Is ailing America ready for a radical prescription?

The road to the White House leads through Ohio, where some Democrat frontrunners hope radical new policy prescriptions can turn voters away from Trump
GM Lordstown workers rally outside the GM Lordstown plant on March 6, 2019 in Lordstown, Ohio. The sprawling facility was idled today after more than 50 years producing cars and other vehicles, falling victim to changing U.S. auto preferences, according to the company. (Jeff Swensen/Getty Images)

Tim Caudill presses his rough hands together to keep warm during the first cold morning of October. Ohio just lost its blue autumn sky to steel clouds and drizzle, so he and his fellow union workers, striking outside a General Motors factory on the industrial outskirts of Cleveland, brought extra flannel layers and toss logs into a barrel fire. Ask Caudill why they’re striking, and he’ll point across the street, to another auto parts manufacturer: “That place right there does a lot of our work.” GM is outsourcing more and more instead of training new employees, offloading full-time hours onto temporary workers with no benefits, he explains. Pensions have been frozen for years. Factories are closing. Thousands have lost their jobs.

Caudill has witnessed the company’s collapse in real time. He worked for over two decades at GM’s factory in Mansfield, 130 km south, until the company shut it down during the 2009 recession. He was 45 with two kids. When the company offered a position here, he accepted, unwilling to sell his 83-acre horse farm near Mansfield. Now, after a 90-minute commute each morning, he finds most of his work outsourced anyway, with just three young apprentices to learn from hundreds of retirement-age workers—an omen for the dismal future of this Cleveland site, whose days are likely numbered.

“It’s kinda depressing for me to see that much trades work leaving our plants,” he says, looking down at the concrete. “I’m third-generation General Motors. My grandfather retired from Mansfield; my dad retired from Mansfield. I had three uncles who retired from there. My brother took the buyout when they closed Mansfield. So I’ve been involved in the union and General Motors all my life. My dad started in ’56. My dad can hand that down to me, and I don’t see that being handed down to the next generation.” Is he sad about the family heritage ending with his impending retirement? “I didn’t want my kids working for this General Motors, because I didn’t see a big future. It’s just—it’s sad, but in 20 years, I don’t see General Motors building cars in the United States.”

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Lordstown, 100 kilometres east, is Ohio’s most infamous idled factory—a titanic assembly plant that produced an unpopular sedan, the Chevy Cruze, until GM abruptly shuttered the six-million-sq.-foot factory late last year. President Donald Trump refused to accept its demise. “Those jobs have all left Ohio,” he told supporters in a 2017 rally just outside Lordstown, before it closed but after thousands had been laid off. “They’re all coming back. Don’t move—don’t sell your house.” He blasted out angry tweets over the next two years, urging GM not to close the plant. “Big things are happening in Ohio,” he reiterated to reporters this September, “including with Lordstown. Very positive things are happening.”

The following month, GM confirmed that Lordstown was dead.

Was there anything the president could have done to save it? Ask the strikers, and they’ll shake their heads. “He doesn’t really have that much power to control the free market, so I don’t really understand how he thought he was gonna be able to do that,” says Shawn McKinney, holding a placard near the main entrance. McKinney didn’t vote for Trump in 2016, but Caudill did, and he doesn’t blame Trump, either—but he also didn’t put much faith in him to begin with. “I believe there is a political answer; I don’t think we’re gonna get it,” he says. Will Caudill vote for Trump again in 2020? He shrugs. “Unless something better comes along.”

Surely, something better had come along to Ohio two nights earlier, in Westerville, an affluent suburb of Columbus. The 12 leading Democratic candidates for president gathered to partake in an exhausting, three-hour debate hosted by CNN and the New York Times. Between questions about impeachment and foreign policy, moderator Marc Lacey asked a couple of candidates how they’d convince GM to move work back to the U.S. Former congressman Beto O’Rourke, whose campaign is flailing, delivered a respectably cogent, if overly optimistic, answer: he’d rewrite trade deals to allow Mexican workers to join American unions, incentivize American jobs by creating a national child care service, and somehow generate five million trades apprenticeships over the next eight years. “We will make sure that every single American has a shot,” O’Rourke said. “They don’t want a handout; they don’t want a job guarantee. They just want a shot. And as president, I will give them that shot.”

