Swinging Ohio: the battle lines are drawn

The state has a history of deciding elections. Once again, it may come down to 12 critical counties.

Dan Bailey is 78. He sits on a plastic lawn chair on the neatly swept front porch of his modest house that backs onto train tracks. They once led to a thriving rail yard where his father had been a brakeman, back when the steel mills and towering shoe factories were humming, back when it was Bailey’s job to deliver coal to the 13 schools in town (now there are two), back when, he points out, his underwear was not yet made in Bangladesh, and when the little American flags the young ladies hand out in the park on the Fourth of July were not yet made in China.

His father was a lifelong Democrat. So too his grandfather. Bailey is registered as a Democrat. But in this historic election, in which Democrats had hoped Barack Obama would glide to the White House on the magic carpet of unpopular wars and a failing economy, Bailey remains undecided. Many of his neighbours feel the same way, here in the town of Portsmouth, Ohio, the seat of Scioto County, tucked into southern Ohio, where the town’s main street crosses a bridge across the mighty Ohio River into Kentucky and becomes the Country Music Highway.

National polls are showing Obama with a lead over Republican John McCain. But under the U.S. election system, those polls don’t matter. What matters is winning enough Electoral College votes, which are apportioned to states based on their populations. Since most states repeatedly vote for the same party in presidential races, no state matters more than the swing state of Ohio.

If Obama is able to hold all the states that John Kerry won in 2004, which today’s polls suggest he will, and keeps his current solid leads in Iowa and New Mexico, where Bush won in 2004, then he can take the White House by eking out a win in one of either Ohio, Virginia or Colorado, where polls are within the margin of error. Ohio has the most electoral votes, 20. No Democrat has won the White House without winning Ohio since John F. Kennedy—and that was back when many southern states still voted Democratic. According to analyst Larry Sabato at the University of Virginia, “It’s more than possible that, for a second straight election, the Buckeye State will essentially choose the next president.”

What makes Ohio swing is in part its combination of cities, small towns and vast tracks of farmland. Cleveland has the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame; the city of Mansfield has more than 300 wax figures in a “Living Bible Museum.” Politics here runs on conservative social values and economic struggle as the state goes through a wrenching transition from a manufacturing centre to whatever comes next. The unemployment rate is at 7.4 per cent and rising. “Even back in 2004, when Iraq was the number one issue nationally, it was the second issue in Ohio, behind the economy,” says Herbert Asher, a political scientist at Ohio State University in Columbus. There are about six per cent more Democrats in Ohio than Republicans. A recent poll by Public Policy Polling showed that Republicans are more committed to McCain than Democrats to Obama. Voters here prefer politicians who show up at the county fair over those who give soaring speeches. “Ohio is a tough place for Obama because he’s got to convince voters that he’s one of them,” says William Angel, an associate professor at Ohio State in Lima.

Despite its swing status, much of Ohio is not up for grabs. Most of its 88 counties are firmly Republican or Democratic. The GOP covers vast rural areas, and Democrats prevail in cities. Only 11 counties have switched allegiance in past presidential elections—supporting Bill Clinton or George W. Bush. They are clustered in the south and southeast of the state. Scioto County is one of them. And within these counties, it’s the small towns that are the most undecided; according to the Public Policy poll, a quarter of swing voters live in places like Portsmouth.

The road to Portsmouth cuts through a fertile river valley lined with fields of corn and soybeans, dotted with churches with big signs like “Aren’t you glad your mother was pro-life?” and hemmed in by lush Appalachian foothills known around here as only “the hills.” The accents in Scioto County are a mix of Midwestern flat, Kentucky drawl, and that thing that West Virginians do to their vowels. Some people say Scio-toh, some Scio-tah, and others Scio-ter. The local game is cornhole—which involves tossing a beanbag into a hole in a waxed slippery board.

Perched at the intersection of the Ohio and Scioto rivers, Portsmouth was once a shipping hub, and in the 1920s it billed itself as the fastest-growing city in America. It was also a stop on the Underground Railroad, helping runaway slaves escape to Canada. Portsmouth produced steel and lots of shoes. The Great Depression strangled the city, the interstate highways passed it by, and now globalization is stamping out what manufacturing remains. Today, with 20,000 residents, it’s less than half the size it was at the turn of the last century. A large hospital is the area’s largest employer, followed by a local university called Shawnee State.

