Bellwether blues in Defiance County, Ohio

"If Obama can carry 40 per cent in Defiance, he'll carry Ohio. If he carries Ohio, he carries the election."

Until 2008, Defiance County – where Hicksville lies – was the country's most accurate bellwether. Between 1980 and 2008, Defiance differed from the national electoral result more than two per cent only twice – and was less than one half of one percent away from the national result in 1984, 1992 and 1996. This gave it the honour of being the county in the whole of the United States that most closely prefigured the national mood.

This all changed in the last election, when Defiance elected John McCain 54.2 per cent to 43.8 per cent - not a whitewash as such, but a swing rightwards from the national trend nonetheless. Wood County, just north of here, has in fact been a bellwether for longer – its results in presidential elections have gone with the overall winner every election since 1964 – but with less accuracy than Defiance.

This state of Ohio, meanwhile, is on the longest winning streak of any state in history. Obama's victory in 2008 was Ohio's record-breaking twelfth election in a row voting with the winner. In fact, Ohio has only picked a loser twice since 1896: once when it voted for Thomas Dewey against the Roosevelt in 1944, and once in 1960 when it voted for Nixon over Kennedy – though in the latter case Ohioans could argue that they were merely eight years ahead of the curve.

Why did Defiance lose its bellwether status in 2008? A few reasons. For many here, the Obama groundswell of hope and change meant little. North-west Ohio is right in the middle of the rust belt: this is car country, but it's also grain country. Defiance (named by a Revolution-era general called Mad Anthony), may have a large General Motors plant which used to employ upwards of 5,000 people – currently around 1400 – but the county around it is very rural. This is small-town America, where everyone knows everyone's name, where people wave at you in the street, a place where people set a lot of store by values, morals and tradition. Chicago can frankly keep its hope and its change, as far as many people here are concerned, this is small-c conservative heartland.

Religion is a major factor too. “This is also definitely the Bible Belt,” says Jack Palmer, a long-time writer for the Crescent News, the local paper in Defiance. I have seen this for myself; I spoke to a shop assistant who told me she avoids politics generally, but will vote for Romney because of his stance on abortion. Since I arrived here I've heard this line, or a variation of it, quite often.

“You've got a lot of anti-Obama feeling, too,” Palmer continues. “I mean, you only have to read our Letters to the Editor to see that. But there's also a libertarian streak in Defiance. A lot of people consider themselves 'independents'. Certainly, among non single-issue voters, the 'Osama Bin Laden is dead and General Motors is alive' message will go a long way.”

Defiance County can still give more than a clue as to the electoral outcome come November. In 2000 and 2004, the Democratic candidates – Al Gore and John Kerry – received 38 per cent and 37.7 per cent respectively, and the state as a whole lost. Obama, despite losing the county, won a much more respectable 43.8 per cent of the vote here – and carried the state. So, if we assume that Ohio overall as a bellwether has a very slight Republican bias, that bias is identifiable as the 40 per cent threshold in Defiance county.

Palmer sums it up: “If Obama can carry 40 per cent in Defiance, in the six-county area [Defiance and the surrounding five north-western counties] then he'll carry Ohio.” And if he carries Ohio? “He carries the election.”

The grain silo in the middle of Hicksville town centre. Photograph: Nicky Woolf

Nicky Woolf is reporting for the New Statesman from the US. He tweets @NickyWoolf.

Photo: Getty Images
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The future of policing is still at risk even after George Osborne's U-Turn

The police have avoided the worst, but crime is changing and they cannot stand still. 

We will have to wait for the unofficial briefings and the ministerial memoirs to understand what role the tragic events in Paris had on the Chancellor’s decision to sustain the police budget in cash terms and increase it overall by the end of the parliament.  Higher projected tax revenues gave the Chancellor a surprising degree of fiscal flexibility, but the atrocities in Paris certainly pushed questions of policing and security to the top of the political agenda. For a police service expecting anything from a 20 to a 30 per cent cut in funding, fears reinforced by the apparent hard line the Chancellor took over the weekend, this reprieve is an almighty relief.  

So, what was announced?  The overall police budget will be protected in real terms (£900 million more in cash terms) up to 2019/20 with the following important caveats.  First, central government grant to forces will be reduced in cash terms by 2019/20, but forces will be able to bid into a new transformation fund designed to finance moves such as greater collaboration between forces.  In other words there is a cash frozen budget (given important assumptions about council tax) eaten away by inflation and therefore requiring further efficiencies and service redesign.

Second, the flat cash budget for forces assumes increases in the police element of the council tax. Here, there is an interesting new flexibility for Police and Crime Commissioners.  One interpretation is that instead of precept increases being capped at 2%, they will be capped at £12 million, although we need further detail to be certain.  This may mean that forces which currently raise relatively small cash amounts from their precept will be able to raise considerably more if Police and Crime Commissioners have the courage to put up taxes.  

With those caveats, however, this is clearly a much better deal for policing than most commentators (myself included) predicted.  There will be less pressure to reduce officer numbers. Neighbourhood policing, previously under real threat, is likely to remain an important component of the policing model in England and Wales.  This is good news.

However, the police service should not use this financial reprieve as an excuse to duck important reforms.  The reforms that the police have already planned should continue, with any savings reinvested in an improved and more effective service.

It would be a retrograde step for candidates in the 2016 PCC elections to start pledging (as I am certain many will) to ‘protect officer numbers’.  We still need to rebalance the police workforce.   We need more staff with the kind of digital skills required to tackle cybercrime.  We need more crime analysts to help deploy police resources more effectively.  Blanket commitments to maintain officer numbers will get in the way of important reforms.

The argument for inter-force collaboration and, indeed, force mergers does not go away. The new top sliced transformation fund is designed in part to facilitate collaboration, but the fact remains that a 43 force structure no longer makes sense in operational or financial terms.

The police still have to adapt to a changing world. Falling levels of traditional crime and the explosion in online crime, particularly fraud and hacking, means we need an entirely different kind of police service.  Many of the pressures the police experience from non-crime demand will not go away. Big cuts to local government funding and the wider criminal justice system mean we need to reorganise the public service frontline to deal with problems such as high reoffending rates, child safeguarding and rising levels of mental illness.

Before yesterday I thought policing faced an existential moment and I stand by that. While the service has now secured significant financial breathing space, it still needs to adapt to an increasingly complex world. 

Rick Muir is director of the Police Foundation