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Political coverage

Swing state road trip

interior-roadtripThis article appeared in the Sunday Herald on November 2, 2008.

Barack Obama cannot lose. Living in New York, watching cable news and obsessively checking poll results has convinced me of this. But no matter how much evidence stacks up, the neighbours dare not say it out loud. Predicting a landslide from diverse, middle-class Brooklyn has been shown to be foolish. I resolved to take a road trip across states that matter.

The plan was to pass through Pennsylvania, where John McCain hopes to overturn a slim Democratic majority, followed by Ohio, which has picked the winner in every post-war election but one, followed by Indiana, which always votes Republican but might not this year. I was accompanied by my wife, a Brazilian journalist filing reports for the nightly news. Our destination was Chicago, Obama’s home town.

Day one – Bethlehem, Pennsylvania

On our way to pick up the car, our Egyptian taxi driver had an Obama poster on his headrest. He wasn’t worried about alienating customers. There were three people in the cab and none of us had the right to vote. In the Washington Post, Bush speechwriter David Frum had just thrown in the towel. “There are many ways to lose a presidential election,” he wrote. “John McCain is losing in a way that threatens to take the entire Republican Party down with him.”

McCain has been forced to defend Virginia, North Carolina and Indiana with resources that would otherwise have been spent on the attack. Because he has pulled out of Colorado, conceding that square of George Bush’s winning patchwork, he needs to capture a major Democratic state and hang on everywhere else. Michigan, once close, has been given up. Obama leads by double digits in Minnesota and Wisconsin. Pennsylvania is the target. Senior adviser Mark Salter told reporters: “When we look at our numbers, we think we’re competitive here.”

Democrats usually win by running up huge margins in Philadelphia, padding them in Pittsburgh and holding their breath when the rural counties declare. McCain and Palin have visited every corner of the state, as well as spending more money on advertising here than anywhere else, in the belief that Obama’s support among white working class families is fragile.

Our first stop was Allentown, in the Lehigh Valley, where Hillary Clinton’s crushing primary win suggested an opening for McCain. It was a perfect autumn day. Community activist Alan Jennings told us 2008 is already the area’s worst ever year for repossessions. “We warned every policy-maker we could find that this was a pending disaster. They ignored us because their folks were making money. It’s therapeutic to say ‘I told you so’ but it doesn’t save people’s homes.”

Signposts with balloons attached announced an open house every few blocks, so we stopped at one that had been on the market for eight months. Mortgage broker Romulo Guzman bravely insisted that “the time to buy is now” but it sounded like wishful thinking. “Some analysts say it hasn’t bottomed out yet, but that shouldn’t prevent people from taking advantage of great opportunities.” His employer, Countrywide Loans, was rescued by Bank Of America in January – a bad debt tremor that presaged the summer’s subprime earthquake.

In South Bethlehem, a major new casino and shopping complex at the site of the old steelworks that once employed half the town has stalled. Shares in the company, Las Vegas Sands, have lost 95% of their value in a year and crews working on the site were sent home at short notice last week.

At the Halloween parade, Democratic activists were handing out Obama badges. Eric Hofsted, a registered independent, had taken one. “To me Mr McCain represents the good old boys club,” he said. “It’s time for us to change that.” Retired New Jersey fireman Daniel Decher told me “most of my life I voted Republican. I don’t anymore. I don’t know how qualified Obama is but I will not vote for the Republicans because these last eight years have been a disaster.”

Rich Talijan, a mechanic, asked “why would Obama go into another country to run for president? I wouldn’t go into Iraq and run for president.” But he was born in America, I said. “That’s what he says.” His mother is from Kansas. “That’s what he says. Why is his middle name Hussein? Why is he a Muslim?”

We stayed in the Hotel Bethlehem, where photographs in the hallways showed presidents Jack Kennedy and Jimmy Carter. Signs at the Obama office next door declared Firefighters For Obama, Steelworkers For Obama and so on. McCain hopes that in this town of Reagan Democrats, party affiliation is weaker at the ballot box than in the union hall.

Day two – Pottsville, Pennsylvania

Our next destination was a McCain rally in Pottsville, deep in rural Pennsylvania. On the way, we stopped at Ed’s Sports Store in Tamaqua. “I vote my guns,” said Ed. There are plenty of hunting and fishing Democrats, but when it comes to electing a president, he follows the National Rifle Association line. “Look at Joe Biden, he’s voted with every anti-gun bill that’s been up.”