The McCain camp has designated Scioto a “victory county”—a place that gets extra funding and attention from the national campaign. John McCain himself came to speak at the local high school in July. In 2004, George W. Bush came here to campaign, making him the first sitting president to set foot in the county since Herbert Hoover passed through on his way somewhere else. “Scioto County is the political fulcrum of all the swing counties,” says Terry Johnson, the chairman of the Scioto County Republican Party.

A doctor who lives in the hills over the valley, Johnson embodies the partisan fluidity of the place. “I was a Democrat because my father was a Democrat, and his father was a Democrat. I’m from a union family. But I am a conservative person and back when Al Gore and George Bush were running against each other, I felt the Democratic party had moved so far away that I could not identify with it—on everything from the Second Amendment to fiscal conservatism,” he explains. After the terrorist attacks of September 2001, he joined the Republicans and was elected county coroner. In 2004, he chaired the Bush-Cheney campaign in the county. A member of the Ohio National Guard, he served tours of duty in Iraq and in Kuwait, and is headed back to Iraq in February as a flight surgeon. Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin-style social conservatism plays well here. “If she came here,” predicts Johnson. “She’d be treated like a rock star.”

Though McCain has a slim lead of just over one per cent in the state, it is certainly possible for a Democrat to take this region and Ohio—a certain kind of Democrat, at least. The popular Democratic governor of Ohio, Ted Strickland, is from Scioto. He’s the son of a steelworker and a former congressman, with a record of voting against abortion rights and against trade agreements, and an “A” rating from the National Rifle Association. He backed Hillary Rodham Clinton and her gritty economic message during the Democratic primary, and she swept Ohio 53 per cent to Obama’s 45. Bill Clinton came and stumped for her in Portsmouth. In Scioto County, Clinton got 81 per cent of the vote.

Clinton’s attacks on Obama as not ready to be president have stuck. Outside the Dari-Creme, a downtown milkshake shack, Dave Goddard, 43, a registered Democrat who supported Clinton, says he remains undecided between Obama and McCain. “I kind of wish Hillary had got in. She’s been in that field for 30 years plus. She had a lot of exposure to the budget and all that,” he says. Goddard, who repairs heat pumps for a living, is often forced to travel to other states to find work, and figures he spent only eight weeks at home last year. He belongs to the Boilermakers’ Union, which is “pushing Obama, but I don’t know,” he says. “Oh gosh, I just haven’t heard enough yet.” Clinton’s endorsement of Obama didn’t sway him. “They campaigned so hard against each other and now they’re trying to support each other? People are just standing back and going, ‘Oh yeah?’ ”

Sipping on their milkshakes, newlyweds Ron and Britany Greene, both studying to be teachers, are also skeptical about Obama. Britany, 18, plans to vote for McCain. “I’m a Democrat, but I’ve noticed that Obama is telling more lies,” she says. Asked for examples, she answers, “I can’t think of any right now.” But she adds that “McCain seems more honest.” Ron says he’ll wait until the last possible minute to decide, in case a scandal emerges about either candidate. The couple plan to leave Portsmouth after they graduate from Shawnee State and move to South Carolina. They hear there are more jobs there.

Although on paper Obama’s policy platform does not differ hugely from Clinton’s, his economic arguments, such as a tax cut for the middle class and promising universal health insurance, are eclipsed by a unease about the candidate himself. At the Paramount Beauty Academy, Brooke Burton, 38, is one of a group of women, in matching yellow shirts and black smocks, tending to wigs attached to mannequins, some of which have dainty tattoos on their plastic necks. Burton is a mother of three who for 10 years worked in a local paper mill. “I did everything—coated paper, sheeted paper,” she says. “I operated self-guided vehicles.”

That plant is shutting down and moving abroad. “Everywhere you look, our jobs are going overseas,” says Burton, who is retraining as a hairdresser thanks to a government grant aimed at workers whose job losses can be linked to increased imports or production moving abroad. Burton figures that even if she works 18-hour days in her new career, she probably won’t make as much as she once did. Her husband used to work in a steel mill but was injured on the job. She says he should be receiving Social Security benefits, but her unemployment benefits are considered too high.

