Ohio: In the eye of the electoral storm

After the best part of a year at the frantic centre of a national campaign, Ohio is tired to the bone.

‘‘Oh!" "Aitch!” cried the crowd again and again, a sea of red. On the other side of the stadium, more fans – a mirror image in red – responded each time with feeling: “Ai!" "Oh!”

This was Saturday 3 November at the packed, 100,000-capacity “Horseshoe” stadium – home to the Buckeyes, Ohio State University’s American football team – where the real state of Ohio could be seen. There was no politics here: no “I approved this message” ads, no badges, no signs. No one at the stadium talks to me about the election with anything other than a roll of the eyes, a sense of resignation or duty.

Ohio is a state that loves football, and one that has been forced to accept its role as a political bellwether. At the side of the field, in the shadow of an enormous flagpole (131 feet, six inches) flying the Stars and Stripes, the mascot Brutus Buckeye dances and frolicks. (A buckeye, if you’re interested, is a nut very similar to a horse chestnut. When politics was raised to Ohioans at the game, they seemed to look at the prancing mascot in sympathy. “I know how he feels,” they seemed to say; or, if you like: “Presidential politics. That old chestnut.”)

At an Obama rally two days later, on the eve of the election, at the Nationwide Arena in Columbus, in front of a comparatively paltry 15,500 people, the president made his final pitch to Ohioans with a surreal supporting line-up of Jay-Z and Bruce Springsteen. The hard core of Democrats was out in force. Springsteen sang a campaign song that he’d written specially, and Jay-Z presented a rendition of “I got 99 problems but Mitt ain’t one” to rapturous applause. Even this triple bill, however, couldn’t fill the venue.

Ohio is tired of politics. Dog-tired. After the best part of a year at the frantic centre of a national campaign, one that offered more exhaustion than excitement at every tedious twist and turn, Ohio is worn to the bone.

The end was fitting. Ohio, as predicted, finally called the winner of this election, got the loudest cheers, put the final bullet in the brain of the Romney-Ryan campaign. It wasn’t Florida, Wisconsin, Hurricane Sandy or, God forbid, the west coast that called victory for Obama. It was Ohio. Of course.

Obama’s Midwestern “firewall” didn’t just hold, it tipped him over the edge. It better have, after the $57m he spent on advertising here.

*****

“I’ll tell you one thing,” said Keith Myers, an Ohio State fan and engineer from Columbus, swaying slightly and holding a tray of nachos, between the first and second quarters of the game. “You gotta cut down on the political ads. Today, I got nine f**king things in the mail. Nine f**king things. I just ripped them up.”

Emily Finzer, between plays, agreed with him. “It’s all bullcrap. ‘Candidate A hates children.’ ‘Candidate B wants you to be raped.’ They use things in the worst possible way. They badger us so much that I just don’t give a crap any more. It’s all you see. It’s all the commercials.”

My first night in Hicksville, Ohio, from where I have been covering this campaign, was the first Monday in September, way back when the weather was warm. I had dinner at the Welly family’s house, outside in the garden in the balmy afternoon, on the night of Obama’s speech to the Democratic National Convention. The dad, Tony, made steak-and-Guinness pie and we drank Californian Cabernet Sauvignon until the stars came out.

Two days before the election, as the bitterly cold Ohio winter was beginning to be felt, Tony made steak-and-Guinness pie again. “I’m sick to death of the whole thing,” he told me. “[There were] three people today on the phone – and more came to the door . . .” During dinner, the phone rings again. Tony puts it on speaker for me. “Hi. This election is the most important in a generation-” it begins, before Tony shuts it off in disgust.

*****

President Obama won Ohio because his ground game was better than Romney’s, and because the car industry bailout secured him the industrial north-west. This is not a state that loves being a bellwether. It just is one; it just looks like the US as a whole. That’s not Ohio’s fault.

Ohio was called as the decider so quickly and so prematurely that it seemed as if the media yearned to have this place decide the election, score the deciding touchdown, even though the results in Virginia and Florida were both as close. The Ohio-as-decider narrative had such momentum that it was utterly impossible, in the end, for anyone to imagine any other outcome.

And the football? Ohio dominated that, too. Now, with the election done and the party over, I can still hear the echoes in my mind of the crowd at the Horseshoe stadium. On the one side they roar: “Oh! Aitch!” And the fans on the other side answer: “Ai! Oh!”

Barack Obama makes campaign calls from an office in Ohio. Photograph: Getty Images

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

How Jim Murphy's mistake cost Labour - and helped make Ruth Davidson

Scottish Labour's former leader's great mistake was to run away from Labour's Scottish referendum, not on it.

The strange revival of Conservative Scotland? Another poll from north of the border, this time from the Times and YouGov, shows the Tories experiencing a revival in Scotland, up to 28 per cent of the vote, enough to net seven extra seats from the SNP.

Adding to the Nationalists’ misery, according to the same poll, they would lose East Dunbartonshire to the Liberal Democrats, reducing their strength in the Commons to a still-formidable 47 seats.

It could be worse than the polls suggest, however. In the elections to the Scottish Parliament last year, parties which backed a No vote in the referendum did better in the first-past-the-post seats than the polls would have suggested – thanks to tactical voting by No voters, who backed whichever party had the best chance of beating the SNP.

The strategic insight of Ruth Davidson, the Conservative leader in Scotland, was to to recast her party as the loudest defender of the Union between Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom. She has absorbed large chunks of that vote from the Liberal Democrats and Labour, but, paradoxically, at the Holyrood elections at least, the “Unionist coalition” she assembled helped those parties even though it cost the vote share.

The big thing to watch is not just where the parties of the Union make gains, but where they successfully form strong second-places against whoever the strongest pro-Union party is.

Davidson’s popularity and eye for a good photo opportunity – which came first is an interesting question – mean that the natural benefactor in most places will likely be the Tories.

But it could have been very different. The first politician to hit successfully upon the “last defender of the Union” routine was Ian Murray, the last Labour MP in Scotland, who squeezed both the  Liberal Democrat and Conservative vote in his seat of Edinburgh South.

His then-leader in Scotland, Jim Murphy, had a different idea. He fought the election in 2015 to the SNP’s left, with the slogan of “Whether you’re Yes, or No, the Tories have got to go”.  There were a couple of problems with that approach, as one  former staffer put it: “Firstly, the SNP weren’t going to put the Tories in, and everyone knew it. Secondly, no-one but us wanted to move on [from the referendum]”.

Then again under different leadership, this time under Kezia Dugdale, Scottish Labour once again fought a campaign explicitly to the left of the SNP, promising to increase taxation to blunt cuts devolved from Westminster, and an agnostic position on the referendum. Dugdale said she’d be open to voting to leave the United Kingdom if Britain left the European Union. Senior Scottish Labour figures flirted with the idea that the party might be neutral in a forthcoming election. Once again, the party tried to move on – but no-one else wanted to move on.

How different things might be if instead of running away from their referendum campaign, Jim Murphy had run towards it in 2015. 

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

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