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Obama: In the Divided Heartland

Toledo used to be a place where you could find a job anywhere,” a retired truck driver told me. Now, every week seemed to bring a new round of layoffs. Just that week, Chrysler had announced that it was eliminating an entire shift at its sprawling Jeep plant in Toledo, eliminating several hundred jobs. A Democrat who had twice voted for George Bush, the man said he was troubled by Obama’s lack of experience. “I’ve heard so many people call him a raghead,” he said, hastening to add that he didn’t put much stock in that. In the end, the health care issue loomed large for him—he was a diabetic paying for his own insurance—and as a result, he said, he would probably vote for Obama. He didn’t sound too happy about it.

Another bowler, who had recently retired from GM after thirty-eight years, bemoaned the effect that the loss of jobs was having on life in Rossford. The exodus of plants had shrunk the town’s tax base. This had reduced the pool of available revenues, which had led, in turn, to widespread maintenance delays. He resented the way companies were using the specter of cheap Chinese labor to drive wages down. A supporter of Hillary Clinton during the primaries, he had decided to back McCain when she dropped out, but then McCain had picked Palin, and “that was it. She’s the governor of a state that has a smaller population than Columbus, Ohio.” The man said he had plenty of doubts about Obama, too, related mostly to his “being raised in Indonesia and going to a Muslim school.” Nonetheless, he had decided to back him.

A third bowler I spoke with had no doubts—he was for McCain all the way. A monitor of sewage facilities, he liked neither Obama’s message nor his character. A devotee of Rush Limbaugh, he expressed concern about Obama’s association with Jeremiah Wright and faulted the media for not probing it more fully. In the end, though, it was taxes that concerned him the most. “Tax policy is where this country has really gone wrong,” he said, adding that he favored a flat tax. He was especially perturbed by Obama’s comment about “redistributing the wealth.” “If I have more take-home pay,” he declared, ” I’ll find ways of redistributing it.”

He was referring, of course, to Obama’s exchange with Joe the Plumber. Among the people I met, opinion seemed divided about the man. Some were outraged at the way the media had treated him. “Whatever happened to the privacy act?” a man eating lunch at Packo’s, a popular Hungarian restaurant in Toledo, complained. Others said they sympathized with Joe’s financial problems. Just as many, however, expressed disdain. The man didn’t even have a plumber’s license, much less a business, they pointed out; in fact, he was making only $42,000 a year, which would qualify him for a tax cut under Obama’s plan. The more Joe’s celebrity grew, the less sympathy he garnered.

But Obama’s comment about spreading the wealth lingered with many Ohioans, and it’s important to understand why. Much has been made of Middle Americans’ preoccupation with social issues like abortion, gun rights, and gay marriage. Thomas Frank, in trying to explain why working-class Kansans fail to follow their economic interests and vote Democratic, has singled out their attachment to these issues and the skill with which Republicans have exploited it. In Ohio I certainly found much evidence of that attachment. The belief in the right to bear arms, for instance, seemed from my interviews so deeply ingrained in people from so many different backgrounds that had Obama not repeatedly affirmed his support for the Second Amendment, he might well have lost the election.

But there’s another political reality in the heartland, and that’s the broad belief in small government, low taxes, and personal responsibility. Many working-class Americans distrust Washington’s ability to spend their tax dollars wisely, and even in this post-welfare era they worry that their hard-earned income will be squandered on programs that benefit the undeserving. In Ohio, I was further struck by how many blue-collar workers identify with the interests of small businessmen—indeed, aspire to join their ranks. In short, there exists in Middle America a strong strain of stay-out-of-my-way self-reliance, and the Republicans have adeptly appealed to it. Melissa Miller, a political scientist at Bowling Green State University, told me that she thought Joe the Plumber had allowed McCain and Palin to articulate a populist message: “Even if we agree that Joe the Plumber would be better off under Obama, McCain is saying, ‘I’m looking out for the little guy.’ It’s not about comparing ten-point plans.”