She may sound like the kind of voter who would pick the union-backed Obama—who has criticized trade agreements—over the ardent free-trader John McCain. But she isn’t. “His middle name alone really bothers me,” she explains. That middle name is Hussein. “They haven’t really voiced his middle name much, have they?” she continues. Also, she disagrees with Obama’s pro-choice position on abortion. And while Burton complains that her family no longer has health insurance, she simply doesn’t believe Obama’s promises to provide health insurance to all Americans. “I’ve not understood how that is going to happen, you know?”

There are still few political yard signs in Portsmouth. And not nearly as many as those boosting the high-school football team, the Trojans. In front of his modest white house, just down the street from the Guys and Gals hair salon, Danny McKenzie, a 47-year-old former Bill Clinton voter, has two Trojans signs and one for McCain-Palin. McKenzie has a buzz cut, a moustache and a blood clot that he says prevents him from working. His wife earns the minimum wage taking care of elderly people. “We’re lucky to pay our bills one month to the next,” McKenzie says. He has a son working in construction, another in a lumberyard, and a daughter who is a crew manager at McDonald’s. He voted for Bush over Gore. “When I was growing up, I was taught that Democrats were for the poor people,” he says. “But I really vote for who’s the best man for the job.” In this case, it’s not the Democrat. “I’d be kind of leery of him if a terrorist attacked. He’s probably a good guy, but he doesn’t have the experience,” McKenzie says of Obama. “I don’t think prejudice should have nothin’ to do with it. And it ain’t got nothin’ to do with it.” McKenzie says he’s proud of Ohio’s special place in the campaign. “I’ll make it to the polls if I have to crawl,” he says. “It’s a privilege.”

A few streets over, an Obama-Biden sign stands outside a white house with a bright orange mailbox. Frances Perry answers her door in a Mickey and Minnie Mouse T-shirt, bright red shorts, and an oxygen tube in her nostrils that costs US$175 a week. She is an epileptic and lives on disability assistance. She’s also a former Hillary Clinton supporter who is now committed to Obama. “He’s talking about the things I’m interested in,” she says. “He’s been where I’ve been—on food stamps. He worked his way up.” Perry has argued about the election with her doctor, a Republican—and about Sarah Palin. “All she knows is Alaska. All they do is play in snow and shoot at animals. It’s not like she even ran Columbus—a big city, with big action,” she says, sighing and shaking her head.

The McCain-Palin campaign county headquarters are located on Portsmouth’s main street, in the first floor of a building that, like many downtown, is mostly boarded up. The big screen TV is set to Fox News, and Sharon McNely, a 62-year-old retired court reporter and secretary of the Scioto County GOP, is there alone, making calls to find McCain voters and make sure they get to the polls on Election Day. A group of women were supposed to come by and help this evening, but they are an hour late, she says. She wears white sneakers, a salmon-coloured shirt and pearl earrings. “I’m very conservative. My church is very conservative. I’ve been trained that way all my life,” says McNely, whose eyes light up at the mention of Palin. “It’s very exciting to have a capable, conservative woman running for vice-president.” McCain is “a real hero,” says McNely, and Obama is too young. “I just feel safer with Senator McCain.”

Why did Clinton beat Obama so soundly here? She shakes her head. “I don’t want to think what I’m thinking but . . .” she says, alluding to racism, but quickly stops herself. “I think Gov. Strickland had a lot to do with it. He brought Bill Clinton to Portsmouth and backed Hillary quite heavily. In this area, they just like a woman running. They think it’s time.” McCain was in town in July and filled the gymnasium to capacity. She is confident that McCain will take the county and Ohio. “The patriotism thing. We have a lot of veterans in Scioto County,” McNely says. She dials a number and gets an answering machine. Reading from a pre-approved script, she leaves a message: “Senator McCain has always put his country first, even before his own self-interest.”

