Obama: In the Divided Heartland

How many Joe the Plumbers are there out there in Middle America?” Rush Limbaugh fumed on my car radio as I drove down Interstate 75 from the Detroit airport toward Toledo. “How many of you are tired of people running down the country?” For the last six years, he declared, the “drive-by media”—his term for the mainstream press—has tried to convince people “that this is a rotten country.” States like Ohio, he went on, were so foreign to elite journalists that they needed a visa to visit them.

As it happened, I was on my way to Ohio to interview people about their political views. It was mid-October, and I had decided to make the trip out of my own frustrations with the press. The coverage seemed so focused on the candidates and their campaigns and on the race between them that the concerns and attitudes of ordinary voters tended to get overlooked. I was especially exasperated by the readiness of TV pundits and Op-Ed writers to make sweeping statements about the state of the electorate without ever talking to an actual voter. I wanted to see if I could uncover some of the deeper, underlying currents in the body politic.

As my laboratory I had chosen a forty-mile strip of I-75 in northwestern Ohio. It offered a good cross-section of this key battleground state, stretching from an aging industrial city (Toledo), south to a college town (Bowling Green), down to a classic small town (Findlay). (See the map below.)

Map

The region was home to hundreds of family farms producing corn and soybeans and to factories turning out everything from Wonder Bread to pumps, cranks, and cylinders for the auto plants of nearby Detroit.

At the same time, this region has been hard hit by both the recent financial crisis and the long and steady decline of its industrial base. According to a recent article in the Toledo Blade, Ohio during the Bush years has lost 315,000 manufacturing jobs, median income has dropped by more than 3 percent, and 330,000 more people have slipped into poverty. There have been sharp increases in bankruptcy filings, foreclosure rates, and visits to food banks. Today, a larger proportion of Ohioans live in poverty than at any time since the 1960s war on poverty.

In both 2000 and 2004, Ohio went narrowly for George W. Bush. To see how it might go in 2008, I focused on three counties: Lucas (home to Toledo), which was solidly blue; Hancock (home to Findlay), which was reliably red; and—sandwiched in between—Wood (home to Bowling Green), which swung back and forth. According to The Blade, Lucas was among the ten counties that fared the worst over the last eight years. The area was so coveted during the campaign that hardly a day went by that one or another of the presidential candidates or their running mates did not pass through. Shortly before my visit, Barack Obama had spent three days outside Toledo …

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