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.

Photo: Getty
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After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.