Paranoia about "operatives" infiltrates Romney's grassroots support in Ohio

“You have a Chicago telephone number and you're a Liberal. Get out or I'll call the sheriff.”

“There are 47 per cent of the people who will vote for the President no matter what,” Romney says in the now-famous leaked footage, recorded by waiting staff at a $50,000-a-head fundraising event back in May. “So my job is not to worry about those people.”

Well, he's certainly worrying now, and he's not the only one: there's some serious paranoia among Romney's grassroots support. Last week, a local reporter recommended I cover a dinner hosted by the Republican party of neighbouring Paulding County. He sent me the details of the event, and said he would call the organisers to tell them I'd be calling to cover it.

Their response was extraordinary. First, the Paulding County Republican Committee chair, one Jerry Zielke, called him back and told him they were tracing my phone. “We think he's a Democratic Party operative,” Zielke told him. “I know for a fact that the Democrat campaign is going to plant these guys, and we've had word that they're coming in to our area.”

Sure that there has been some sort of misunderstanding – or attack of paranoid delusion – I decided to pop round to the event and straighten out the misunderstanding. When I find Zielke and explain who I am, his reaction is instantaneous. “Get out. We know what you are. Get out,” he shouts at me, spitting crumbs. I asked why. “You have a Chicago telephone number,” he says with venom, “and you're a Liberal. Get out or I'll call the sheriff.”

I got out.

“Huh,” says Ron Farnsworth of the Paulding County Democrats, when I put the accusation of planting underground operatives to him. “No, heavens no, we're not doing that. Jerry Zielke is a new chairman, became it a couple of years ago. He's just new. We're... not sure what he's up to.”

It must be remembered that this was a county Republican event rather than a national one. The presidential campaign can't be held responsible every time a local officer is a bit, well, over-zealous. And it's hardly surprising their mood was less than celebratory. The Republicans are losing. Today's polls put Obama a crucial five points ahead in Ohio. Perhaps a communiqué of some kind has gone out through the Republicans trying to prevent further phone-camera hijinks, but the damage is already done for Romney.

This is not the only such accusation. A leaked video in El Paso, Colorado of a Romney campaign volunteer pretending to work for the county clerk's office in order to register Republican voters surfaced over the weekend, and local Republicans again claimed that a Democratic “operative” was behind it.

Later that week, outside a Paul Ryan town hall meeting in Lima, Ohio, a rag-tag band of Obama supporters in fancy dress - to call them 'operatives' would be a strain on even Jerry Zielke's credulity - are picketing underneath a huge Romney-Ryan sign on the side of an office building. Cars with “Obama for America” stickers drive by honking at the queue. In the sky, a light aircraft tows the message: “Admit it: 47 per cent aren't villains”.

Earlier today the Democrat campaign held a press conference around the corner at a local union hall. The theme of their bus tour is summarised on the side of the campaign bus. It says, in a big red stripe down the side, “Mitt Romney – Writing off the Middle Class”, and it quotes the Republican candidate from the video: “My job is not to worry about those people.”

There, I speak to Larry Donaldson, a retired engineer for General Dynamics. “Romney doesn't have empathy for the middle class,” he says. “He doesn't know what it's like. He proved it in that video.” While the Republicans search for Democratic operatives under the bed, they're missing the point: that they are losing any chance to make their case to the middle class, which is allowing the Democrats to construct the narrative: Romney the elitist, Romney out of touch.

Security at the Paul Ryan event is easier-going than in Paulding – no one threatens to call the sheriff on me this time – but the event is tightly choreographed nonetheless. Only one question from the floor, most of which are in the “I pray you can cancel Obamacare when you win” vein, seems to give Ryan pause in his practiced rhetoric. It is about the quote from the hidden-camera video, but Ryan brushes it aside, returning to his recurring theme of how the upcoming defence cuts will affect the area – Lima is the site of a large tank plant. (He fails to admit, strangely enough, that he voted in favour of those cuts.)

