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.

Photo: Getty
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Who will win in Stoke-on-Trent?

Labour are the favourites, but they could fall victim to a shock in the Midlands constituency.  

The resignation of Tristram Hunt as MP for Stoke-on-Central has triggered a by-election in the safe Labour seat of Stoke on Trent Central. That had Westminster speculating about the possibility of a victory for Ukip, which only intensified once Paul Nuttall, the party’s leader, was installed as the candidate.

If Nuttall’s message that the Labour Party has lost touch with its small-town and post-industrial heartlands is going to pay dividends at the ballot box, there can hardly be a better set of circumstances than this: the sitting MP has quit to take up a well-paid job in London, and although  the overwhelming majority of Labour MPs voted to block Brexit, the well-advertised divisions in that party over the vote should help Ukip.

But Labour started with a solid lead – it is always more useful to talk about percentages, not raw vote totals – of 16 points in 2015, with the two parties of the right effectively tied in second and third place. Just 33 votes separated Ukip in second from the third-placed Conservatives.

There was a possible – but narrow – path to victory for Ukip that involved swallowing up the Conservative vote, while Labour shed votes in three directions: to the Liberal Democrats, to Ukip, and to abstention.

But as I wrote at the start of the contest, Ukip were, in my view, overwritten in their chances of winning the seat. We talk a lot about Labour’s problem appealing to “aspirational” voters in Westminster, but less covered, and equally important, is Ukip’s aspiration problem.

For some people, a vote for Ukip is effectively a declaration that you live in a dump. You can have an interesting debate about whether it was particularly sympathetic of Ken Clarke to brand that party’s voters as “elderly male people who have had disappointing lives”, but that view is not just confined to pro-European Conservatives. A great number of people, in Stoke and elsewhere, who are sympathetic to Ukip’s positions on immigration, international development and the European Union also think that voting Ukip is for losers.

That always made making inroads into the Conservative vote harder than it looks. At the risk of looking very, very foolish in six days time, I found it difficult to imagine why Tory voters in Hanley would take the risk of voting Ukip. As I wrote when Nuttall announced his candidacy, the Conservatives were, in my view, a bigger threat to Labour than Ukip.

Under Theresa May, almost every move the party has made has been designed around making inroads into the Ukip vote and that part of the Labour vote that is sympathetic to Ukip. If the polls are to be believed, she’s succeeding nationally, though even on current polling, the Conservatives wouldn’t have enough to take Stoke on Trent Central.

Now Theresa May has made a visit to the constituency. Well, seeing as the government has a comfortable majority in the House of Commons, it’s not as if the Prime Minister needs to find time to visit the seat, particularly when there is another, easier battle down the road in the shape of the West Midlands mayoral election.

But one thing is certain: the Conservatives wouldn’t be sending May down if they thought that they were going to do worse than they did in 2015.

Parties can be wrong of course. The Conservatives knew that they had found a vulnerable spot in the last election as far as a Labour deal with the SNP was concerned. They thought that vulnerable spot was worth 15 to 20 seats. They gained 27 from the Liberal Democrats and a further eight from Labour.  Labour knew they would underperform public expectations and thought they’d end up with around 260 to 280 seats. They ended up with 232.

Nevertheless, Theresa May wouldn’t be coming down to Stoke if CCHQ thought that four days later, her party was going to finish fourth. And if the Conservatives don’t collapse, anyone betting on Ukip is liable to lose their shirt. 

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