Two Cathedrals: the contrasting rhetoric of Obama and Romney

Nicky Woolf reports from two very different events in north-west Ohio

U2, inescapable at Democrat events, plays over the public address system at the basketball arena at Bowling Green State University, north Ohio. The crowd – there are more than five thousand people here – is young, diverse, and when Obama steps out, visibly starstruck. He is slighter than he appears on television, but when he speaks you find you already know the voice from a thousand newscasts and YouTube clips. He is at home here; he grows behind the podium, speaking with the cadence of a preacher, building rhetorical castles in the air, winding the audience up to a climax of fervour. They respond with adulation. “Try to bend your knees,” he says to those standing. “We've had some people faint before...”

Julian Gillilan, a music student at BGSU, is here because the President “is for college students, and minority groups. He's on our side.” His friend Tristan Saffron-Cottrell, who has a shock of blond-tipped hair, is studying graphic design. He is for Obama because “I believe in the same rights and beliefs, pro-gay marriage, pro-choice. I take these things strongly to heart. Lots of [us] students are more democratic, and because we're a younger crowd, we believe in rights.”

And Romney? “He's a dumbass. I think government should be more open to things he's not – like abortion rights, anti-gun policies...” he pauses, looks suddenly shy. “And I don't think the government has a right to tell anyone who they are allowed to love.”

Morgan Palmucci, studying Spanish language education here, is worried about her college loans. “[Obama]'s standing up for everyone's basic right to go to college. He's fighting to make it affordable, to give everyone a chance.”

But the crowd is not just composed of die-hard fans. Allan Rubenstein, a 19-year-old visual communications technology student, says he hasn't yet made his mind up. He has come here to see what the president has to say. I ask what he wants to hear. “I don't know. Answers. I have an open mind: I'll see what he has to offer.”

***

In a way, Obama and Romney are each preaching from the other's pulpit today. Bowling Green may have a large student population, but it is the county seat of a relatively rural county with a sizeable Catholic population. It may have voted for Obama in 2008, but almost all its county officials are now Republican. Toledo, where Romney is due to speak later that afternoon, is a big auto industry town, quite poor, and quite racially diverse. Union country. Democrat country. “Fuck Romney,” the cab driver taking me to the convention centre says with feeling when he learns who I am on my way to see.

Governor Romney's audience is considerably smaller than Obama's. It is much older, much whiter, and much more male-dominated too. Old men mutter in the background unselfconsciously over the people speaking, as if talking at a television set. A giant green digital debt-clock, twenty feet high, speeds upwards ominously. Country music plays. Like Paul Ryan two days ago, when Romney emerges he is played in by Kid Rock's 'Born Free'.

Campaigning is about repetition. The same message played over and over again by two of America's cleverest people, repeated with very slight amendments over and over again in town halls, sports arenas, car parks, factories and airfields around the country; planed and moulded but essentially the same each time. The game is about folding local events, local stories, into that message. In Lima on Monday, Paul Ryan brought the local tank factory seamlessly into his defence cuts narrative. The narrative itself will be the same everywhere, however: only the name of the plant changes.

In 2008, on the campaign trail in New Hampshire, I met then-vice-Presidential candidate Joe Biden. He shook my hand, leaned in close and told me, with a twinkle in his eye: “if I had your hair, I'd be President.”

I was more than a little deflated some while later, when I discovered that Biden says this to pretty much everyone he meets with hair. The same charming line, the same twinkle of the eye, over and over and over again. You see why they say politics is bad for the soul?

Endless repetition can trip some candidates up. Romney today, near the end of his speech, said: “you've been outside for a long time now, but I want to tell you one last thing.” A slight wince was very briefly visible on his face, as he realised he was speaking to an audience at an indoor arena. But with speeches and quips that are all learned by rote, such slips are occasionally inevitable.

***

This morning, the candidates will have read a New York Times poll that gives Obama a bracing ten-point lead in Ohio; enough to give the President plenty of breakfast cheer, and enough for Romney allow a single un-businesslike sob escape into his morning cappuccino; but if you had not seen them at breakfast and just watched them speak, you may well have thought the polls had been the opposite. Romney, for all his awkwardness, is light-hearted; he looks suspiciously like he's having fun.

Romney, though hoarse-voiced, talks more like a comedian, peppering his speech with a stand-up's patter. “China has been holding down its currency. What does that do? I'll tell you what that does...” You wouldn't catch such down-home familiarity in Obama's speaking style, and the audience in Toledo is charmed, banging their blue and white inflatable noise-sticks together with fervour.

Obama, on the other hand, speaks with grim, tight-lipped determination and a preacher's oratory inflection. Not even when the line “...and Osama Bin Laden is dead” produced applause so strong he is rocked backwards involuntarily on his heels from the force of it does he allow himself even the glimmer of a grin. He is a serious man.

The audiences are looking for different things, too. While many of Obama's audience tell me the economy is a concern - especially that part of it that pertains to student loans - they put social freedoms firmly above economic concerns. When I ask members of Romney's audience what issues are important to them, however, they are unequivocal. “The economy, the debt,” says Diane Ninke, sat with her husband next to me in the stands. “The economy. It's the economy,” agrees Joe Sipple; “the economy is head and shoulders over the rest.” Another supporter echoes Bill Clinton: “it's the economy, obviously.”

Romney's speech reflects this. He is a man who knows what his potential voters are concerned about: the price of gas, already mentioned three times in the speeches before him, gets another two checks in his first five minutes. “Gas prices have doubled” is the unofficial rallying-cry of the Romney-Ryan campaign.

