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America’s perfect voters

How do Americans really feel about the election? Ask the people of Ottawa County—they’re never wrong
The Port Clinton High School football team stand for the national anthem before its homecoming game on Oct. 7. (Photograph by Nick Iwanyshyn)
The Port Clinton High School football team stand for the national anthem before its homecoming game on Oct. 7. (Photograph by Nick Iwanyshyn)
The winning football team in Port Clinton has brought hope to the town. (Photograph by Nick Iwanyshyn)

Voters in northeastern Ohio’s Ottawa County live in what is, by all appearances, an unremarkable area of Midwestern farmland: long, flat country roads strewn with roadkill, corn fields to the horizon, and marinas and campgrounds along the Lake Erie shoreline. The Americans who call this place home largely don’t know it, but their little corner of the United States—only a stone’s throw from the Canadian border and right between Toledo and Cleveland—is the centre of American politics. Ottawa County has picked the winning presidential nominee in every election since 1964—that’s 13 in a row.

Donald Trump’s campaign may be melting down, but in a swing state like Ohio where the Republican candidate enjoys grassroots support, the bellwether mystique still matters. Political observers outside the county “are trying to find any way they can to kind of read the tea leaves, or figure out where things are going, or how did we get here?” says Adrienne Hines, a bankruptcy lawyer and local chair of the Democratic Party. Her county was important enough in 2012 that Barack Obama’s campaign requested the local results as soon as they were tallied.

Ottawa voters may mirror the nation, but the county as a whole doesn’t vote the same from one end to the other—not by a long shot. The aptly named Port Clinton, the county seat, has proven a reliably Democratic stronghold, and last voted in big numbers for a Republican candidate during Ronald Reagan’s run for re-election. Catawba Island, a wealthy township down the road that juts into Lake Erie and launches ferries to the debaucherous Put-In-Bay party spot, never votes Democrat. No single township within county is a perfect bellwether.

Adrienne Hines, the county chair of the Democratic Party, serves up a pig roast before Port Clinton's homecoming football game. (Photograph by Nick Iwanyshyn)
Adrienne Hines, the county chair of the Democratic Party, serves up a pig roast before Port Clinton’s homecoming football game. (Photograph by Nick Iwanyshyn)

But zoom in a bit further and you’ll find the Carroll township’s first precinct—almost 1,000 registered voters who do have a perfect run going back to ’64. The voters of Carroll 1 have split from the rest of the township (but not the county) three times since 1980, voting Republican each time when everyone else stuck with the Democrats. (Carroll 1’s streak, the only one in the county, may extend to 1960, but county elections board officials have misplaced that year’s precinct results. The local newspaper never published a detailed tally, so it’s impossible to know if Carroll 1 defied its neighbours and chose John F. Kennedy over Richard Nixon.)

Trying to predict the precinct’s—or the county’s—choice in November may be foolish, even as Hillary Clinton appears to have gained a significant edge. “Anyone who thinks they know what Ottawa County is going to do, I would beg to differ,” says Hines. “I would not have thought Ottawa County would have voted for Barack Obama in 2008. And we did.”

A Democratic campaign volunteer sits in the Ottawa County party headquarters on Oct. 7. (Photograph by Nick Iwanyshyn)
A Democratic campaign volunteer in the Ottawa County party headquarters on Oct. 7. (Photograph by Nick Iwanyshyn)

That year, Democrats convinced enough of what Hines calls “middle voters”—also known as independents and undecideds—to vote Obama, but it was no sure thing. “Our county has historically been rural farmers who aren’t real liberal, but have always identified themselves as Democrats,” she says. “I would say the more liberal the party becomes, the more difficult it is to keep those middle kind of people.” Hines worries that Trump’s “unique ability” to appeal to frustrated county residents could feed him precious votes.

The primary elections earlier this year may offer some clues into Carroll 1’s preference. In the county, 7,893 voters turned out for the Republican primary—2,900 more than in 2012. Only 4,769 turned out for the Democratic contest, an increase of 514 over the last presidential cycle. (In Ohio, voters do not have to be associated with a party to vote in its primaries.) Part of that ballooning interest in the Republicans can be explained by a county-wide drive to vote for Ohio Gov. John Kasich over Trump, a movement that Bailey VanKirk, the owner of Desdemona’s Art Gallery in the village of Marblehead, witnessed as a poll worker. “I was the first face people saw, and people were super-vocal,” says VanKirk. “I had to ask red ballot or blue ballot, and people I’ve known as lifelong Dems. . . were voting Republican to vote for Kasich—because they hated Trump so much.”

