Take Ohio, Take The White House


It's the place everyone's talking about as the clock ticks down to the US presidential poll: Ohio. Throughout the campaign, voters in this mid-west state have been bombarded with political advertising and a charm offensive that has left them more than a little weary.

As one 25-year-old undecided Ohioan, Lauren, told Slate: "If any other man vied so hard for my affections as these two candidates I'd have filed a criminal harassment report by August."

But why has the race focussed in on one swing state — and will it really decide who gets to occupy the White House?

New Matilda travelled to Ohio last week to find out, and found a state divided by the question of how best to fix the country's floundering economy.

Punters at a Mitt Romney rally in Ohio. Photo: Marni Cordell

When I arrive in the capital of Columbus, the state is experiencing an intense cold snap off the back of Hurricane Sandy. Parts of neighbouring West Virginia are knee deep in unseasonal snow.

In Marion County, about an hour north of the capital, Mitt Romney is holding a "Victory Rally" to gee up his supporters. Once one of Ohio's major industrial centres, Marion has more been recently been in steady economic decline.

Inside the county sports stadium, around 4000 white Romney supporters cheer as veteran hick band the Oak Ridge Boys declare their support for the Republican cause and belt out a few numbers. Eventually, Romney and running mate Paul Ryan take the stage.

"Do you think everything's been going well? Do you think everything should just keep going how it's been going?" the presidential hopeful yells across the crowd. "Nooooo!" they scream on cue.

Romney promises "change" on energy, trade, education, the economy and jobs, before finishing up with a bizarre story about a boy scout who sent a US flag into space on the ill-fated space shuttle Columbia. The flag survived, he tells the crowd, who erupt into cheers. The astronauts didn't.

Speak to the locals in Marion and they have some fairly off-the-wall views about why Romney is their man: Because Barack Obama is a Muslim. He's an Arab apologist. He's a Communist or a Marxist.

It's the stuff of satire. But it's frighteningly real.

Photo: Marni Cordell

Travel to the north-east of the state and you see a completely different America.

In Lordstown, Ohio, home of the massive General Motors plant, the workers wear Obama/Biden campaign T-shirts that read, "You had our back. Now we've got yours".

Contrary to the rhetoric from Romney's campaign, Ohio's economy has actually fared better than the rest of the country's — largely due to a multi-billion dollar federal bailout package to the local auto industry.

Down the road at a union rally in Canton, steel workers are urged to get out and petition their neighbours. Unlike in Australia, where the focus is on convincing people to switch camps, here the effort is getting people who already support your man to turn up and vote.

In a fiery speech, president of the United Steelworkers of America, Leo Gerard, paints Romney as a millionaire who is intent on destroying middle class America. Republicans are trying to buy their way into government, he tells the crowd.

For many of the workers here, it's not hyperbole when Gerard claims, "This [election]is the fight of our lives".

And this election does feel different. More so than in a generation, there is clear ideological divide between the two candidates — and between voters right across the country.

Although the key issues of this campaign are almost exclusively local — a marked shift from the war on terror of eight years ago — at its heart is a bigger question of how best to fix a bankrupt nation: stimulus and subsidies versus lower taxes and deregulation.

Many voters see their personal struggle feeding into a bigger one about the role and size of government.

Photo: Marni Cordell

The intensity of anti-government rhetoric in Ohio is surprising for a state that benefitted more than most from Obama's economic bailout. In Lordstown I ask an African American union organiser, who asks not to be named, why the vote is even close. Unemployment here is below the national average. The bailout appears to have worked. Can't voters here see that an Obama presidency has been good for the state's economy?

She looks at me a little incredulously and asks, "You don't know anything at all about the United States?"

"Listen, you got states in this country that don't have any minority population. So you look on the map and you see they're all Red. They don't care about people who don't look like them. It's like Australia, with the Aborigines and the white people. You know what I'm saying — equate it."

"The bottom line is, Ohio has as many militia groups as Mississippi," she tells me.

The ideological battle for America plays out across Ohio because the state is a microcosm of the nation. Comprised of rural, industrial and urban areas — much like the bellwether electorate of Eden Monaro in Australia — Ohio has a little bit of everything. It also accounts for 18 Electoral College votes. Some states only have three.

Further complicating the situation is a rather significant hiccup in the state's voting system that could lead to a repeat of the nightmare recount of Florida 2000, which saw George W. Bush snatch the presidency from Al Gore.

Hundreds of thousands of absentee ballots in Ohio have not been received by the cut-off date, so the voters who applied for them will now have to fill in provisional ballots at the ballot box. These ballots are not counted until 10 days after the election — meaning the country could be in for a long wait if the result hinges on Ohio. 

And then there is this little matter, which The Atlantic predicts will be the biggest legal story of the election. Pundits say Ohio's provisional ballots may well become the "hanging chads" of the 2012 election. Both parties have been beefing up their legal teams in anticipation.

Alongside these issues of how and when votes are counted is the problem of getting to the polling booth at all.

Six days out from the election, voters were spilling out the door of one Ohio voting booth that I visited. This week, early voters in Florida reported waiting nine hours to cast their vote.

Leo Gerard told rallying workers in Canton, "In a democracy you shouldn't have to wait five hours to vote. Why don't they just ship in 2500 more electronic voting machines and be done with it?"

An auto worker in Lordstown, Ohio, sports an Obama campaign T-shirt. Photo: Marni Cordell

Under America's unique brand of democracy, it's difficult to predict, even on election eve, how this race will finish.

Early exit polling in Ohio is favouring Obama — but that may be thanks to an aggressive campaign encouraging Democrats to vote early.

And there seems to be a poll to support every possible outcome. In the past week Fox News has had Romney ahead in Ohio, while MSNBC was leaning to Obama.

On Friday the front page of the Washington Post carried an article claiming Romney was headed for a landslide win across the country — while others say Obama's smooth handling of the Sandy disaster has shored up his margin.

What's important to emphasise for Australian readers is the level of anti-government sentiment here. The extreme right don't just hate the government in power — they believe they'd be better off with no government at all. In this context, the popularity of the Occupy movement here makes perfect sense.

Post GFC-America is a country of extremes.

The result will come down, as one undecided voter put it, to whichever candidate can leverage this moment in US history best.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.