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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To beat the Trump hype, we need a return to old-fashioned political virtues

If we want to resist the Trumpification of politics, what we need is restraint, duty and incorruptibility.

After the 1992 US presidential election, Alistair Cooke’s celebrated BBC radio series Letter from America struck a poignant note. Cooke described Bill Clinton’s worn jeans and checked wool shirt, contrasting them with George H W Bush’s buttoned-up Wasp manners and buttoned-down Ivy League shirts. Clinton’s style, Cooke argued, was a rebuke to a tired social and political establishment. His casualness was the new America.

Cooke, then 83, was honest enough to admit unease about this departure from the old, patrician modes and manners. “Along with the passing of George Bush,” he said, “we shall see, I fear, the passing of the blue blazer.” Cooke seemed right at the time. But don’t write off the blue blazer just yet. As ruling elites change, so does the appropriate counterpoint. To topple Bush’s stuffy golf club elites, Clinton picked up his saxophone, took off his tie and felt everyone’s pain. And now? The subtext of these turbulent months (the inevitable second question, prompted by “How do you beat Donald Trump?”) is: “What should ­tomorrow’s leaders, the leaders we crave, look and sound like?”

My conjecture is that, to beat Trump and his type – bling, shiny suits, dodgy deals – we should push towards centre stage an underestimated set of political virtues: restraint, duty and incorruptibility. If it weren’t for the gender associations, I would be tempted to call this quality gentlemanliness. Aside from personal virtue – signally lacking in the Clinton camp – how might decency inform public debate as it comes under attack from maverick showmen trained in the media circus? How can the middle ground regain its confidence?

First, level with the public. Maybe liberalism hasn’t failed so much as its messaging has failed. Instead of smashing the electorate over the head with the idea that everything is just great, make the case that not everything can be for the best in all possible worlds. As populists reach for empty slogans, a new space has opened up. Accept and exploit those asymmetries: more people are ready to hear uncomfortable truths than politicians imagine.

Kingsley Amis once argued that a writer’s voice should stay close to his speaking voice: not the same, but close. Adapting that idea, if politicians stayed closer in public debate to the truths that they articulate in casual conversation – some things are impossible; almost every policy creates a losing as well as a winning side; there really isn’t any money – they would be surprised how many people are ready to hear that not all problems can be evaporated into thin air. Stray too far from awkward truths and elections become about simple lies v tricksy lies.

Second, centrists do more harm than good when they rush to categorise dissenting opinion as not only wrong, but unacceptable. “Any suggestion that liberal values are not humanly universal,” as John Gray wrote in a recent NS essay, “will provoke spasms of righteous indignation.” Instead, we need to be more tolerant in our tolerance.

Third, stop pretending that everything desirable can be shoehorned into the “progressive” agenda. “I really care passionately about persevering with the common-sense middle ground and doing it quite well” is a problematic political sales pitch, but not for the reasons that are usually given. The gravest difficulty may come at the beginning, with the faux passion, rather than with the substance – public service and competence – underneath.

It is revealing that those closest to David Cameron expended so much energy trying to persuade us that he was not an updated version of Harold Macmillan. That is why the gay marriage reforms, though admirable, were accorded too much significance. Ah, Cameron was a natural crusader! But he paid a price for dressing up as a “radical” when greater challenges arrived. It weakened some of his strongest cards – calmness, perspective, proportion – just as politics was coarsening. Aren’t Tories supposed to understand the virtues of yesterday? In other words, as an electoral strategy to beat Trump (or Nigel Farage), I’d put up a Macmillan type over a Clinton type every time.

Fourth, cut ties with “messaging experts”. It’s a fraud. They teach that everything must be asserted with powerful conviction. Yet ideas unworthy of powerful conviction are best left shorn of them. The electorate has endured a communications version of crying wolf. As a result of the messaging game, when something genuinely important crops up, it sounds simply like the same old shtick.

Fifth, ditch the bogus quantification. Few things signal untrustworthiness more reliably than fake precision. Something shifted in me when George Osborne argued that Brexit would leave households £4,300 worse off. What, no decimal point? Voters understand uncertainty better than politicians imagine. Precise quantification used to sound professional. Now it sounds suspicious.

Finally, think about tone. Conventional wisdom holds that the mainstream must fight the Trumpian revolution on its own terms: a simple solution, memorably expressed, a guiding vision for the country or the world. If anyone has a good one to hand, I’m all for it. But what if – after decades of ­sophisticated argument and counterargument, as politics has solved the easy problems while parking the difficult or insoluble ones – we have reached a state of such evolved equilibrium that no such easy answer can exist?

Pretending otherwise is no longer a point of difference. It takes you towards the lowest common denominator. As Trump has shown, that is well-occupied territory. Perhaps wooing the angry mob is not the solution. Instead, the admirable and successful politician of the future will have to win back the support of moderate, sensible but disillusioned voters. 

Ed Smith is a journalist and author, most recently of Luck. He is a former professional cricketer and played for both Middlesex and England.

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage