third of eligible Ohioans, including many of the state's minority groups, voted early in both the 2008 and 2012 presidential elections, securing wins for Democrat Barack Obama both times. This time around, more than 288,000 of the state's voters had cast early ballots in person for the 2016 race as of Oct. 31, according to Ohio Secretary of State Jon Husted's office.
Those numbers demonstrate a dip for Democrats of about 25 percent compared with the 2012 numbers, while registered Republican early voting has increased by more than 10 percent.
Opinion polls ahead of next Tuesday's election show Ohio is a close race between Trump and Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton. Democrats, however, believe higher early voting turnout by Republican voters does not automatically mean a Trump windfall, saying the increase in early voting is in urban areas dominated by moderate Republicans who may not support Trump or vote for him.
The numbers overall may also be boosted by a "Souls to the Polls" drive that is being organized by churches, synagogues and mosques to encourage their parishioners to participate.
The other big contest occupying many voters' minds in recent days has been the Baseball World Series, which pitted the Chicago Cubs against Ohio's Cleveland Indians. Chicago triumphed after a nail-biting game seven on Wednesday night.
For some locals, it was still a welcome distraction from the responsibility of choosing the next U.S. president. According to an old Election Day saying, "As Ohio goes, so does the nation."
Some, of course, take that duty more seriously than others.
"I'm not leaning either way because I think it is a joke, to be honest with you," Fischer said.
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(Reporting by Kim Palmer; Editing by Daniel Wallis and Frances Kerry)