At the time I met Miller, it looked as if Joe the Plumber might derail Obama’s campaign. In the end, of course, he did not. The explanation, I think, rests with an even more potent political strain that is emerging in Ohio—one that became apparent to me only after I reached the southern border of my research zone.

3.

A town of 39,000, Findlay has long been a conservative stronghold. Hancock County, of which it is the seat, gave George Bush 68.5 percent of its vote in 2000 and 71 percent in 2004. In 1968, Congress, in recognition of Findlay’s patriotic displays, officially designated it Flag City USA, and on national holidays the town is a sea of red, white, and blue. Its esprit derives in part from its affluence. Though surrounded by farmland, it has a strong industrial presence. Cooper Tire & Rubber Co. is headquartered here. Marathon Oil, a part of the original Standard Oil, was headquartered here, too, until 1990, when USX, which had bought it, moved its corporate headquarters to Houston; its refining and marketing division remains in Findlay. Whirlpool, Consolidated Biscuit, Procter & Gamble, and American Standard all have plants in or around Findlay.

As I prepared to visit Findlay, I felt some trepidation. Over the summer a reporter for The Washington Post had spent some time in the town interviewing residents on one flag-waving block. The result was a front-page story, headlined “In Flag City USA, False Obama Rumors Are Flying,” that harped on the readiness of local white residents (who make up well over 90 percent of the local population) to believe that Obama is a Muslim, among other false claims. Angry mail poured in from across the country. A local journalist warned me that many residents felt the article was a hatchet job and so might be less than warm in receiving me. Arriving in town, I wondered how long it would take for me to find an Obama supporter.

I headed for the offices of the FindlayCourier, hoping to find an editor I’d been in touch with, but it was a Saturday and he wasn’t there. In the parking lot, however, a vintage car sale was going on, and the crowds milling about the gleaming Corvettes, Mustangs, and Fairlanes seemed a good sample group. I went up to a man who looked to be in his thirties and who was wearing a Cleveland Indians cap. A longtime resident of the area, he told me of his love for the Indians, country music, and old cars. His father, he said, was a member of the NRA, and he himself believed strongly in gun rights. But “no matter,” he said, “I’m voting for Obama.” He praised Obama’s intelligence, called Bill Clinton one of our best presidents, and disparaged Sarah Palin. He brought up the dismal job situation in Ohio: “Honeywell has been talking of moving to Mexico. American Standard has moved to Mexico. I worked there for three years when hundreds were employed there.” He was now working as a light contractor. Health care was a big issue for him—his mother was dying of cancer. “I was in Canada,” he said. “They have free health care. Why don’t we?”

So there, on my very first try, I had found an Obamaite. Was it a fluke? I next approached an older man who had a straggly gray beard and wore an American Legion cap. A retired truck driver, he told me that he had worked for a local company called Centrex, hauling plastic parts to auto plants in Michigan. He had never voted before, the man said, but he was going to vote this time. “I’d hate to see a minority in there,” he said. “I spent all my life driving to Detroit, and I’ve seen all the minorities I’ve wanted to see. But I’m going to vote for this one. Things have to change.” Centrex, he said, had lost hundreds of jobs. Cooper Tire was struggling. GM and Chrysler were discussing merging, a move that would cost many jobs. In nearby Carey, where he lived, he said, “We once had four or five main businesses there, and now we’re down to a stone quarry. Plants move and leave lower-paying jobs.”

Findlay, he went on, “isn’t the Republican town it used to be.” Pointing to the newspaper’s office, he said, “It used to be called the Republican Courier. Now it’s just the Courier.”

As I discovered, Findlay is indeed changing. The Obama campaign had opened a very visible office on Main Street, the largest in memory by a Democratic candidate. Driving through town, I saw many Obama-Biden yard signs. There were many McCain-Palin ones as well, of course, but in my interviews I was struck by the number of people whose long-standing attitudes and attachments were being tested and shaken up by the region’s changing fortunes. In department stores and parking lots, restaurants and churches, I kept hearing angry complaints about the endless march of mergers, acquisitions, layoffs, and plant closings. People denounced NAFTA, cursed China and Mexico, and inveighed against the corporations that were so blithely turning their backs on their communities. It was not just the decline in living standards that people were deploring but the resulting disruption of local life, with the loss of tax revenues reducing the support available for essential services. As a result, Main Streets across the Upper Midwest are declining and dying.

