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
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Ken Livingstone says publicly what many are saying privately: tomorrow belongs to John McDonnell

The Shadow Chancellor has emerged as a frontrunner should another Labour leadership election happen. 

“It would be John.” Ken Livingstone, one of Jeremy Corbyn’s most vocal allies in the media, has said publicly what many are saying privately: if something does happen to Corbyn, or should he choose to step down, place your bets on John McDonnell. Livingstone, speaking to Russia Today, said that if Corbyn were "pushed under a bus", John McDonnell, the shadow chancellor, would be the preferred candidate to replace him.

Even among the Labour leader’s allies, speculation is rife as to if the Islington North MP will lead the party into the 2020 election. Corbyn would be 71 in 2020 – the oldest candidate for Prime Minister since Clement Attlee lost the 1955 election aged 72.

While Corbyn is said to be enjoying the role at present, he still resents the intrusion of much of the press and dislikes many of the duties of the party leader. McDonnell, however, has impressed even some critics with his increasingly polished TV performances and has wowed a few sceptical donors. One big donor, who was thinking of pulling their money, confided that a one-on-one chat with the shadow chancellor had left them feeling much happier than a similar chat with Ed Miliband.

The issue of the succession is widely discussed on the left. For many, having waited decades to achieve a position of power, pinning their hopes on the health of one man would be unforgivably foolish. One historically-minded trade union official points out that Hugh Gaitskell, at 56, and John Smith, at 55, were 10 and 11 years younger than Corbyn when they died. In 1994, the right was ready and had two natural successors in the shape of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown in place. In 1963, the right was unprepared and lost the leadership to Harold Wilson, from the party's centre. "If something happens, or he just decides to call it a day, [we have to make sure] it will be '94 not '63," they observed.

While McDonnell is just two years younger than Corbyn, his closest ally in politics and a close personal friend, he is seen by some as considerably more vigorous. His increasingly frequent outings on television have seen him emerge as one of the most adept media performers from the Labour left, and he has won internal plaudits for his recent tussles with George Osborne over the tax bill.

The left’s hopes of securing a non-Corbyn candidate on the ballot have been boosted in recent weeks. The parliamentary Labour party’s successful attempt to boot Steve Rotheram off the party’s ruling NEC, while superficially a victory for the party’s Corbynsceptics, revealed that the numbers are still there for a candidate of the left to make the ballot. 30 MPs voted to keep Rotheram in place, with many MPs from the left of the party, including McDonnell, Corbyn, Diane Abbott and John Trickett, abstaining.

The ballot threshold has risen due to a little-noticed rule change, agreed over the summer, to give members of the European Parliament equal rights with members of the Westminster Parliament. However, Labour’s MEPs are more leftwing, on the whole, than the party in Westminster . In addition, party members vote on the order that Labour MEPs appear on the party list, increasing (or decreasing) their chances of being re-elected, making them more likely to be susceptible to an organised campaign to secure a place for a leftwinger on the ballot.

That makes it – in the views of many key players – incredibly likely that the necessary 51 nominations to secure a place on the ballot are well within reach for the left, particularly if by-election selections in Ogmore, where the sitting MP, is standing down to run for the Welsh Assembly, and Sheffield Brightside, where Harry Harpham has died, return candidates from the party’s left.

McDonnell’s rivals on the left of the party are believed to have fallen short for one reason or another. Clive Lewis, who many party activists believe could provide Corbynism without the historical baggage of the man himself, is unlikely to be able to secure the nominations necessary to make the ballot.

Any left candidate’s route to the ballot paper runs through the 2015 intake, who are on the whole more leftwing than their predecessors. But Lewis has alienated many of his potential allies, with his antics in the 2015 intake’s WhatsApp group a sore point for many. “He has brought too much politics into it,” complained one MP who is also on the left of the party. (The group is usually used for blowing off steam and arranging social events.)

Lisa Nandy, who is from the soft left rather than the left of the party, is widely believed to be in the running also, despite her ruling out any leadership ambitions in a recent interview with the New Statesman.However, she would represent a break from the Corbynite approach, albeit a more leftwing one than Dan Jarvis or Hilary Benn.

Local party chairs in no doubt that the shadow chancellor is profiling should another leadership election arise. One constituency chair noted to the New Statesman that: “you could tell who was going for it [last time], because they were desperate to speak [at events]”. Tom Watson, Caroline Flint, Chuka Umunna, Yvette Cooper, Andy Burnham and Liz Kendall all visited local parties across the country in preparation for their election bids in 2015.

Now, speaking to local party activists, four names are mentioned more than any other: Dan Jarvis, currently on the backbenches, but in whom the hopes – and the donations – of many who are disillusioned by the current leadership are invested, Gloria De Piero, who is touring the country as part of the party’s voter registration drive, her close ally Jon Ashworth, and John McDonnell.

Another close ally of Corbyn and McDonnell, who worked closely on the leadership election, is in no doubt that the shadow chancellor is gearing up for a run should the need arise.  “You remember when that nice Mr Watson went touring the country? Well, pay attention to John’s movements.”

As for his chances of success, McDonnell may well be even more popular among members than Corbyn himself. He is regularly at or near the top of LabourList's shadow cabinet rankings, and is frequently praised by members. Should he be able to secure the nominations to get on the ballot, an even bigger victory than that secured by Corbyn in September is not out of the question.

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog. He usually writes about politics.