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

Photo: Getty
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PMQs review: Jeremy Corbyn prompts Tory outrage as he blames Grenfell Tower fire on austerity

To Conservative cries of "shame on you!", the Labour leader warned that "we all pay a price in public safety" for spending cuts.

A fortnight after the Grenfell Tower fire erupted, the tragedy continues to cast a shadow over British politics. Rather than probing Theresa May on the DUP deal, Jeremy Corbyn asked a series of forensic questions on the incident, in which at least 79 people are confirmed to have died.

In the first PMQs of the new parliament, May revealed that the number of buildings that had failed fire safety tests had risen to 120 (a 100 per cent failure rate) and that the cladding used on Grenfell Tower was "non-compliant" with building regulations (Corbyn had asked whether it was "legal").

After several factual questions, the Labour leader rose to his political argument. To cries of "shame on you!" from Tory MPs, he warned that local authority cuts of 40 per cent meant "we all pay a price in public safety". Corbyn added: “What the tragedy of Grenfell Tower has exposed is the disastrous effects of austerity. The disregard for working-class communities, the terrible consequences of deregulation and cutting corners." Corbyn noted that 11,000 firefighters had been cut and that the public sector pay cap (which Labour has tabled a Queen's Speech amendment against) was hindering recruitment. "This disaster must be a wake-up call," he concluded.

But May, who fared better than many expected, had a ready retort. "The cladding of tower blocks did not start under this government, it did not start under the previous coalition governments, the cladding of tower blocks began under the Blair government," she said. “In 2005 it was a Labour government that introduced the regulatory reform fire safety order which changed the requirements to inspect a building on fire safety from the local fire authority to a 'responsible person'." In this regard, however, Corbyn's lack of frontbench experience is a virtue – no action by the last Labour government can be pinned on him. 

Whether or not the Conservatives accept the link between Grenfell and austerity, their reluctance to defend continued cuts shows an awareness of how politically vulnerable they have become (No10 has announced that the public sector pay cap is under review).

Though Tory MP Philip Davies accused May of having an "aversion" to policies "that might be popular with the public" (he demanded the abolition of the 0.7 per cent foreign aid target), there was little dissent from the backbenches – reflecting the new consensus that the Prime Minister is safe (in the absence of an attractive alternative).

And May, whose jokes sometimes fall painfully flat, was able to accuse Corbyn of saying "one thing to the many and another thing to the few" in reference to his alleged Trident comments to Glastonbury festival founder Michael Eavis. But the Labour leader, no longer looking fearfully over his shoulder, displayed his increased authority today. Though the Conservatives may jeer him, the lingering fear in Tory minds is that they and the country are on divergent paths. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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