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 reporting for the New Statesman from the US. He tweets @NickyWoolf.

Photo: Getty Images
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I'm far from convinced by Cameron's plans for Syria

The Prime Minister has a plan for when the bombs drop. But what about after?

In the House of Commons today, the Prime Minister set out a powerful case for Britain to join air strikes against Isil in Syria.  Isil, he argued, poses a direct threat to Britain and its people, and Britain should not be in the business of “outsourcing our security to our allies”. And while he conceded that further airstrikes alone would not be sufficient to beat Isil, he made the case for an “Isil first” strategy – attacking Isil now, while continuing to do what we can diplomatically to help secure a lasting settlement for Syria in which Assad (eventually) plays no part.

I agreed with much of David Cameron’s analysis. And no-one should doubt either the murderous barbarism of Isil in the region, or the barbarism they foment and inspire in others across the world.  But at the end of his lengthy Q&A session with MPs, I remained unconvinced that UK involvement in airstrikes in Syria was the right option. Because the case for action has to be a case for action that has a chance of succeeding.  And David Cameron’s case contained neither a plan for winning the war, nor a plan for winning the peace.

The Prime Minister, along with military experts and analysts across the world, concedes that air strikes alone will not defeat Isil, and that (as in Iraq) ground forces are essential if we want to rid Syria of Isil. But what is the plan to assemble these ground forces so necessary for a successful mission?  David Cameron’s answer today was more a hope than a plan. He referred to “70,000 Syrian opposition fighters - principally the Free Syrian Army (FSA) – with whom we can co-ordinate attacks on Isil”.

But it is an illusion to think that these fighters can provide the ground forces needed to complement aerial bombardment of Isil.  Many commentators have begun to doubt whether the FSA continues to exist as a coherent operational entity over the past few months. Coralling the myriad rebel groups into a disciplined force capable of fighting and occupying Isil territory is a heroic ambition, not a plan. And previous efforts to mobilize the rebels against Isil have been utter failures. Last month the Americans abandoned a $500m programme to train and turn 5,400 rebel fighters into a disciplined force to fight Isil. They succeeded in training just 60 fighters. And there have been incidents of American-trained fighters giving some of their US-provided equipment to the Nusra Front, an affiliate of Al Qaeda.

Why has it proven so hard to co-opt rebel forces in the fight against Isil? Because most of the various rebel groups are fighting a war against Assad, not against Isil.  Syria’s civil war is gruesome and complex, but it is fundamentally a Civil War between Assad’s forces and a variety of opponents of Assad’s regime. It would be a mistake for Britain to base a case for military action against Isil on the hope that thousands of disparate rebel forces can be persuaded to change their enemy – especially when the evidence so far is that they won’t.

This is a plan for military action that, at present, looks highly unlikely to succeed.  But what of the plan for peace? David Cameron today argued for the separation of the immediate task at hand - to strike against Isil in Syria – from the longer-term ambition of achieving a settlement in Syria and removing Assad.  But for Isil to be beaten, the two cannot be separated. Because it is only by making progress in developing a credible and internationally-backed plan for a post-Assad Syria that we will persuade Syrian Sunnis that fighting Isil will not end up helping Assad win the Civil War.  If we want not only to rely on rebel Sunnis to provide ground troops against Isil, but also provide stable governance in Isil-occupied areas when the bombing stops, progress on a settlement to Syria’s Civil War is more not less urgent.  Without it, the reluctance of Syrian Sunnis to think that our fight is their fight will undermine the chances of military efforts to beat Isil and bring basic order to the regions they control. 

This points us towards doubling down on the progress that has already been made in Vienna: working with the USA, France, Syria’s neighbours and the Gulf states, as well as Russia and Iran. We need not just a combined approach to ending the conflict, but the prospect of a post-war Syria that offers a place for those whose cooperation we seek to defeat Isil. No doubt this will strike some as insufficient in the face of the horrors perpetrated by Isil. But I fear that if we want not just to take action against Isil but to defeat them and prevent their return, it offers a better chance of succeeding than David Cameron’s proposal today. 

Stewart Wood is a former Shadow Cabinet minister and adviser to Ed Miliband. He tweets as @StewartWood.