Indiana's quandary

McCain's made it difficult for Republicans in farming states like Indiana who resent his voting reco

"It don't bother me that he's black. But I do worry that he's a muslim."

It's a guy sat at the counter of a bar in Columbus, Indiana who tells me this, as his neighbour solemnly nods along. (The barman, to his credit, rolls his eyes and says, "Oh come on," before going off to serve someone else.)

Nonetheless, my guy is planning to vote for Barack Obama, simply because it's time for a change. "Washington needs an enema," he says firmly. "If he tries any of that Muslim stuff we can always throw him out."

No one really expected Indiana to be in play. It's voted Republican in every presidential election since 1964. But with farmers struggling, manufacturing's down the pan and nearly one million new voters on the rolls since 2004, polls are showing the state is tied. Indiana is likely to be one of the first results called on election day: if McCain doesn't have a clear lead here, it's hard to see how he can pull off a win.

Obama's success can be explained partly by the fact that he is, effectively, a local boy: the northern part of the state, around Gary, is one big suburb of Chicago. And partly also it's because, scenting victory for the first time in 40 years, local Dems are unusually energised.

But the biggest thing in Obama's favour is that, as much as anywhere in the nation, the conversation in Indiana is all about the economy. Much of the state is dominated by farming. And the farming industry has been hit by a catastrophic combination of soaring costs, fluctuating corn prices and flooding. Many farms have thus been left with hundreds of thousands of dollars of debt and no idea of how to pay it back.

The state's other major industry, manufacturing, has long been in decline right across the Mid West, a trend that's cost Indiana over 100,000 jobs since the decade began. But this is causing problems even in rural parts of the state: many farming families have one member in regular employment, to ensure the entire family has health insurance. As manufacturing has declined, health coverage has collapsed.

Obama's focus on the economy and healthcare is thus resonating surprisingly well in natural Republican territory.

Nonetheless, he wouldn't be so competitive here if McCain hadn't obligingly spent his career alienating the entire farming lobby. He's opposed both last May's pork-laden farm bill and subsidies for ethanol based fuel. (This, incidentally, also partly explains his weakness in other farming states like Iowa and Wisconsin.) The Republican also looks under-resourced out here: he has a single co-ordinator to cover the entire Great Lakes region.

That said, Obama's tax plans are also putting the wind up people in a state full of large land holdings. "McCain's posed quite a quandary for Republican farmers," says Kent Yeager, public policy director at the Indiana Farm Bureau. "The polls show it close here - but I can see it not being close at all either way."

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Daniel Hannan. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.

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The Tories play Game of Thrones while the White Walkers from Brussels advance

The whole premise of the show is a pretty good metaphor for the current state of British politics.

If you’re a fan of asking “who’s that, then?” and “is that the one who killed the other one’s brother?”, I bring great news. Game of Thrones is back for a seventh series. Its vast assortment of characters was hard enough to keep track of before half of them got makeovers. But now the new Queen Cersei has reacted to the arrival of the long winter by investing heavily in the kind of leather ball gowns sold by goth shops in Camden, and Euron Greyjoy, once a fairly bland sailor, has come back as a Halloween costume version of Pacey from Dawson’s Creek, all eyeliner and epaulettes.

The show’s reliance on British character actors is the only thing keeping me vaguely on top of the cast list: what’s Diana Rigg up to these days in Highgarden? And what about that guy who was in Downton Abbey that time, who now has the scaly arms? (Luckily, the next thing I watched after the Game of Thrones series premiere was the first two episodes of the revived Twin Peaks, which put my confusion into perspective. There, Agent Cooper spent most of his time talking to a pulsating bladder attached to one of those fake trees you get from Ikea when your landlord won’t let you have real plants.)

The day-to-day business of Game of Thrones has always been power – answering the question of who will sit on the Iron Throne, forged by Aegon the Conqueror from the swords of his defeated enemies. But its backdrop is a far bigger threat: the arrival of a winter that will last many years, and the invasion of an army of the undead.

That might seem like an unkind way to think about Michel Barnier and his fellow Brexit negotiators – inexorably marching towards us, briefing papers in hand, while Liam Fox frantically rings a bell at the entrance to the Channel Tunnel – but nonetheless, the whole premise of Game of Thrones is a pretty good metaphor for the current state of British politics.

The current internal Conservative struggle for power might be vicious but it is at least familiar to its contestants; they know which weapons to deploy, which alliances are vital, who owes them a favour. Meanwhile, the true challenge facing every one of them is too frightening to contemplate.

In 2013, this magazine celebrated the early success of the show with a cover depicting one of our terrifying painted mash-ups: “The Tory Game of Thrones.” Our casting has been strangely vindicated. George Osborne was our Jaime Lannister – once the kind of uncomplicated bastard who would push a child out of a window but now largely the purveyor of waspish remarks about other, worse characters. Our Cersei was Theresa May, who spent the early seasons of The Cameron Era in a highly visible but underwritten role. Now, she has just seized power, only to discover herself beset by enemies on all sides. (Plus, Jeremy Corbyn as the High Sparrow would quite like her to walk penitently through the streets while onlookers cry “shame!”)

Michael Gove was our Tyrion Lannister, the kind of man who would shoot his own father while the guy was on the loo (or run a rival’s leadership campaign only to detonate it at the last minute). Jeremy Hunt was Jon Snow, slain by the brotherhood of the Night Shift at A&E, only in this case still waiting for resurrection.

The comparison falls down a bit at Boris Johnson as Daenerys Targaryen, as the former London mayor has not, to my knowledge, ever married a horse lord or hired an army of eunuchs, but it feels like the kind of thing he might do.

We didn’t have David Davis on there – hated by the old king, David Camareon, he was at the time banished to the back benches. Let’s retrospectively appoint him Euron Greyjoy, making a suspiciously seductive offer to Queen Cersei. (Philip Hammond is Gendry, in that most of the country can’t remember who he is but feel he might turn out to be important later.)

That lengthy list shows how Conservative infighting suffers from the same problem that the Game of Thrones screenwriters wrestle with: there are so many characters, and moving the pieces round the board takes up so much time and energy, that we’re in danger of forgetting why it matters who wins. In the books, there is more space to expound on the politics. George R R Martin once said that he came away from The Lord of The Rings asking: “What was Aragorn’s tax policy?” (The author added: “And what about all these orcs? By the end of the war, Sauron is gone but all of the orcs aren’t gone – they’re in the mountains. Did Aragorn pursue a policy of systematic genocide and kill them? Even the little baby orcs, in their little orc cradles?”)

Martin’s fantasy vision also feels relevant to the Tories because its power struggles aren’t about an “endless series of dark lords and their evil minions who are all very ugly and wear black clothes”. Instead, everyone is flawed. In Westeros, as in the Conservative Party, it can be difficult to decide who you want to triumph. Sure, Daenerys might seem enlightened, but she watched her brother have molten gold poured down his throat; plucky Arya Stark might tip over from adorable assassin into full-blown psychopath. Similarly, it’s hard to get worked up about the accusation that Philip Hammond said that driving a train was so easy “even a woman” could do it, when David Davis marked his last leadership campaign by posing alongside women in tight T-shirts reading “It’s DD for me”.

The only big difference from the show is that in real life I have sympathy for Barnier and the White Walkers of Brussels. Still, maybe it will turn out that the undead of Game of Thrones are tired of the Seven Kingdoms throwing their weight around and are only marching south to demand money before negotiating a trade deal? That’s the kind of plot twist we’re all waiting for.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder