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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Labour’s best general election bet is Keir Starmer

The shadow secretary for Brexit has the heart of a Remainer - but head of a pragmatic politician in Brexit Britain. 

In a different election, the shadow Brexit secretary Keir Starmer might have been written off as too quiet a man. Instead - as he set out his plans to scrap the Brexit white paper and offer EU citizens reassurance on “Day One” in the grand hall of the Institute of Civil Engineers - the audience burst into spontaneous applause. 

For voters now torn between their loyalty to Labour and Remain, Starmer is a reassuring figure. Although he says he respects the Brexit vote, the former director of public prosecutions is instinctively in favour of collaborating with Europe. He even wedges phrases like “regulatory alignment” into his speeches. When a journalist asked about the practicality of giving EU citizens right to remain before UK citizens abroad have received similar promises, he retorted: “The way you just described it is to use people as bargaining chips… We would not do that.”

He is also clear about the need for Parliament to vote on a Brexit deal in the autumn of 2018, for a transitional agreement to replace the cliff edge, and for membership of the single market and customs union to be back on the table. When pressed on the option of a second referendum, he said: “The whole point of trying to involve Parliament in the process is that when we get to the final vote, Parliament has had its say.” His main argument against a second referendum idea is that it doesn’t compare like with like, if a transitional deal is already in place. For Remainers, that doesn't sound like a blanket veto of #EUref2. 

Could Leave voters in the provinces warm to the London MP for Holborn and St Pancras? The answer seems to be no – The Daily Express, voice of the blue passport brigade, branded his speech “a plot”. But Starmer is at least respectful of the Brexit vote, as it stands. His speech was introduced by Jenny Chapman, MP for Darlington, who berated Westminster for their attitude to Leave voters, and declared: “I would not be standing here if the Labour Party were in anyway attempting to block Brexit.” Yes, Labour supporters who voted Leave may prefer a Brexiteer like Kate Hoey to Starmer,  but he's in the shadow Cabinet and she's on a boat with Nigel Farage. 

Then there’s the fact Starmer has done his homework. His argument is coherent. His speech was peppered with references to “businesses I spoke to”. He has travelled around the country. He accepts that Brexit means changing freedom of movement rules. Unlike Clive Lewis, often talked about as another leadership contender, he did not resign but voted for the Article 50 Bill. He is one of the rare shadow cabinet members before June 2016 who rejoined the front bench. This also matters as far as Labour members are concerned – a March poll found they disapproved of the way Labour has handled Brexit, but remain loyal to Jeremy Corbyn. 

Finally, for those voters who, like Brenda, reacted to news of a general election by complaining "Not ANOTHER one", Starmer has some of the same appeal as Theresa May - he seems competent and grown-up. While EU regulation may be intensely fascinating to Brexiteers and Brussels correspondents, I suspect that by 2019 most of the British public's overwhelming reaction to Brexit will be boredom. Starmer's willingness to step up to the job matters. 

Starmer may not have the grassroots touch of the Labour leader, nor the charisma of backbench dissidents like Chuka Umunna, but the party should make him the de facto face of the campaign.  In the hysterics of a Brexit election, a quiet man may be just what Labour needs.

What did Keir Starmer say? The key points of his speech

  • An immediate guarantee that all EU nationals currently living in the UK will see no change in their legal status as a result of Brexit, while seeking reciprocal measures for UK citizens in the EU. 
  • Replacing the Tories’ Great Repeal Bill with an EU Rights and Protections Bill which fully protects consumer, worker and environmental rights.
  • A replacement White Paper with a strong emphasis on retaining the benefits of the single market and the customs union. 
  • The devolution of any new powers that are transferred back from Brussels should go straight to the relevant devolved body, whether regional government in England or the devolved administrations in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.
  • Parliament should be fully involved in the Brexit deal, and MPs should be able to vote on the deal in autumn 2018.
  • A commitment to seek to negotiate strong transitional arrangements when leaving the EU and to ensure there is no cliff-edge for the UK economy. 
  • An acceptance that freedom of movement will end with leaving the EU, but a commitment to prioritise jobs and economy in the negotiations.

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

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