There were two customers in the shop. Bob Thomas said “I’d give up every gun I own just to end those wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.” Tom Mason was dressed in full camouflage after an early morning bow-hunt. “Guns, that’s the least of my worries right now,” he said. Both were concerned about their pensions and ready to pull the lever for Obama.

At the campaign office in Pottsville, the list of people who had collected tickets that day was written on a single sheet of paper. Kendra Burke had just picked hers up. “I’m praying and praying along with everybody in my church, but I’m a little nervous at this point,” she said. “I would hate to see Obama in there. I think he has a hidden agenda.” She was laid off eight months ago and worried that a Democratic government would make things worse. “There’s not a lot of jobs in this area and if you do find one the salary’s not worth the gas in your tank.”

The rally was being held at a high school gym. Children had been drafted to plump the audience. As a pretty young country singer rehearsed God Bless America, a teacher explained that “once you sit down, you can’t leave until the end.” McCain recently bussed in an entire school district for an event in Ohio and although this wasn’t on that scale, the rows of bored kids didn’t scream enthusiasm. A few of the sassiest pre-teens taunted the party faithful as they waited in line, chanting “O-ba-ma” as they crossed the car park.

Moderates and independents rarely stand at the front of the queue. “We cannot raise the white flag in Iraq,” said Laurie Nush. I asked if she was afraid of Obama. “Yes! He’s dangerous.” A woman calling herself Joe The Housewife told me “I don’t want socialism to take over. He won’t take the pledge of allegiance.” As her friends joined in, it became a chorus. “He burns the flag… He wants to change our national anthem… he wants to get rid of the constitution… he’s got all these Islamic friends.”

The more McCain supporters we met, the more I thought back to the Republican convention and the only delegate who would admit to being less than thrilled by the selection of Palin. “One third of the country is going to get very excited,” David Sprecace told me. “But one third isn’t enough to win an election.”

McCain’s warm-up music was the theme from Rocky. He accused Obama of taking victory for granted and writing his first presidential speech. “I want him to save that manuscript of his inaugural address and donate it to the Smithsonian so they can put it right next to the Chicago paper that said ‘Dewey Defeats Truman.’” When a candidate invokes the miracle comeback of 1948 you know he’s in serious trouble.

Day three – Youngstown, Ohio

Ohio has been a key component of Republican dominance but there are indications that it is vulnerable. Senator Sherrod Brown won his seat two years ago with an anti-Iraq war, anti-free trade campaign. Democratic Governor Ted Strickland was elected in the same cycle. Since 2004, Democrats have registered more than twice as many new voters as Republicans, adding a million people to their list.

Youngstown is a union stronghold, blue since Roosevelt, but none of the workers we met were confident Obama would win. People are too socially conservative and too racist, they said. Bill Booth, an organiser with the International Brotherhood Of Electricians, admitted that some of his members were resistant to the idea of a black president. “I have encountered that race issue, but when we sit down with people and tell them he’s the candidate of the middle class, they usually get over it.”

McCain has been courting aspirational voters with the help of Joe The Plumber, a declared everyman from Toledo who said Obama’s tax plan would prevent him buying a business. On a job with the Plumbers & Pipefitters local, his name provoked ridicule. “That’s special. The guy’s not even a plumber,” said Frank Siesinger. “We’re making $60,000 and trying to send our kids to college.”

A belief that the working man prospers under Democratic administrations usually comes with the union card but Paul Zureval had fixed a McCain-Palin sign to the plasterboard with blue electrical tape. “I’ve been taking a lot of abuse,” he said. “They don’t like Republicans around here. It’s not that I agree with everything Bush has done, nor McCain, but as a Christian I believe in pro-life so I have to support that.

“It’s a lot closer than what the polls indicate. There’s a lot of people that when they go behind that curtain, they’re gonna vote for who they want to.” His mate looked up from his work, tore down the McCain poster and replaced it with another that said Real Joe The Plumbers Support Barack Obama.

Day four – Findlay, Ohio

Findlay’s official nickname is Flag City, USA. When Palin mentioned “pro-America” areas of the country, this is the kind of place she was talking about. In the last election, Bush won 70% of Hancock County’s votes. A recent Washington Post report found racist attitudes as commonplace as a Stars And Stripes in the front yard.

On the day we arrived in Findlay, Palin was speaking at Bowling Green State University. She had attracted a much bigger crowd and a louder counter demonstration than McCain. Country singer Aaron Tippin performed his opportunistic radio hit Drill Here, Drill Now. I looked around for a non-white face and couldn’t find one.