Back in 2004, the John Kerry campaign made the mistake of relying on independent groups to register voters and get out the vote in swing states. “They couldn’t control it, they couldn’t coordinate it, they couldn’t control the message,” says Michael McDonald, a political scientist at George Mason University in Virginia. The Obama campaign is running its whole operation internally, building its own databases and relying on local volunteers. “We’ve opened over 70 offices across Ohio and are aggressively reaching out to voters through a grassroots effort focused on neighbour-to-neighbour contact,” says Olivia Alair, a spokeswoman for the Obama campaign in Ohio. “We have hundreds of staff on the ground throughout the state with more on the way. From the beginning, we have been committed to establishing a presence in small towns and rural areas across Ohio that have rarely—if ever—seen presidential activity.” Political scientist William Angel is stunned that the Obama office has been in his heavily Republican Allen County since July. “I’ve not seen this kind of presence ever.” His county will go for McCain, he predicts, but “if you can improve on Kerry’s totals by one or two per cent in some of these areas, that could swing the election.”

The Scioto County Obama-Biden headquarters stands next door to a Sunoco gas station and across the street from a Tim Hortons. Ten volunteers are working the phones in a room littered with stickers, signs, and canvassing sign-up sheets. Others are stuffing envelopes. The big screen TV here is set to CNN. A poster says, “Like Bush’s economy? Hire McCain.” The official telephone script here includes the lines, “I’m sick and tired of the Bush administration and I don’t think we can afford four more years of failed economic policies under John McCain.” It mentions a tax cut for the middle class and “new leadership.”

The only out-of-stater in the room is a paid campaign staffer from Indiana who supervises. He announces tonight’s goal of 800 calls. Jeannette Langford, 65, is a retired human resources manager for a nearby atomic energy plant and a “neighbourhood team leader.” She is responsible for getting out the vote in one part of town, with the help of a data-entry person who enters information about likely Obama voters into the computer, a canvassing coordinator, and a calling coordinator who manage the volunteers. Langford is African-American and attended a racially segregated school in Portsmouth as a child (blacks make up less than five per cent of the population in the county). She says she occasionally encounters overt prejudice to the biracial Obama. “Some people say they just won’t vote for a black man. Some just say, ‘there’s just something about him I don’t like.’ In fact, most of them say that and you can’t debate it.” But Langford takes it in stride. “I say, okay, then vote for the white part of him!”

But personal unease is a problem. “We’re still getting people on the phone who say, well, he’s not a Christian,” Langford says. “We say that’s not true. He is a Christian. When he went to the Senate, he put his hand on the Bible. I just wonder if that’s what they want to believe.” She is hoping the Illinois senator will come to campaign in person. “I believe that when people meet Barack in person that will make a huge difference.”

Nancy Windsor, a 73-year-old retired truck driver, comes to the Obama headquarters to make calls every day, arriving on her motorized scooter chair plastered with U.S. Marine Corps stickers. She doesn’t care for McCain, and Palin even less. “The reason he put on that little barracuda is because he wants to put his hands on that oil.” Some nights she makes more than 100 calls.

Christopher Maxie is a 17-year-old intern from nearby Wheelersburg High School who can’t vote but comes to help, clad in a polo shirt and a glittering earring in each lobe. He’s a little enthusiastic. “We’re really upbeat! It’s really exciting! We’re exceeding our goals! We knocked on 1,750 doors last Sunday! I’m very excited about everything. The volunteers are pouring in! We’re just killing it! Southern Ohio reflects America! We’re the heartland! This is the heart of the election! We’re just excited, man!”

Outside, an air of indecision still hangs over Portsmouth. Just by the city’s 10-m-high flood wall frescoed with historical paintings, Claudette Ferguson, a 52-year-old former registered nurse, sits crocheting across from a scene of a vintage fair with carousel and tilt-a-whirl. Her husband, blues singer Joey Ray, 58, is a proud “Obama man.” “I just want the bunch that’s in there outta there,” he says. “The stock market has collapsed. Every country in the world hates us.” But Ferguson can’t make up her mind. “This is the worst election we’re ever gonna have. One is just interested in himself, and the other will have us in war in no time.” She thinks Obama is hiding his “real birth certificate” (the one that conspiracy theories allege shows that he was born in Indonesia, which would make him ineligible to run for president).

If the candidates showed up on her doorstep, she says, “I would ask Obama, why don’t you show public allegiance to the flag—like saluting, or holding your hand over your heart? Why won’t he wear a flag on his lapel?” As for McCain, “I’d ask him, are we going to continue in those oil wars, or are we going to focus on the people of the United States?” She shakes her head. “I’ve been doing a lot of reading and, to be honest, a lot of praying about it. I really don’t like either one of the candidates. I just don’t.”

The next president has a month to change her mind.

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