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Purple America

Jonn Elledge meets the people behind the "Rednecks for Obama" banner, showing that America is a purp

By Jonn Elledge

So a girl walks through midtown New York wearing an Obama t-shirt. And a middle aged guy standing outside a bar yells at her, “He’s going to lose!”

“I hope not,” she replies.

And he yells back, “Vote white, vote white!”

…scared, yet?

This story is a reminder that, for all the talk of red states and blue states, the US simply isn’t that simple. There are frustrated Democrats in the inner cities of the south, low-tax Republicans in California – and a few racists at the centre of American liberalism.

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And, deep in the interior, there are self-described rednecks campaigning for higher taxes and bigger government. Tony Viessman, for instance, reckons one of the biggest challenges facing America today is creating a healthcare system that actually provides everyone with healthcare. “I’m not worried about socialized anything,” he says in a Missouri drawl, “just so long as it’s fair.”

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Viessman and his friend Les Spencer hit the headlines last summer when they started hanging out at Democratic events holding a banner reading ‘Rednecks for Obama’. (The Senator, knowing a good photo-op when he sees one, ran 60 yards in the rain to get a picture with them.) They say they were inspired to do it by Obama’s intelligence and way with people, as well as his stance on the war.

But what’s really motivated them is their disgust with the last eight years of Republican government. During our brief conversation, they find time to express their fury with the Wall Street bail out, the failure to plan for the occupation of Iraq, and the obsession with wedge issues such as abortion. “Bush is the worst president we’ve had in a long time,” says Spencer. “He’s taken a lot of the pressure off Hoover.”

And middle America, they say, has nothing to fear from Barack Obama. “People say that if you vote Democratic you’re gonna lose your guns,” says Spencer. “But Obama’s gonna support the Second Amendment, there’s no doubt about it.” Viessman agrees. “There’s a few dummies that’ll vote because of colour, but we’ve come a long way in the last fifty years.”

These two have attracted a lot of attention, because people don’t expect to hear such sentiments from self-described ‘rednecks’. But it shouldn’t be surprising. Polls show that even in the reddest of red states, Alabama, a third of the electorate will still go for Obama. In liberal Massachusetts, meanwhile, 36% are backing McCain.

In fact, the whole red/blue state paradigm is an invention of the last decade. Bill Clinton won huge swathes of the south; ten years earlier, Ronald Reagan won the liberal strongholds of the north east and west coast.

In the last few days, Barack Obama has extended his campaign to new states such as Montana, North Dakota and even McCain’s own Arizona. If he were to do well there, it’d mean the US was a lot more purple than anyone has given it credit for.