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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Lord Empey: Northern Ireland likely to be without government for a year

The former UUP leader says Gerry Adams is now in "complete control" of Sinn Fein and no longer wants to be "trapped" by the Good Friday Agreement

The death of Martin McGuinness has made a devolution settlement in Northern Ireland even more unlikely and has left Gerry Adams in "complete control" of Sinn Fein, the former Ulster Unionist leader Reg Empey has said.

In a wide-ranging interview with the New Statesman on the day of McGuinness’ death, the UUP peer claimed his absence would leave a vacuum that would allow Adams, the Sinn Fein president, to consolidate his hold over the party and dictate the trajectory of the crucial negotiations to come. Sinn Fein have since pulled out of power-sharing talks, leaving Northern Ireland facing the prospect of direct rule from Westminster or a third election in the space of a year. 

Empey, who led the UUP between and 2005 and 2010 and was briefly acting first minister in 2001, went on to suggest that, “as things stand”, Northern Ireland is unlikely to see a return to fully devolved government before the inquiry into the Renewable Heat Incentive scheme is complete -  a process which could take up to a year to complete.

“Adams is now in complete control of Sinn Fein,” he said, adding that it remained unclear whether McGuinness’ successor Michelle O’Neill would be “allowed to plough an independent furrow”. “He has no equal within the organisation. He is in total command of Sinn Fein, and that is the way it is. I think he’s even more powerful today than he was before Martin died – by virtue of there just being nobody there.”

Asked what impact the passing of McGuinness, the former deputy first minister and leader of Sinn Fein in the north, would have on the chances of a devolution settlement, Empey, a member of the UUP’s Good Friday Agreement negotiating delegation, said: “I don’t think it’ll be positive – because, for all his faults, Martin was committed to making the institutions work. I don’t think Gerry Adams is as committed.

Empey added that he believed Adams did not want to work within the constitutional framework of the Good Friday Agreement. In a rebuke to nationalist claims that neither Northern Ireland secretary James Brokenshire nor Theresa May can act as honest or neutral brokers in power-sharing negotiations given their reliance on the DUP’s eight MPs, he said: “They’re not neutral. And they’re not supposed to be neutral.

“I don’t expect a prime minister or a secretary of state to be neutral. Brokenshire isn’t sitting wearing a hat with ostrich feathers – he’s not a governor, he’s a party politician who believes in the union. The language Sinn Fein uses makes it sound like they’re running a UN mandate... Gerry can go and shout at the British government all he likes. He doesn’t want to be trapped in the constitutional framework of the Belfast Agreement. He wants to move the debate outside those parameters, and he sees Brexit as a chance to mobilise opinion in the republic, and to be seen standing up for Irish interests.”

Empey went on to suggest that Adams, who he suggested exerted a “disruptive” influence on power-sharing talks, “might very well say” Sinn Fein were “’[taking a hard line] for Martin’s memory’” and added that he had been “hypocritical” in his approach.

“He’ll use all of that,” he said. “Republicans have always used people’s deaths to move the cause forward. The hunger strikers are the obvious example. They were effectively sacrificed to build up the base and energise people. But he still has to come to terms with the rest of us.”

Empey’s frank assessment of Sinn Fein’s likely approach to negotiations will cast yet more doubt on the prospect that devolved government might be salvaged before Monday’s deadline. Though he admitted Adams had demanded nothing unionists “should die in a ditch for”, he suggested neither party was likely to cede ground. “If Sinn Fein were to back down they would get hammered,” he said. “If Foster backs down the DUP would get hammered. So I think we’ve got ourselves a catch 22: they’ve both painted themselves into their respective corners.”

In addition, Empey accused DUP leader Arlene Foster of squandering the “dream scenario” unionist parties won at last year’s assembly election with a “disastrous” campaign, but added he did not believe she would resign despite repeated Sinn Fein demands for her to do so.

 “It’s very difficult to see how she’s turned that from being at the top of Mount Everest to being under five miles of water – because that’s where she is,” he said. “She no longer controls the institutions. Martin McGuinness effectively wrote her resignation letter for her. And it’s very difficult to see a way forward. The idea that she could stand down as first minister candidate and stay on as party leader is one option. But she could’ve done that for a few weeks before Christmas and we wouldn’t be here! She’s basically taken unionism from the top to the bottom – in less than a year”.

Though Foster has expressed regret over the tone of the DUP’s much-criticised election campaign and has been widely praised for her decision to attend Martin McGuinness’ funeral yesterday, she remains unlikely to step down, despite coded invitations for her to do so from several members of her own party.

The historically poor result for unionism she oversaw has led to calls from leading loyalists for the DUP and UUP – who lost 10 and eight seats respectively – to pursue a merger or electoral alliance, which Empey dismissed outright.

“The idea that you can weld all unionists together into a solid mass under a single leadership – I would struggle to see how that would actually work in practice. Can you cooperate at a certain level? I don’t doubt that that’s possible, especially with seats here. Trying to amalgamate everybody? I remain to be convinced that that should be the case.”

Accusing the DUP of having “led unionism into a valley”, and of “lashing out”, he added: “They’ll never absorb all of our votes. They can try as hard as they like, but they’d end up with fewer than they have now.”

Patrick Maguire writes about politics and is the 2016 winner of the Anthony Howard Award.