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.

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How Theresa May laid a trap for herself on the immigration target

When Home Secretary, she insisted on keeping foreign students in the figures – causing a headache for herself today.

When Home Secretary, Theresa May insisted that foreign students should continue to be counted in the overall immigration figures. Some cabinet colleagues, including then Business Secretary Vince Cable and Chancellor George Osborne wanted to reverse this. It was economically illiterate. Current ministers, like the Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, Chancellor Philip Hammond and Home Secretary Amber Rudd, also want foreign students exempted from the total.

David Cameron’s government aimed to cut immigration figures – including overseas students in that aim meant trying to limit one of the UK’s crucial financial resources. They are worth £25bn to the UK economy, and their fees make up 14 per cent of total university income. And the impact is not just financial – welcoming foreign students is diplomatically and culturally key to Britain’s reputation and its relationship with the rest of the world too. Even more important now Brexit is on its way.

But they stayed in the figures – a situation that, along with counterproductive visa restrictions also introduced by May’s old department, put a lot of foreign students off studying here. For example, there has been a 44 per cent decrease in the number of Indian students coming to Britain to study in the last five years.

Now May’s stubbornness on the migration figures appears to have caught up with her. The Times has revealed that the Prime Minister is ready to “soften her longstanding opposition to taking foreign students out of immigration totals”. It reports that she will offer to change the way the numbers are calculated.

Why the u-turn? No 10 says the concession is to ensure the Higher and Research Bill, key university legislation, can pass due to a Lords amendment urging the government not to count students as “long-term migrants” for “public policy purposes”.

But it will also be a factor in May’s manifesto pledge (and continuation of Cameron’s promise) to cut immigration to the “tens of thousands”. Until today, ministers had been unclear about whether this would be in the manifesto.

Now her u-turn on student figures is being seized upon by opposition parties as “massaging” the migration figures to meet her target. An accusation for which May only has herself, and her steadfast politicising of immigration, to blame.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.

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