People are pissed,” I was told by a stout man in red suspenders emerging from an IGA supermarket. A seventy-one-year-old retired phone company employee, he said that “the exporting of jobs to China, Korea, and every other place is terrible. Something has got to happen or America as we know it is not going to last.” To hear such notes sounded so often in so conservative a place as Hancock County seemed stunning. As they suggest, something extraordinary is taking place in the Rust Belt—a fierce eruption of popular anger, rooted in resentment over the constant flow of jobs abroad, that is shattering traditional allegiances and creating an appetite for dramatic change. “Economics has shaken people out of their traditional patterns,” says Melissa Spirek, a professor of communication at Wright State University in Dayton, drawing on the surveys her students regularly make of local residents. Yet the engrained belief in self-reliance and small government remains as well. These two strains—resentment and traditionalism—seem today to coexist in uneasy and unpredictable competition.

The extent of the disquiet in Findlay became most apparent to me while on a visit to the Gathering, an unpretentious but inviting bar and restaurant in the heart of town, where local notables and ordinary citizens mix. Planting myself at the horseshoe-shaped bar, I asked a man seated nearby if he could recommend a place I could visit to get a good sampling of local opinion. That kicked off a two-hour marathon conversation with a rotating array of factory workers, contractors, teachers, a reporter for the Courier, and the two women who owned the place. There was much talk about the terrible flood that had ravaged Findlay two summers ago, causing many businesses to shut down for extended periods. The federal response, I learned, had—as in the case of Hurricane Katrina—been anemic, and many homeowners were still fighting to get the money due them. That led to a heated discussion about which level of government—federal or local—was better able to help out a small town like Findlay. “What controls a lot in Findlay is money,” said a tipsy contractor, sounding like Ralph Nader. “Who gets their name in the paper depends on who donates the most.”

As always, the loss of jobs loomed over all else. A man who was employed at Whirlpool said that the company had just announced a large layoff and that his wife, who had worked for a car dealership, had just lost her job. Two people he knew had recently lost their homes and were now on welfare and selling cocaine. Cooper Tire was investing heavily in Mexico and threatening to close down one of its American plants. A young woman working at Marathon Oil felt so insecure about her job that she was taking courses to qualify as a school treasurer.

One of the co-owners of the Gathering, Deb Erford, seemed to embody the strange new forces astir in the heartland. “I’m a Republican—a conservative Republican,” she said. As a small-business owner, she said, she had had a hard time finding good workers, and as low as the minimum wage was, she resented having to pay it “to a college sophomore who’s constantly text-messaging his girlfriend.” Strongly committed to the Republican’s low-tax, small-government philosophy, she had twice voted for Bush. Given the many problems facing Ohio, however, she was finding herself drawn to Obama’s program for change. She had deep reservations, however, about his proposal to increase the tax rate for small businesses. She couldn’t tell if his $250,000 trigger referred to gross sales or net income; if the latter, she would be safe. In an effort to find out, she had gone to Obama’s Web site, but the information there was too vague to provide her a satisfactory answer, and so she remained on the fence.

In the national press and the blogosphere, the category of “undecideds” was routinely ridiculed. With the choice between the candidates so clear, how could anyone remain up in the air? While in Ohio, however, I met many undecideds. Quite a few were Republicans trying to come to terms with a number of discomfiting realities: McCain’s uninspired campaign; his choice of an unqualified running mate; the failures of George Bush; the promise of Barack Obama. A number seemed prepared to make the leap into the Democratic camp. Just as many, however, seemed hesitant. They objected to Obama’s support for abortion rights. Or feared he was going to raise their taxes. Or thought he might be a Muslim. And, as an examination of the election returns shows, this group proved to be an important factor on election day.