The Paulding County attitude toward the press has infiltrated a bit here, too, though. Outside the meeting, I speak to a boy of about 17. He's in a Romney-Ryan t-shirt with a Romney-Ryan badge, carrying a Romney-Ryan sign, and he's looking faintly lost.

“What excites you about the Romney-Ryan campaign,” I ask him. “I dunno,” he answers, glancing around nervously and licking his lips. “He's Republican, pretty much, I guess.” An older woman, about 60, in bright pink lipstick bustles over, demands to know what the boy is doing talking to me, then stands and glares at me, arms folded. When I ask what policies of Romney and Ryan excite the boy to badge-and-t-shirt levels, she cuts in before he can reply.

“He's interested in what happens to this country,” she says with finality. “You agree with me,” she says to the boy. It is not a question. “I raised my grandkids right.”

May I take your names, I ask. “No. That's it.” She marches off, with a suspicious look back at me.

“Sorry,” the boy shrugs as he turns to follow her. “I do what she says.”

Romney is losing - polls put Obama a crucial five points ahead in Ohio. Photograph: Getty Images

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

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Theresa May gambles that the EU will blink first

In her Brexit speech, the Prime Minister raised the stakes by declaring that "no deal for Britain is better than a bad deal for Britain". 

It was at Lancaster House in 1988 that Margaret Thatcher delivered a speech heralding British membership of the single market. Twenty eight years later, at the same venue, Theresa May confirmed the UK’s retreat.

As had been clear ever since her Brexit speech in October, May recognises that her primary objective of controlling immigration is incompatible with continued membership. Inside the single market, she noted, the UK would still have to accept free movement and the rulings of the European Court of Justice (ECJ). “It would to all intents and purposes mean not leaving the EU at all,” May surmised.

The Prime Minister also confirmed, as anticipated, that the UK would no longer remain a full member of the Customs Union. “We want to get out into the wider world, to trade and do business all around the globe,” May declared.

But she also recognises that a substantial proportion of this will continue to be with Europe (the destination for half of current UK exports). Her ambition, she declared, was “a new, comprehensive, bold and ambitious Free Trade Agreement”. May added that she wanted either “a completely new customs agreement” or associate membership of the Customs Union.

Though the Prime Minister has long ruled out free movement and the acceptance of ECJ jurisdiction, she has not pledged to end budget contributions. But in her speech she diminished this potential concession, warning that the days when the UK provided “vast” amounts were over.

Having signalled what she wanted to take from the EU, what did May have to give? She struck a notably more conciliatory tone, emphasising that it was “overwhelmingly and compellingly in Britain’s national interest that the EU should succeed”. The day after Donald Trump gleefully predicted the institution’s demise, her words were in marked contrast to those of the president-elect.

In an age of Isis and Russian revanchism, May also emphasised the UK’s “unique intelligence capabilities” which would help to keep “people in Europe safe from terrorism”. She added: “At a time when there is growing concern about European security, Britain’s servicemen and women, based in European countries including Estonia, Poland and Romania, will continue to do their duty. We are leaving the European Union, but we are not leaving Europe.”

The EU’s defining political objective is to ensure that others do not follow the UK out of the club. The rise of nationalists such as Marine Le Pen, Alternative für Deutschland and the Dutch Partij voor de Vrijheid (Party for Freedom) has made Europe less, rather than more, amenable to British demands. In this hazardous climate, the UK cannot be seen to enjoy a cost-free Brexit.

May’s wager is that the price will not be excessive. She warned that a “punitive deal that punishes Britain” would be “an act of calamitous self-harm”. But as Greece can testify, economic self-interest does not always trump politics.

Unlike David Cameron, however, who merely stated that he “ruled nothing out” during his EU renegotiation, May signalled that she was prepared to walk away. “No deal for Britain is better than a bad deal for Britain,” she declared. Such an outcome would prove economically calamitous for the UK, forcing it to accept punitively high tariffs. But in this face-off, May’s gamble is that Brussels will blink first.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.