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.

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Who will win in Copeland? The Labour heartland hangs in the balance

The knife-edge by-election could end 82 years of Labour rule on the West Cumbrian coast.

Fine, relentless drizzle shrouds Whitehaven, a harbour town exposed on the outer edge of Copeland, West Cumbria. It is the most populous part of the coastal north-western constituency, which takes in everything from this old fishing port to Sellafield nuclear power station to England’s tallest mountain Scafell Pike. Sprawling and remote, it protrudes from the heart of the Lake District out into the Irish Sea.

Billy, a 72-year-old Whitehaven resident, is out for a morning walk along the marina with two friends, his woolly-hatted head held high against the whipping rain. He worked down the pit at the Haig Colliery for 27 years until it closed, and now works at Sellafield on contract, where he’s been since the age of 42.

“Whatever happens, a change has got to happen,” he says, hands stuffed into the pockets of his thick fleece. “If I do vote, the Bootle lass talks well for the Tories. They’re the favourites. If me mam heard me saying this now, she’d have battered us!” he laughs. “We were a big Labour family. But their vote has gone. Jeremy Corbyn – what is he?”

The Conservatives have their sights on traditional Labour voters like Billy, who have been returning Labour MPs for 82 years, to make the first government gain in a by-election since 1982.

Copeland has become increasingly marginal, held with just 2,564 votes by former frontbencher Jamie Reed, who resigned from Parliament last December to take a job at the nuclear plant. He triggered a by-election now regarded by all sides as too close to call. “I wouldn’t put a penny on it,” is how one local activist sums up the mood.

There are 10,000 people employed at the Sellafield site, and 21,000 jobs are promised for nearby Moorside – a project to build Europe’s largest nuclear power station now thrown into doubt, with Japanese company Toshiba likely to pull out.

Tories believe Jeremy Corbyn’s stance on nuclear power (he limply conceded it could be part of the “energy mix” recently, but his long prevarication betrayed his scepticism) and opposition to Trident, which is hosted in the neighbouring constituency of Barrow-in-Furness, could put off local employees who usually stick to Labour.

But it’s not that simple. The constituency may rely on nuclear for jobs, but I found a notable lack of affection for the industry. While most see the employment benefits, there is less enthusiasm for Sellafield being part of their home’s identity – particularly in Whitehaven, which houses the majority of employees in the constituency. Also, unions representing Sellafield workers have been in a dispute for months with ministers over pension cut plans.

“I worked at Sellafield for 30 years, and I’m against it,” growls Fred, Billy’s friend, a retiree of the same age who also used to work at the colliery. “Can you see nuclear power as safer than coal?” he asks, wild wiry eyebrows raised. “I’m a pit man; there was just nowhere else to work [when the colliery closed]. The pension scheme used to be second-to-none, now they’re trying to cut it, changing the terms.”

Derek Bone, a 51-year-old who has been a storeman at the plant for 15 years, is equally unconvinced. I meet him walking his dog along the seafront. “This county, Cumbria, Copeland, has always been a nuclear area – whether we like it or don’t,” he says, over the impatient barks of his Yorkshire terrier Milo. “But people say it’s only to do with Copeland. It ain’t. It employs a lot of people in the UK, outside the county – then they’re spending the money back where they’re from, not here.”

Such views might be just enough of a buffer against the damage caused by Corbyn’s nuclear reluctance. But the problem for Labour is that neither Fred nor Derek are particularly bothered about the result. While awareness of the by-election is high, many tell me that they won’t be voting this time. “Jeremy Corbyn says he’s against it [nuclear], now he’s not, and he could change his mind – I don’t believe any of them,” says Malcolm Campbell, a 55-year-old lorry driver who is part of the nuclear supply chain.

Also worrying for Labour is the deprivation in Copeland. Everyone I speak to complains about poor infrastructure, shoddy roads, derelict buildings, and lack of investment. This could punish the party that has been in power locally for so long.

The Tory candidate Trudy Harrison, who grew up in the coastal village of Seascale and now lives in Bootle, at the southern end of the constituency, claims local Labour rule has been ineffective. “We’re isolated, we’re remote, we’ve been forgotten and ignored by Labour for far too long,” she says.

I meet her in the town of Millom, at the southern tip of the constituency – the opposite end to Whitehaven. It centres on a small market square dominated by a smart 19th-century town hall with a mint-green domed clock tower. This is good Tory door-knocking territory; Millom has a Conservative-led town council.

While Harrison’s Labour opponents are relying on their legacy vote to turn out, Harrison is hoping that the same people think it’s time for a change, and can be combined with the existing Tory vote in places like Millom. “After 82 years of Labour rule, this is a huge ask,” she admits.

Another challenge for Harrison is the threat to services at Whitehaven’s West Cumberland Hospital. It has been proposed for a downgrade, which would mean those seeking urgent care – including children, stroke sufferers, and those in need of major trauma treatment and maternity care beyond midwifery – would have to travel the 40-mile journey to Carlisle on the notoriously bad A595 road.

Labour is blaming this on Conservative cuts to health spending, and indeed, Theresa May dodged calls to rescue the hospital in her campaign visit last week. “The Lady’s Not For Talking,” was one local paper front page. It also helps that Labour’s candidate, Gillian Troughton, is a St John Ambulance driver, who has driven the dangerous journey on a blue light.

“Seeing the health service having services taken away in the name of centralisation and saving money is just heart-breaking,” she tells me. “People are genuinely frightened . . . If we have a Tory MP, that essentially gives them the green light to say ‘this is OK’.”

But Harrison believes she would be best-placed to reverse the hospital downgrade. “[I] will have the ear of government,” she insists. “I stand the very best chance of making sure we save those essential services.”

Voters are concerned about the hospital, but divided on the idea that a Tory MP would have more power to save it.

“What the Conservatives are doing with the hospitals is disgusting,” a 44-year-old carer from Copeland’s second most-populated town of Egremont tells me. Her partner, Shaun Grant, who works as a labourer, agrees. “You have to travel to Carlisle – it could take one hour 40 minutes; the road is unpredictable.” They will both vote Labour.

Ken, a Conservative voter, counters: “People will lose their lives over it – we need someone in the circle, who can influence the government, to change it. I think the government would reward us for voting Tory.”

Fog engulfs the jagged coastline and rolling hills of Copeland as the sun begins to set on Sunday evening. But for most voters and campaigners here, the dense grey horizon is far clearer than what the result will be after going to the polls on Thursday.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.