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
Show Hide image

The government needs more on airports than just Chris Grayling's hunch

This disastrous plan to expand Heathrow will fail, vows Tom Brake. 

I ought to stop being surprised by Theresa May’s decision making. After all, in her short time as Prime Minister she has made a series of terrible decisions. First, we had Chief Buffoon, Boris Johnson appointed as Foreign Secretary to represent the United Kingdom around the world. Then May, announced full steam ahead with the most extreme version of Brexit, causing mass economic uncertainty before we’ve even begun negotiations with the EU. And now we have the announcement that expansion of Heathrow Airport, in the form of a third runway, will go ahead: a colossally expensive, environmentally disastrous, and ill-advised decision.

In the House of Commons on Tuesday, I asked Transport Secretary Chris Grayling why the government is “disregarding widespread hostility and bulldozing through a third runway, which will inflict crippling noise, significant climate change effects, health-damaging air pollution and catastrophic congestion on a million Londoners.” His response was nothing more than “because we don’t believe it’s going to do those things.”

I find this astonishing. It appears that the government is proceeding with a multi-billion pound project with Grayling’s beliefs as evidence. Why does the government believe that a country of our size should focus on one major airport in an already overcrowded South East? Germany has multiple major airports, Spain three, the French, Italians, and Japanese have at least two. And I find it astonishing that the government is paying such little heed to our legal and moral environmental obligations.

One of my first acts as an MP nineteen years ago was to set out the Liberal Democrat opposition to the expansion of Heathrow or any airport in southeast England. The United Kingdom has a huge imbalance between the London and the South East, and the rest of the country. This imbalance is a serious issue which our government must get to work remedying. Unfortunately, the expansion of Heathrow does just the opposite - it further concentrates government spending and private investment on this overcrowded corner of the country.

Transport for London estimates that to make the necessary upgrades to transport links around Heathrow will be £10-£20 billion pounds. Heathrow airport is reportedly willing to pay only £1billion of those costs. Without upgrades to the Tube and rail links, the impact on London’s already clogged roads will be substantial. Any diversion of investment from improving TfL’s wider network to lines serving Heathrow would be catastrophic for the capital. And it will not be welcomed by Londoners who already face a daily ordeal of crowded tubes and traffic-delayed buses. In the unlikely event that the government agrees to fund this shortfall, this would be salt in the wound for the South-West, the North, and other parts of the country already deprived of funding for improved rail and road links.

Increased congestion in the capital will not only raise the collective blood pressure of Londoners, but will have severe detrimental effects on our already dire levels of air pollution. During each of the last ten years, air pollution levels have been breached at multiple sites around Heathrow. While a large proportion of this air pollution is caused by surface transport serving Heathrow, a third more planes arriving and departing adds yet more particulates to the air. Even without expansion, it is imperative that we work out how to clean this toxic air. Barrelling ahead without doing so is irresponsible, doing nothing but harm our planet and shorten the lives of those living in west London.

We need an innovative, forward-looking strategy. We need to make transferring to a train to Cardiff after a flight from Dubai as straightforward and simple as transferring to another flight is now. We need to invest in better rail links so travelling by train to the centre of Glasgow or Edinburgh is quicker than flying. Expanding Heathrow means missing our climate change targets is a certainty; it makes life a misery for those who live around the airport and it diverts precious Government spending from other more worthy projects.

The Prime Minister would be wise to heed her own advice to the 2008 government and “recognise widespread hostility to Heathrow expansion.” The decision to build a third runway at Heathrow is the wrong one and if she refuses to U-turn she will soon discover the true extent of the opposition to these plans.

Tom Brake is the Liberal Democrat MP for Carshalton & Wallington.