Core support in the Big Apple

Observations on US elections

These days the political map of America shows swing states - up for grabs, full of activity, endlessly polled, grinningly visited and revisited by the candidates - and swung states, those that are all but decided. In swing states, volunteers wear bibs, make lists and knock on doors looking for voters. In swung states, there is a kind of suspended, quiet tension; candidates save money on advertising, because the action is elsewhere.

New York is a swung state. Registered Democrats outnumber Republicans 5:3. In 2000, Al Gore won New York State's 33 seats in the electoral college with more than 60 per cent of the local popular vote. The latest polls even give Senator John Kerry (with some wavering) a double-digit lead. In New York City, by far the most swung part of a swung state, downtown boutiques sell handbags emblazoned with the face of the president and the words "Wanted: out of office"; T-shirts sold on street corners just say "Flori-Duh". But, for all their convictions, all New York's Democrats can do is deliver their state on 2 November. And New York's Republicans can't even do that.

For most New Yorkers, unused to life on the sidelines, the current phoney peace is slow and difficult. There are, thankfully, some outlets for people's frustration. On weekends, Kerry sympathisers are encouraged to use the free minutes on their mobile phones to call the likes of Ohio, Missouri and New Hampshire, either to register voters or to identify them as undecided, and thus ripe for a visit from a party volunteer. On a recent Sunday, for instance, towards the end of the afternoon, there were about 30 people, with lists in their laps, making calls to swing states from benches near a playground in Central Park.

Hasan Yildiz, a graduate student, was taking a break and looking at passers-by. "A lot of people are out, and a couple of people refused to talk to me," he said, looking down at his phone. "To be honest, it's a little frustrating. My mother and sister are voting for the first time, but it still drives me a little nuts that their votes are getting shunted into a state that's already decided."

Standing opposite Yildiz, Laura Koulish, a red-haired music teacher, had just finished her calls for the day. "You've got to do something, otherwise it's just, 'Aaargghhh'," she said, opening her mouth wide and tensing her fingers.

For New York's Bush supporters, there is a different kind of frustration. Republicans must contend with being outnumbered every day: at work, on the bus, in their own kitchen.

"How many times have I heard 'stupid' and 'evil'?" mused Priscilla Lee, toying with her wine glass at a recent internet-organised meeting of Manhattan Republicans in a bar just off Madison Avenue. "You get a little bit impatient. Their use of language and tone is amazing . . . I'm like, 'Can we have a normal debate?'"

That night, Lee was in a crowd of about 40 Republicans, most of them exchanging stories of having to stand up to their colleagues. There was a waiter taking orders for drinks and a man taking pictures for his website. Everywhere, in bewildering, animated conversations, the conservatives were letting off steam. In one corner Judith Weiss, originally from Texas, was saying to a tall man in a blue striped shirt with a "Bush-Cheney '04" badge: "It's like a secret club. Do you feel that? I feel that."

For all the abuse they take (Judith Weiss calls it "the whole Bush-Hitler thing"), New York's Republicans seem to find more consolation in their swung-state lives than the Democrats do. They at least have nothing to lose. And they can always convince themselves of what Democrats fear the most: that these days, it is New York itself which is unusual and irrelevant, not them.

This article first appeared in the 11 October 2004 issue of the New Statesman, The gambler