She began with a disclaimer. “It is not mean-spirited, it is not negative campaigning to call someone out on their record or associations,” she said. That over with, she tore into Obama for consorting with Palestinian terrorists. The crowd booed Rashid Khalidi, Bill Ayers, Nancy Pelosi and the L.A. Times.

Her economic message was a straightforward promise to lower taxes. “Barack Obama calls it spreading the wealth around. Joe Biden thinks paying more taxes is patriotic. Some people have called it socialism,” she said. “Now is not the time to experiment with that.” By this point, Joe The Plumber had joined her on stage.

Findlay’s old soldiers were out in force. Jim Gerard, a navy vet, told me “I’m voting for the hero instead of the zero.” Ken Mower said “God help America if Obama’s elected.” All agreed that the shame of withdrawal from Vietnam must not be repeated in Iraq.

Ohio is offering early voting for the first time ever. More than ten thousand people in Hancock County have already cast their ballots. At the polling station, which was busy, a man who didn’t want to be named told us a robo-call smearing Obama had changed his mind. “I am a registered Republican who will be voting Democratic for the first time in my life,” he said. “They spend their whole time attacking him and never talk about what they’re going to do for the country.”

Clinton supporter Kay Gelbaugh said “if McCain was the same man he was eight years ago I probably would have voted for him, but he’s not. The advertisements on TV are disgusting.” Her husband Dick cancelled out her vote. “I think Barack Obama has Jimmy Carter written all over him,” he said. “I truly believe the man’s gonna be in so far over his head, he’ll have to look up to see bottom.”

Economic crisis is nothing new in Ohio but the last few years have been especially grim. Earlier this month Chrysler cut 1,825 jobs, half of them at its Toledo plant. Last week the largest single employer in Findlay, Cooper Tire & Rubber, announced that one of its four US factories will have to close.

Steelworkers union shop steward Rod Nelson told us “in the past four years we have lost 350,000 good paying manufacturing jobs in Ohio. What George Bush has done to this country outweighs the moral issues people have voted in the past. God, guns and gays is how they do it, but the economy is too bad this time.”

Day five – Battle Ground, Indiana

Of all the states that Obama’s aggressive registration drive and limitless advertising money have put into play, Indiana is among the most startling. The only Democrat to win here in the last eighty years was Lyndon Johnson. Leading local Republican Kevin Ober declined campaign assistance, telling Time magazine “we want the party to put resources in the true battleground states. The polls are already showing us ahead.”

In the 2006 midterms, voters kicked three Republican incumbents out of office. But it is a shock to find Democrats actively campaigning, let alone threatening to win the state’s electoral college votes.

Battle Ground is a tiny town at the site of a decisive encounter in the Indian wars. Farmers here raise corn and soybeans. Despite McCain’s resistance to ethanol subsidies, the men we interviewed all said they would be voting for him. “There’s a lot of people that like Obama,” Lynn Teel said. “I personally am sceptical and a bit apprehensive. People want change. They’d better stop and think ‘is change going to be good or is change going to be bad?’”

Dale Lehe was harvesting popcorn. He held out little hope of a Republican victory. “The last year or so times have been especially tough and it appears that most people just want something different, regardless of what it is,” he said. “Senator Obama paints a rosy picture. I guess I just don’t trust him.” The owner of Two Cookin’Sisters cafe told us a Democratic administration would mean more people claiming welfare, because there would be no incentive to work. She feared America “turning into a socialist type country.”

This libertarian, self-sufficient streak and general mistrust of government is a powerful force in US politics and by harnessing it to religious conservatism, Republicans created a coalition that was exceedingly difficult for Democrats to beat. But after eight wasteful years, a fissure has appeared in Karl Rove’s permanent majority between populist, anti-intellectual believers and old-fashioned fiscal conservatives.

Palin’s selection exacerbated this by energising one group and alienating the other. In the week that we spent on the road, we met very few moderate, independent McCain supporters. Of course, it’s possible that I only confirmed my existing New York prejudices, but the inescapable impression was that Republicans have lost the centre.

One in seven of the voters who responded to the latest Associated Press poll said they were still undecided, so in theory, McCain could scrape home in Florida, Pennsylvania and Ohio. But in a moment of crisis, it seems far more likely that when offered a straightforward “with us or against us” choice by Republicans, this time the majority of Americans in swing states will pick the other side.