Election pendulum swings back to Obama in Ohio

The travails of Sarah Palin may be making all the headlines in the race for the White House this weekend. But a scandal in Alaska, however embarrassing for the McCain/Palin campaign, is likely to be of only passing interest in Canton, Ohio. Here it has always been about the economy.

Ingrid Roth has the quintessential American job in the quintessential American state. She is a travelling salesperson in Ohio. But the economic crisis gripping the United States has had a devastating impact. Roth has postponed a planned mortgage refinancing and high petrol prices have hit the amount she is able to spend.

”Today it’s a choice between putting food on the table or gas in my car,” she said bluntly.

Like many working Americans, Roth views the economic future with doubt. But her political opinions are now certain.

She had just visited the Barack Obama campaign headquarters in her home town of Canton and picked up a huge Obama placard. She was carrying it through the street to her car. Her motivation for backing Obama was simple. ”Financial reasons,” she said. ”It is just seriously all about the economy.”

Canton lies in the heart of America’s Rust Belt. It was a region once reliant on large-scale manufacturing but now it is dotted with empty factories as jobs and plants have disappeared overseas. Recently Forbes magazine produced a top 10 list of America’s fastest-dying cities. Four of them were in Ohio. Three of those — Canton, Akron and Cleveland — are in the state’s Rust Belt.

But until recently this was an area that was also sceptical of Obama. Its large white working-class population mostly backed Hillary Clinton and helped her fight Obama to the bitter end in the Democrats’ long nomination battle. Obama’s lack of populist appeal, his unusual and exotic background, and his academic style of oratory failed to inspire many parts of Ohio. That also kept the state in contention for Republican John McCain for many long months.

Changing times
Over the summer, McCain often led in the polls in Ohio. But things are changing. As stock markets have fallen and banks collapsed, Obama’s popularity has surged across the battleground states, especially among once sceptical whites. ”It is not Obama sealing the deal with these voters. It is the situation sealing the deal for him,” said Professor Stephen Brooks, a political scientist at the University of Akron.

McCain has even abandoned his long-standing target of Michigan. Now the battle is being waged in once safely Republican red states such as Indiana, North Carolina and Virginia. Ohio, too, has followed suit. Obama leads there by an average of three points. It is a narrow but solid lead in a state that has voted for the winning candidate in every election since 1960.

If Obama wins in Ohio in four weeks’ time, he will almost certainly win the White House too. He will have people such as Roth and cities such as Canton to thank for becoming the country’s first black president.

”Hillary was my first choice, but I’m not voting for McCain. No chance,” Roth said. Then she put her new Obama sign in her car and drove away. By nightfall she planned to put it up in her front yard.

A short drive from Canton is the city of Akron. The two towns are so close they share much, including an airport. They also share a devastated economy, hard-hit downtowns and a place on Forbes‘s grim list.

Akron’s plight has even inspired a song by its most famous native daughter, the Pretenders’ lead singer Chrissie Hynde. In My City Was Gone, Hynde sang about the city’s decline. ”I went back to Ohio/ But my city was gone/ There was no train station, there was no downtown,” Hynde lamented.

Hynde had a point. Like many other cities in Ohio’s Rust Belt, Akron’s downtown is a shadow of its former self. Grand buildings from its heyday of the Twenties and Thirties stand next to empty lots. Many streets are lined with boarded-up shop fronts. Few people live there, having long fled to the suburbs or to different towns. Akron’s population has dropped dramatically. In 1960 the city boasted almost 300 000 people. Since then it has lost one-third of its population.

Yet a picture of relentless decline is far too simple. Large efforts have been put into rejuvenating the city, and especially downtown. Ironically Hynde herself is playing a key role. She has opened a plush vegan restaurant in a new downtown loft development and snapped up one of the apartments above it.

Called VegiTerranean, it is a swanky place of chrome fittings and black-clad waiting staff that would not look out of place in Manhattan. It is a far cry from the usual image of ailing Akron. Here, too, Obama’s support is solid. In Ohio both working-class whites and traditional liberals have now swung their support to Obama.

”He’s thoughtful. He’s intelligent,” said local writer Lisa DeBenedictis, as she left VegiTerranean after having lunch with her young son. ”I can’t vote for McCain. I have a 10-year-old son and I don’t want him to be drafted some day into another war,” she added.

Obama’s long-term plan to create a winning coalition is coming to fruition, fuelled by the economic crisis as much as the campaign’s own actions. It is based on getting traditional liberals on board with white working-class Democrats and generating a huge boost in turnout with black Americans and young people. Obama’s campaign has bet that such an alliance should be enough to beat a Republican party saddled with a historically unpopular President in the shape of George Bush.

To that end, the Obama camp and its allies have embarked on a highly organised registration drive, much of which has been aimed at getting people to vote early. The effort has generated much controversy, including accusations of false registrations, but it has ploughed on regardless.

A representative of its success is someone like Jermaine Brooks. He was proudly wearing his ”I voted” badge on his jacket in downtown Akron after already casting an early vote for Obama. ”I ain’t voting for McCain. He’s just more Bush,” he said.

Brooks is struggling in the economic downtown, hopping from one low-paid job to another. ”Right now, I am bouncing around minimum-wage jobs. Like Burger King,” he said.

Brooks, who is black, needed a morale boost and he found that in voting for Obama. He said he was proud to cast his first vote for a fellow black American. ”That was my first thought. I felt that I was really part of something,” he said.

Such emotions are likely to be repeated in their millions on election day. If black turnout is high enough, the final piece in the Obama camp’s jigsaw will fit into place. It is not over yet. Not even in Ohio. This is political turf being ferociously fought over. ”The economic situation has boosted Obama. But situations can change,” said Professor Brooks.

If polling holds up in the same position as it is now, no one will be talking about a narrow Obama win. He will take Ohio, Florida, Pennsylvania and perhaps even some states in the Old South, like Virginia or North Carolina, that have long seemed out of reach for modern Democrats. It could end up being a landslide. — guardian.co.uk

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