If Democrats want to win in 2020, they have to win Ohio. Seriously. No American president since 1964 has been elected without winning the Buckeye State. Somewhat unbelievably, no Republican, since the party’s inception in 1854, has ever won the presidency without Ohio. In the aftermath of an election defined by the lashing out of a frustrated American Midwest, in which once-blue states like Ohio flipped red to hand Republicans a slim victory because they felt they weren’t being heard, Democrats are now listening carefully.

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“Ohio is special because, in so many political and non-political ways, it is not so special,” writes Kyle Kondik in The Bellwether: Why Ohio Picks the President. For decades, it has mirrored the nation’s unemployment trends, urban and rural growth rates, and economic transformation from manufacturing to services. Kondik continues: “Ohio is a major producer of agricultural goods, but it is not an agriculture state like Iowa. Ohio produces a lot of cars, but it is not an auto state like Michigan, where the three big American automakers (General Motors, Ford and Chrysler) are based. Ohio has a lot of natural resources, but it is not a coal state like West Virginia. It contains all of these industries, but it is not defined by any single one of them.” Unlike nearby Illinois or Michigan, too, whose economies and cultures orbit the metropolises of Chicago and Detroit, Ohio’s trio of Cleveland, Columbus and Cincinnati draw an urban streak across the state, which is peppered with respected universities, beautiful libraries and deep histories in between. Put simply, the state is remarkably balanced.

According to Kondik, three startling political truths stem from these facts: Ohio most consistently votes for the winning president; Ohio most often reflects the national voting average; and Ohio, a valuable swing state, has decided presidential elections more than any other state.

Harris and Warren on television screens in the Media Center during the Democratic Presidential Debate in Westerville, Ohio, in October. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

So it was no surprise that the Democratic National Convention chose Westerville, the small town turned suburb just north of Columbus, for its fourth debate on Oct. 15. While Trump carried the state in 2016, Hillary Clinton, unexpectedly, won many of its suburbs, which have traditionally aligned with the rural red. To reconnect with the Rust Belt, Democrats will need areas like Westerville, where residents are better educated, real estate prices are higher, the population is growing and the people are eager to be heard. Melissa Smith, a local Pete Buttigieg supporter who walked down the street to watch the debate at the Old Bag of Nails pub, says she and her neighbours are thrilled the debates came to town. “We’re a small town. We’re not known for anything but John Kasich,” she says. The Republican Kasich isn’t even from Westerville, but he lives there now, and that’s good enough.

Westerville is clean and crisp, with well-preserved 19th-century brick buildings and broad Queen Anne balconies. On the night of the debates, however, its narrow sidewalks are chaotic and crammed like a music festival. Hundreds of supporters and protesters scream and wave a hodgepodge of placards with conflicting slogans—Make America Great Again, Win With Warren, Yang 2020, Boot Edge Edge, Feel the Bern. There are grotesque masks and a lit-up helium balloon and pink cardboard signs held by protesters shouting about gun control, climate change and charter schools; airplanes careen overhead, trailing all-caps messages: “VOTE ANTI-ABORTION” and “SOCIALISM DESTROYS OHIO JOBS. VOTE TRUMP.”

One of the protesters is Nancy Larson, a Democratic candidate for the Ohio House of Representatives, who drove down to Westerville with an anti-corruption poster in hand. She is short but loud, and on a crowded street corner, in front of a café enjoying a never-ending lineup of caffeine-hungry politicos, she corrals those around her into an impeachment chant. (“Gimme an ‘I’! Gimme an ‘M’!”)

Larson aligns with leftists on the big issues—eliminating private insurance; nixing the state’s recent “heartbeat bill,” which criminalizes abortion after six weeks of pregnancy—but among her biggest issues is climate change, which has directly ravaged Ohio’s economy. “Thirty-five per cent of farmland in my district was not able to be planted because we had five days of rain out of every seven for over a month,” she says. Elsewhere in Ohio, farmers haven’t been able to plant a single crop because of unprecedented floods, which transformed soybean fields into muddy wetlands. After excessive rainfall this summer marked the state’s wettest year-long period since 1895, the United States Department of Agriculture issued a disaster declaration to help farmers stay financially afloat.

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The next morning, on that same street, now reverted to its quaint small-town self, a religious Republican named Paul Smith offers a stranger a cigarette during his lunch break. He sides with the other half of the state—the half that shakes their heads at these liberal ideas.