And then there's that gigantic sinister debt-clock behind the stage. It would be unfair to call this a campaign of fear, despite slogans like “Ohio can't afford another four years like the last.” American politics has seen far worse, and the Obama campaign's ads (“Get Real, Mitt!”) aren't that far from the mud either. But Romney's is certainly a campaign of concentrated financial nervousness.

This would have turned Rubenstein off: the undecided first-time voter at Obama's rally did not like it when the president referred to his rival. “Obviously he's his opponent, so he has to bash him. It did put me off a little bit. But it's politics, isn't it.” He shrugs, and tells me he is still undecided: “I have to go away and do a lot of reading.”

Outside the Romney rally, the heavy afternoon rain has left great pools of standing water. A little girl of about seven or eight is being led between the puddles by her mother. A politician might describe this in terms of an economic metaphor, in which the puddles represent recession and the mother represents, perhaps, fiscal prudence. Unaware of her symbolism, the girl cries out in joy as she passes me, her arms jangling with badges as she skips. “That was super-exciting! I got lots of Romney stuff!”

Make of that what you will.

Obama speaks at Bowling Green State University. Photo: Getty

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

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How English identity politics will shape the 2017 general election

"English" voters are more likely to vote Conservative and Ukip. But the Tories are playing identity politics in Scotland and Wales too. 

Recent polls have challenged some widely shared assumptions about the direction of UK elections. For some time each part of the UK has seemed to be evolving quite distinctly. Different political cultures in each nation were contested by different political parties and with different parties emerging victorious in each.

This view is now being challenged. Early general election surveys that show the Tories leading in Wales and taking up to a third of the vote in Scotland. At first sight, this looks a lot more like 1997 (though less enjoyable for Labour): an increasingly hegemonic mainland party only challenged sporadically and in certain places.

Is this, then, a return to "politics as normal"? Perhaps the Tories are becoming, once again, the Conservative and Unionist Party. Maybe identity politics is getting back into its box post Brexit, the decline of Ukip, and weak support for a second independence referendum. We won’t really know until the election is over. However, I doubt that we’ve seen the back of identity politics. It may actually bite more sharply than ever before.

Although there’s talk about "identity politics" as a new phenomenon, most votes have always been cast on a sense of "who do I identify with?" or "who will stand up for someone like us?" Many voters take little notice of the ideology and policy beloved of activists, often voting against their "objective interests" to support a party they trust. The new "identity politics" simply reflects the breakdown of long-established political identities, which were in turn based on social class and collective experiences. In their place, come new identities based around people, nations and place. Brexit was never really about the technocratic calculation of profit and loss, but about what sort of country we are becoming, and what we want to be. 

Most social democratic parties in Europe are struggling with this change. Labour is no different. At the start of the general election, it faces a perfect storm of changing identities. Its relationship with working-class voters continues to decline. This is not because the working class has disappeared, but because old industries, with their large workplaces, shared communities and strong unions are no longer there to generate a labour identity. 

Labour is badly adrift in England. The English electorate has become increasingly assertive (and increasingly English). The Brexit vote was most strongly endorsed by the voters who felt most intensely English. In the previous year’s general election, it was fear of Scottish National Party influence on a Labour minority government that almost certainly gave the Tories the English seats needed for an overall majority. In that same election, Labour’s support amongst "English only" voters was half its support amongst "British only" voters. The more "English" the voters, the more likely they were to vote Ukip or Conservative. It shouldn’t be a surprise if Ukip voters now go Tory. Those who think that Ukip somehow groomed Labour voters to become Tories are missing the crucial role that identity may be playing.

So strong are these issues that, until recently, it looked as though the next election - whenever it was called - would be an English election - fought almost entirely in English battlegrounds, on English issues, and by a Tory party that was, increasingly, an English National Conservative Party in all but name. Two powerful identity issues are confounding that assumption.

Brexit has brought a distinctly British issue into play. It is enabling the Tories to consolidate support as the Brexit party in England, and at the same time reach many Leave voters in Wales, and maybe Scotland too. This serendipitous consequence of David Cameron’s referendum doesn’t mean the Tories are yet fully transformed. The Conservative Party in England is indeed increasingly focused on England. Its members believe devolution has harmed England and are remarkably sanguine about a break up of the union. But the new ability to appeal to Leave voters outside England is a further problem for Labour. The Brexit issue also cuts both ways. Without a clear appeal cutting through to Leave and Remain voters, Labour will be under pressure from both sides.

North of the border, the Tories seemed to have found - by accident or design - the way to articulate a familial relationship between the party in Scotland and the party in England. Scottish Conservative leader Ruth Davidson appears to combine conservatism, unionism and distance from English politics more successfully than Scottish Labour, which must ride the two horses of "near home rule" and committed unionism. Scottish Labour has a perfectly good call for a reformed union, but it is undermined by the failure of Labour in England to mobilise enough popular support to make the prospect credible.

Identity politics is not, of course, the be all and end all of politics. Plenty of voters do cast their ballots on the traditional tests of leadership, economic competence, and policy. Labour’s campaign will have to make big inroads here too. But, paradoxically, Labour’s best chance of a strong result lies in taking identity politics head on, and not trying to shift the conversation onto bread and butter policy, as the leaked "talking points" seem to suggest. Plenty of voters will worry what Theresa May would do with the untrammelled power she seeks. Challenging her right or ability to speak for the nation, as Keir Starmer has done, is Labour’s best bet.

 

John Denham was a Labour MP from 1992 to 2015, and a Secretary of State 2007 to 2010. He is Director of the Centre for English Identity and Politics at Winchester University

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