Of the three counties I visited, one—Wood—swung from red to blue, with Obama taking 53 percent of the vote, up from John Kerry’s 47 percent. (A big Democratic surge for Obama in Bowling Green, with a large student turnout, seems to have been decisive; Rossford ended up going for him as well, while Perrysburg went for McCain.) Hancock County remained red, but the Democrats’ share jumped from 29 to 37 percent—an impressive increase. In heavily Democratic Lucas County, with its population of 442,000, Obama garnered 65 percent of the vote, compared to Kerry’s 60 percent.

According to preliminary results, in Ohio as a whole, Obama beat McCain by 2,784,000 to 2,582,000 votes (51 to 47 percent). Though Obama got only about 45,000 more votes than John Kerry did in 2004, McCain got about 275,000 fewer than George Bush did. Before the election, Ohio Secretary of State Jennifer Brunner had predicted a turnout rate of 80 percent; the final tally was 67 percent. There seems only one plausible explanation. Many Republicans stayed home on election day.

Few other states had a fall-off comparable to Ohio’s. Yet the huge surge in national turnout that had been so loudly forecast failed to materialize. The overall vote count—the total might go as high as 128 million when all ballots are tallied—was up only a few million from 2004. To the extent that turnout did increase, it was mostly among African-Americans, Latinos, and the young. This increase was offset by a drop of several million in the number of white voters. While Barack Obama did well among whites aged eighteen to twenty-nine, taking 54 percent of their votes, he won just slightly more than 40 percent of whites aged thirty and over. Obama’s margin of victory may have owed nearly as much to white Republican voters who failed to turn out as to black, Latino, and young voters who did.

From both my interviews and press accounts, it seems clear that the selection of Sarah Palin as the vice-presidential candidate did more than anything else to discourage potential McCain supporters. She was added, of course, to fire up the party’s conservative base—something demanded by not only social-conservative organizations but also the right-wing combine of radio and TV talk shows and bloggers. During the primaries, McCain was venomously attacked as too liberal by Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, Ann Coulter, and other conservative commentators. The months and months of abuse they heaped on him no doubt damaged him in the eyes of many Republicans. McCain’s decision to run to the right rather than the middle was designed in part to placate this group. It turned out to be a huge blunder. Ironically, then, these extremists, while working so tirelessly to defame Obama, may have actually helped ensure his victory.

The Republican stay-at-homes amount to a huge disaffected and alienated population whose political loyalties remain up for grabs. Winning them over would seem critical to cementing the type of political realignment the Democrats so ardently crave. The key to achieving that, of course, rests with getting the economy moving again. Obama has proposed spending $50 billion to help states speed the construction of roads and other infrastructure. At a time of soaring deficits, two wars, and a $700 billion bailout, it’s unclear where that money is going to come from—especially in view of Obama’s promise of broad tax relief. The challenge is especially daunting in Ohio and other Rust Belt states, which are suffering from not only a cyclical downturn but also a long-term structural decline. Reversing this would probably require a bold public-works program on the scale of the WPA. With many Americans still opposed to the idea of activist government, Obama will have to draw fully on his extraordinary political and persuasive skills to pull this off.

Two days after the election, I called Deb Erford, the co-owner of the Gathering, to see how she had voted. “Right up to the last couple of days, I was not sure how I was going to go,” she told me. In the end, though, she had decided to go “with policy over character.” On such matters as taxes and small business, McCain’s views largely coincided with her own, and so she had decided to back him. But, she was quick to add, she was not at all unhappy with the outcome. Obama “might be better for the country—and the world,” she said, noting that with his character, charisma, and intelligence, he might be able to move the country forward. In fact, she said, she was very excited: “I thought the younger generation was apathetic, but I was proved wrong. So many young people got involved. That makes me happy.”

If President-elect Obama can find a way to win over Deb Erford as well as some of the regulars at the Gathering who may have stayed home on Election Day, the Democrats might succeed in winning Ohio, and the rest of the Rust Belt, for many years to come.

—November 19, 2008

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