Most precincts reflected that influx of support for the moderate-by-comparison governor, and Kasich won the county. In always-right Carroll 1, however, more people turned out for the Republican primary than the Democratic race. But they bucked the county trend. In Carroll 1’s corner of the township, Trump beat Kasich, 101-65.

Port Clinton is a quiet city on the lake with a population of 6,000. That’s slightly lower than the last census count in 2010, but doesn’t include the vacationing hordes who infiltrate the area in warm months and swell the population to six digits.

The city’s median income is about $46,500, 15 per cent lower than the county and the rest of the country. Nineteen per cent of its residents have a bachelor’s degree, fewer than the county (21 per cent) and the country (29 per cent). Manufacturing jobs have dwindled over the years—from 3,800 in 1987 to 2,150 in 2012. There’s still a machining plant, a steel producer, an automotive glass manufacturer and a few other small operations, including a company that builds refrigerated cabinets. The small downtown strip is now a sleepy collection of bars and gift shops punctuated by the Island House Hotel, a former staple of ball players travelling between Cleveland and Detroit—and one of only two year-round hotels in town. A Wal-Mart supercentre looms on the outskirts.

Port Clinton High School's newest homecoming royalty, Abbey Weldon (l) and Joey Brenner, mug for the cameras. (Photograph by Nick Iwanyshyn)
Port Clinton High School’s newest homecoming royalty, Abbey Weldon (l) and Joey Brenner, mug for the cameras. (Photograph by Nick Iwanyshyn)

The surrounding county is troubled as well, as are so many others to the east, west and south. “The changing dynamics of this county, and the growing pains it’s going through, trying to reinvent itself, is frustrating a lot of people who’ve always known it to be one way, and scary for people who don’t really know what the next day is going to bring them,” says Democrat Adrienne Hines.

Out in Carroll township, a 20-minute drive from Democratic HQ in Port Clinton, Pam Merkle minds her sister’s fruit stand across the street from the Davis–Besse Nuclear Power Station and its stark, bell-shaped reactor. Life got more difficult when Merkle’s husband, the household’s primary breadwinner, died a few years back. “Right now, I’m three months behind on my mobile home, and it’s a stupid small payment and I can’t even make it. It’s sad,” says Merkle. “I have back issues and leg issues very bad, and if it wouldn’t be for my sister helping me, I wouldn’t even have a little bit of food.” Asked what help she needs from government, Merkle was blunt: “Survival. Money.” She’s not alone: according to 2014 data, nearly one-third of Bay township, which borders Port Clinton, lives in poverty—and the same is true of one-fifth of neighbouring Portage township’s residents.

Port Clinton has its own struggles as it contracts for the cold months. “A lot of people get laid off by the ferries, or restaurants, or stores and everything kind of shrinks in,” says Hines. But the place still strives for the American dream. The local high school football team, the Redskins, is undefeated for the first time since anybody can remember. (Records indicate the last time the team won every game of the season was 1960, the same year the county voted out of sync with the nation and picked Nixon over Kennedy).

Downtown windows are filled with colourful boasts and handwritten spirit—“PC Pride!” and “Let’s go ’Skins!”—and streetlamps carry banners lionizing the team’s current stars.

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Before a homecoming game on Oct. 7, dozens of locals gathered at the Fullbackers booster club for a pig roast and tailgate—Hines and her husband brought the pig—just down the street from Tru-Lay Stadium. Among the sea of red-shirted fans stood Tom Weldon and Joe Brenner, two of the original boosters who opened the club and fundraised aggressively for a massive stadium overhaul that’s since energized the football program.

Weldon, who predicted his daughter would win homecoming queen that evening and held her corsage in one hand, had a beer in the other and pointed a spare finger at fellow boosters mingling in the crowd. He hauled over Brenner, a local businessman credited locally as a money-raising dynamo who happily recounted the tale of the resurgent Redskins. A few minutes later, under the Friday night lights so familiar to middle America and with a 130-strong marching band playing its heart out, Abbey Weldon and star quarterback Joey Brenner, Jr. were crowned homecoming royalty. Weldon, who accompanied his daughter during the ceremony, beamed widely. On this night, in this place that’s always so in tune with the American political mood, nobody wanted to talk about the election.

Ottawa County is rife with yard signs, the vast majority of them concerned with local races. Trump and Clinton signs are by no means a rarity, but the sense that neither of them deserves a vote is never far away. For proof, walk no further than the mayor’s office in the village of Oak Harbor, where distillery owner Joe Helle is serving his first term—having previously served with the military in Iraq and Afghanistan. Helle’s concern is his village, and he sees none of the people around him reflected in the race for the White House. “Everywhere you go, if you talk about the election, it’s going to be Trump versus Clinton, no holds barred,” he says. “I think that does a disservice to the community.”

