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What Do Swing-State Voters Think? Why We Don’t Know

Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post via Getty Images
Steelworker Steve Jones in downtown Steubenville, Ohio to check his voter registration forms, September 20, 2012

President Obama’s and Mitt Romney’s simultaneous visits to Ohio on Wednesday show just how pivotal that battleground state has become. As they fired charges at one another over trade and China, each claimed to be the candidate who could best boost economic growth in the state.

On that score, Ohio is actually doing better than many other parts of the country. Since the start of 2011, it has added more than 122,000 new jobs, lowering its unemployment rate to 7.2 percent. This is particularly striking in view of the state’s long-term decline in manufacturing. When I visited Ohio four years ago, a few weeks before the 2008 election, I found many Ohioans filled with anger and frustration over their state’s seemingly irreversible economic troubles and newly open to bold action to address them.

With Ohio’s job numbers suggesting a turnaround, the question has emerged of who is more responsible for it—John Kasich, the Republican who became governor in January 2011, or President Obama, whose stimulus program and auto bailout have sought to help struggling Midwestern states like Ohio?

In a New York Times Magazine cover story earlier this month, “A Rust Belt Miracle,” Matt Bai suggested that whoever wins credit for Ohio’s comeback could help determine which way the state goes in November. The story was one of the most thoughtful and insightful articles of the entire presidential campaign. It did, however, have a gaping hole—one that is characteristic of campaign coverage in general.

During Bai’s stay in Ohio, Kasich let him fly around the state with him. The governor claimed that Ohio’s bounce-back is owed primarily to his own vigorous efforts to promote the state to companies. He pointed in particular to JobsOhio, a private entity financed by state money that he created to lead the courtship effort. In contrast, the Obama administration’s bailout of the auto industry, Kasich insisted, has had little effect. But Eric Burkland, the longtime head of the Ohio Manufacturers’ Association, told Bai that the bailout did in fact bring the auto industry back from the brink. Bai also found evidence that the funds Ohio received from the Obama stimulus package helped stabilize its economy during the depths of the downturn.

Despite its recent improvement, however, Ohio continues to struggle. Visiting Lorain, Ohio’s 10th largest city and one of its most distressed, Bai stopped by a local US Steel plant that has recently expanded, thanks to soaring demand for the tubes needed to extract shale oil. But the plant’s operations have become so automated that it now needs just 800 employees, compared to the 15,000 who worked for the company in the area in the 1970s. More generally, Bai found that the state’s much-touted manufacturing revival is creating many fewer jobs than expansions did two or three decades ago.

Columbus offers a more promising picture. The city has added more jobs than any other in Ohio, and the key, according to mayor Michael Coleman (a Democrat), was a successful ballot initiative (backed by the business community) to raise the local income tax by half a percentage point. The additional $100 million a year this generated allowed the city to restore public services, improve infrastructure, and fund a riverfront restoration project. (Coleman also credited the Obama stimulus with providing the city a “lifeline” when it needed it most.)

“As important as autos and factories and shale deposits are in creating a diverse stream of jobs and revenue,” Bai concluded, Ohio’s future economic health lay with the new economy that Columbus exemplifies, based in banking and insurance, state-of-the-art medical facilities, and high-tech manufacturing and research—industries that “thrive on the kinds of major investments in infrastructure and quality of life that only government can make, in schools and transportation and fiber optics and parkland.”

Its seems clear, then, that President Obama’s policies have helped create many more jobs in Ohio than Governor Kasich’s; as Bai points out, the growth in jobs began before Kasich took office. Yet, while this should be an attractive story for the president to tell, Bai writes, his advisers “seem flummoxed” about how to tell it. (Indeed, during his visit to Ohio this week, Obama chose to dwell on China rather than the stimulus.) According to his advisers, defending government spending remains “politically treacherous,” with public skepticism about such spending hardening—even in states like Ohio, which so clearly seem to have benefited from it.

For me, the key question is, Why? If the stimulus has in fact had such positive impact, why do Americans remain so skeptical about it and government spending in general? In a 7,000-word magazine story, I would have liked to hear more from ordinary Ohioans about how they see the stimulus, the bailout, and the overall role of government. Virtually none appears in Bai’s article, however. He spoke mainly with officials—governors, mayors, senators, even Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner. In measuring the state of public opinion in Ohio, he relied heavily on polls. His story reminded me of correspondents who, traveling to war zones, spend most of their time in the company of generals and colonels. Such officers can be informative, but it’s only by speaking with civilians on the ground that journalists can get a full picture of the progress of a military campaign.

The same is true of presidential campaigns. In 2008, I went to Ohio out of frustration with the lack of voices of ordinary citizens in the news coverage. Speaking with factory workers in Toledo, teachers in Bowling Green, and small businessmen in Findlay, I was struck by the breakdown in traditional political allegiances that was taking place in light of the state’s ongoing economic woes and the potential for a political realignment if they could be addressed.

This time around, I feel similar frustration. Even when venturing into the field, most reporters stay inside the bubble. They follow the candidates, speak with their handlers, interview consultants, quote think-tank analysts, pore over polling data. Looking over a recent week of coverage in the Times (September 19-26), for instance, I found plenty of stories on PACs, campaign strategy, political operatives, Romney’s tax returns, and the polling data in Ohio and other battleground states. Only one—“Underemployed and Overlooked, Struggling Young Adults Are a Question Mark”—featured extensive interviews with ordinary Americans, and, while helpful, it provided little more than a snapshot. Bai himself, interestingly, seems to have missed the small but noticeable groundswell that, according to recent polls, has been building for Obama in Ohio. (For a diligent effort to speak with ordinary Ohioans—an exception in recent coverage—see Joel Aschenbach’s article in The Washington Post, “In Ohio County, Electorate Is Hardened and Fractured,” for which he interviewed dozens of residents in working-class Jefferson County.)

The ultimate embodiment of this approach is Politico, with its obsessive focus on the nuts-and-bolts of campaigns at the expense of in-depth reporting on the body politick. Nate Silver’s fivethirtyeight blog at nytimes.com captures the poll-parsing fever that has so gripped national news organizations. In themselves, these sites are valuable additions, but they further push out old-fashioned on-the-ground reporting.

Truth be told, I’m not sure if such reporting was ever in fashion. Ever since Theodore White came out with The Making of the President about the 1960 race—a book that for the first time took readers behind the scenes of the political process and showed all the gambits and strategy involved—campaign reporting in America has become progressively an insiders’ game. We’ve had The Selling of the President by Joe McGinniss, What It Takes: The Way to the White House by Richard Ben Cramer, and Game Change by John Heilemann and Mark Halperin, with its titillating tidbits about Obama and Clinton, McCain and Palin. Speaking with consultants and pollsters is a lot easier than buttonholing people in shopping malls or striking up conversations in a bar or restaurant. As a result of this tendency, however, journalists remain largely in the dark about the underlying political and social forces shaping the nation’s future.

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