Where Obama and Romney are neck and neck

The first in a series of campaign reports from Hicksville, Ohio.

“A national political campaign,” the journalist HL Mencken once said, “is better than the best circus ever heard of.” Well, the circus is in town again. With the words, “I never said this journey would be easy,” Barack Obama sounded the starting-pistol for the sprint toward the Presidential election in November.

Six hundred miles north of where he was speaking at the Democratic National Convention in North Carolina, I had arrived in the town of Hicksville, Ohio, where I am spending the next sixty days following the campaign's every twist and turn for the New Statesman.

The picturesque main street is dominated on one side by a water-tower that serves as town sign, and on the other by a vast, imposing and incongruous grain silo complex. Small family businesses – Jodee's Video, Bob's Auto Repair, Yoder's Restaurant – jostle for attention as huge trucks rumble through on the way from foundry or farm to factory or silo. In the distance, the deeper thunder of industrial trains can be heard day and night. Further out, pretty and jumbled wooden houses skirted with verandahs share well-tended lawns strewn with children's toys.

Hicksville may seem tranquil on the surface as it basks in the late summer swelter, but it sits atop a political hornet's nest. Defiance County is in the middle of the rust belt, the north-eastern and mid-western industrial heart of the country. According to the Center for Automotive Research, the auto industry employs 1.7 million people in the US and supports 6.3 million more; most of them are nearby. Detroit, home of Ford and General Motors, is just a couple of hours drive to the north. Among car workers Obama should be on solid ground – his bailout of the auto industry saved hundreds of thousands of jobs – but outside the manufacturing towns, the countryside is small-c conservative heartland. Cars drive by tuned either to country music or Fox News Radio. If this was England, they'd all read the Daily Mail.

In 2008, Obama won here with 51.5 per cent, but now polls variously place the President and his Republican challenger neck and neck. Ohio is the battleground state; possibly the most important in this election. Both parties know it. The President was in Toledo, a bigger town just up the road, on Monday, where he spoke almost entirely in football metaphors (the season opened Wednesday night with the Cowboys beating the Giants); Vice-President Biden will be in the state this weekend – his third visit to the state in just over a week – and former President Bill Clinton will be campaigning here too.

Mitt Romney's campaign came through here last month, and his wife Ann was in the state a few days ago, trying to rally support for her husband among women voters. No Republican in modern times has won the White House without Ohio's 18 electoral college votes, and Romney is playing a strategy in which he concentrates his mighty campaign finances on a few key states, including this one. On Thursday, his campaign announced a major purchase of television advertising here, as well as in Florida, New Hampshire, and five other swing states.

“If this President wins another term,” says Connie, who runs the only hotel in Hicksville, “we're all screwed.” She is not alone in this. “I've been reading about this President, and what I read scares me,” says Mary-Ann Barth, who edits the Hicksville News-Tribune. Painted on a high street junk-shop window in big letters is: “One Big-Ass Mistake America – Cut Tax Spending”, and calls for the terrifying prospect of a “PALIN-BECK 2012” ticket.

Even Hicksville is not entirely lost to the President, however. On top of the scrawls in the window, some rebellious soul has stuck a small, lonely but audacious Obama-Biden sticker.

Street scene in Hicksville, Ohio

Nicky Woolf is a writer for the Guardian based in the US. He tweets @NickyWoolf.

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Why the Liberal Democrats by-election surge is not all it seems

The Lib Dems chalked up impressive results in Stoke and Copeland. But just how much of a fight back is it?

By the now conventional post-Brexit logic, Stoke and Copeland ought to have been uniquely inhospitable for the Lib Dems. 

The party lost its deposit in both seats in 2015, and has no representation on either council. So too were the referendum odds stacked against it: in Stoke, the so-called Brexit capital of Britain, 70 per cent of voters backed Leave last June, as did 62 per cent in Copeland. And, as Stephen has written before, the Lib Dems’ mini-revival has so far been most pronounced in affluent, Conservative-leaning areas which swung for remain. 

So what explains the modest – but impressive – surges in their vote share in yesterday’s contests? In Stoke, where they finished fifth in 2015, the party won 9.8 per cent of the vote, up 5.7 percentage points. They also more than doubled their vote share in Copeland, where they beat Ukip for third with 7.3 per cent share of the vote.

The Brexit explanation is a tempting and not entirely invalid one. Each seat’s not insignificant pro-EU minority was more or less ignored by most of the national media, for whom the existence of remainers in what we’re now obliged to call “left-behind Britain” is often a nuance too far. With the Prime Minister Theresa May pushing for a hard Brexit and Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn waving it through, Lib Dem leader Tim Farron has made the pro-EU narrative his own. As was the case for Charles Kennedy in the Iraq War years, this confers upon the Lib Dems a status and platform they were denied as the junior partners in coalition. 

While their stance on Europe is slowly but surely helping the Lib Dems rebuild their pre-2015 demographic core - students, graduates and middle-class professionals employed in the public sector – last night’s results, particularly in Stoke, also give them reason for mild disappointment. 

In Stoke, campaign staffers privately predicted they might manage to beat Ukip for second or third place. The party ran a full campaign for the first time in several years, and canvassing returns suggested significant numbers of Labour voters, mainly public sector workers disenchanted with Corbyn’s stance on Europe, were set to vote Lib Dem. Nor were they intimidated by the Brexit factor: recent council by-elections in Sunderland and Rotheram, which both voted decisively to leave, saw the Lib Dems win seats for the first time on massive swings. 

So it could well be argued that their candidate, local cardiologist Zulfiqar Ali, ought to have done better. Staffordshire University’s campus, which Tim Farron visited as part of a voter registration drive, falls within the seat’s boundaries. Ali, unlike his Labour competitor Gareth Snell and Ukip leader Paul Nuttall, didn’t have his campaign derailed or disrupted by negative media attention. Unlike the Tory candidate Jack Brereton, he had the benefit of being older than 25. And, like 15 per cent of the electorate, he is of Kashmiri origin.  

In public and in private, Lib Dems say the fact that Stoke was a two-horse race between Labour and Ukip ultimately worked to their disadvantage. The prospect of Nuttall as their MP may well have been enough to convince a good number of the Labour waverers mentioned earlier to back Snell. 

With his party hovering at around 10 per cent in national polls, last night’s results give Farron cause for optimism – especially after their near-wipeout in 2015. But it’s easy to forget the bigger picture in all of this. The party have chalked up a string of impressive parliamentary by-election results – second in Witney, a spectacular win in Richmond Park, third in Sleaford and Copeland, and a strong fourth in Stoke. 

However, most of these results represent a reversion to, or indeed an underperformance compared to, the party’s pre-2015 norm. With the notable exception of Richmond’s Sarah Olney, who only joined the Lib Dems after the last general election, these candidates haven’t - or the Lib Dem vote - come from nowhere. Zulfiqar Ali previously sat on the council in Stoke and had fought the seat before, and Witney’s Liz Leffman and Sleaford’s Ross Pepper are both popular local councillors. And for all the excited commentary about Richmond, it was, of course, held by the Lib Dems for 13 years before Zac Goldsmith won it for the Tories in 2010. 

The EU referendum may have given the Lib Dems a new lease of life, but, as their #LibDemFightback trope suggests, they’re best understood as a revanchist, and not insurgent, force. Much has been said about Brexit realigning our politics, but, for now at least, the party’s new normal is looking quite a lot like the old one.