Joe Helle, the mayor of Oak Harbor, at his distillery on the village's main drag. (Photograph by Nick Iwanyshyn)
Oak Harbor Mayor Joe Helle mows the lawns at city parks himself. ‘I probably won’t vote,’ he says. (Photograph by Nick Iwanyshyn)

Oak Harbor is so strapped for cash that its parks have no staff. “As a kid, I didn’t have the best life, so the parks were my escape,” says Helle. Before he was mayor, he mowed the grass himself and “bought a zero-turn lawnmower just to do it.” Most of the mayor’s gripes are with the state house in Columbus, but he says Clinton and Trump—who have visited northern Ohio again and again—should be “making campaign promises to clean up Lake Erie,” which he calls “one of the biggest resources in this country.”

For political inspiration, Helle looks north. He’s no stranger to Canada, having encountered Canadians occasionally during his years in Afghanistan. These days, he crosses the border into Windsor, Ont., when he wants a good meal. “I go up to Mezzo’s all the time for pasta, and the guys at the border are like, ‘You’re here just for pasta?’ and I say, ‘Hey, it’s good pasta.’ ” He’s found someone to admire in Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, whom he calls a “visionary” with the sort of courage to march in Pride parades that few American politicians could muster.

Helle, an “open and admitted” Democrat, sees no real choice for president. “I don’t even know who I’m voting for. I probably won’t vote for any presidential candidate,” he says.

A few minutes’ drive north from Helle’s office, Bricelene Bryant minds her antique shop, a year-old work-in-progress that consumes a barn beside her house. Bryant, who voted for George W. Bush and is “mostly Republican,” lives in Carroll 1 and would vote—if she did vote—at the town hall up the highway. She has her mind made up about the election, and it’s a familiar refrain. “I’m sittin’ out. Because it doesn’t matter,” she says. “We have no candidate this year. It’s sad to say.”

The mood was different over on Oak Harbor’s main drag, where the annual Apple Festival was filled with political chatter. At the Republican tent, the buzz was all about Trump’s latest crisis: the 2005 audiotape in which the candidate bragged about grabbing women by the genitals; the apology that followed; and the denial of his own words during a town-hall debate two days later. Supporters grabbed Trump-Pence signs and T-shirts, and mocked the Democrats across the street.

Carolyn Adams, the county Republican chair, was trying to ignore the hubbub. She predicts the “winds of change” are blowing, and forecasts a “tremendous shift” in the county that twice offered its blessing to Obama. Any mention of Clinton invites derision. “I . . . oh my God . . . I’m appalled by her,” says Adams. “I’m appalled by the lying.”

Conversations were humming around her tent. “At least he can apologize, and she can’t even admit the things she does,” spat one voter.

Adams reflected on the festival unfolding around her, which had begun earlier in the day with the reigning Miss Ohio belting out the national anthem. “You come into a county like this, and people yearn for a quieter time,” says Adams. “It’s like stepping back in time.”

If the people of Carroll 1 truly are their nation’s bellwether, the place to be on Election Day is the voting station at the town hall on West Toussaint East Road. At a public meeting in the same building in early October (which opened with a characteristically spirited Pledge of Allegiance), residents decided what to do with the light bar off an old police cruiser and how to pay for veterans’ wreaths at the township’s cemeteries. They spoke not a word about the impending election, and demurred when asked about it by a reporter.

Merkle, at the fruit stand, would vote in Carroll 1. She leans Hillary Clinton, and voted for Bill Clinton the last time she went to the polls, but ultimately “wouldn’t want either one” of this year’s candidates in the White House. It’s not Clinton and Trump’s lack of appeal that’s keeping Merkle at home on Nov. 8. She refuses to register because she wants to avoid sitting on a jury. It used to be that the Ottawa County courthouse would draw its jurors solely from voter rolls, and Merkle doesn’t trust her own moral judgment enough to do that particular civic duty. “I will not walk around the rest of my life wondering if I sent somebody to prison that was innocent,” she says. “It would get the best of me. It would make me sick.”

Merkle’s view was common enough that it’s now outdated. Earlier this year, the county changed its eligibility rules for jurors, and now any resident with a driver’s licence or state identification card could end up in the jury box. Merkle may be in for a rude surprise in the not-too-distant future. Same goes for many of her non-voting neighbours.