“Everyone wants free stuff, it seems like,” Smith says. “I work 60 hours a week. I don’t wanna work 60 hours a week, but, honestly, if I want a better life for my kid—and my own house, car, live out on my own—that’s what you gotta do. But a lot of these people just feel like they’re owed that just because they exist.” Smith waves off the suggestion that health care is a fundamental right, unlike owning a house. “Nothing’s free. Even if you pay the government—why would the government pay for it? The government is supposed to protect you from Islam and shit coming over here and bombing stuff. If that was the case, this guy”—Smith gestures to himself—“wouldn’t be a big ol’ fat guy because the government would pay for, I dunno, liposuction or some sh–.”

Statistics suggest Ohioans might benefit from Medicare for All. According to federal census data, theirs was one of only eight states where the number of residents without health insurance grew last year, climbing by 8.5 per cent to 744,000. (Proving Ohio’s eerily accurate status as America’s bellwether, the total number of uninsured Americans rose by 7.5 per cent to 27.5 million in that same period.) Ohio is also suffering from a shortage of doctors, and it’s one of the top-five states for kids being siphoned into the foster care system because of parental drug abuse, according to studies released earlier this year.

But there is no consensus among Democrats nationally, let alone Ohioans, on the issue of Medicare for All, which has, in the past decade, shifted from the radical fringes of American political discourse to a glaring demarcation line between the party’s reformers and its centrists. Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren and Andrew Yang advocate for it; their moderate opponents, including Joe Biden, Pete Buttigieg and Kamala Harris, push for a compromise that would strengthen a government option but leave private insurance companies in place, hoping the competition will drive down prices.

While those candidates argue their sides before millions on live TV, Ohioans struggle with the broken system currently in place. Patsy Choina only caught glimpses of the debate—she was busy taking care of her partner, a 77-year-old man whom she’s been with for 20 years. A couple of weeks ago, he underwent hip-replacement surgery, but his doctor discharged him after three days, Choina says, because insurance companies don’t like keeping recovering patients for longer than that. A week of horrific complications ensued: bladder issues, blood pressure problems, a urinary tract infection, a blood clot. One morning, after they noticed severe rectal bleeding, she finally called an ambulance.

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Six hours later, with weary eyes and a baby-blue fleece, Choina recalls the saga in the cafeteria of the Grant Medical Center in downtown Columbus. Both she and her partner pay more than $100 a month for private insurance on top of their Medicare—but what good is it if the quality of health care doesn’t improve? “If everybody’s gonna get Medicare for All, are they all gonna pay like we’re paying?” she wonders. “Somebody has to pay for something.” She plans on voting Democrat, but she’s living off social security and can’t afford increased premiums to account for every other American. “I don’t really know what the answer is to all this,” she says.

If she walked down the hall, Choina could ask Ashley Bond, a young woman wearing a grey Bernie Sanders hoodie from 2016, who’s waiting for surgeons to finish operating on her diabetic mother’s infected knee. Bond doesn’t pretend to understand the byzantine world of American health care any more than Choina does, but she believes Sanders when he promises a better solution. “Just knowing that we spend as much as we spend as a country, with such poor outcomes, medically speaking, I think that there’s just gotta be a better way to use the money we put into it without as much of it going to insurance companies and corporate CEO paycheques.”

On that bottom line, most Ohioans may agree. There isn’t much sympathy for millionaires and mega-corporations. Sitting outside the GM plant, Tim Caudill, despite likely voting for Trump again in 2020, sounds like a Sanders supporter. “If you get these corporations to start paying their fair share, you start getting the medical profession to start charging regular rates, you get the insurance companies to where they can’t have a claim and then drop you—it’s frustrating. You know, I’m almost 60 years old. I couldn’t imagine being 25 years old in this economy.”

Ohioans are not dumb. They understand the country’s problems are too complex for them to fully grasp. They don’t pretend to know the answers. But that also makes them skeptical of anyone who promises an easy solution. Nothing is free, they’ll say. Tax corporations and they’ll move work abroad; abolish private insurance and taxes will rise; shift away from fossil fuels and industries will crumble. That’s why there may be nothing a presidential candidate could ever say to win Ohio’s vote; it is unpredictable, defensive and volatile. Crossing the state, one understands that there is no single Ohio vote. Theirs is the vote of all America.

This article appears in print in the December 2019 issue of Maclean’s magazine with the headline, “The state America is in.” Subscribe to the monthly print magazine here.