Features » October 20, 2008
The View From Ohio
Will voters in the economically ravaged Buckeye State ‘get over’ race and support Obama?
Unions have found that leaflets and phone calls are not the best ways to deal with unconscious racism against Obama. ‘The only way to do that is with conversations,’ says one union leader.
Winning Ohio will be important, maybe even essential, for Sens. Barack Obama and John McCain this fall. And the decision will likely come down to the wire, depending in part on wavering voters like Ruth Santo, a retired department store manager living in Rocky River, a flag-festooned middle- to upper-middle income suburb of Cleveland.
Concerned about the economy and healthcare, and critical of President Bush, Santo worries most about young people like her grandchildren.
“I don’t even know what they’re going to have,” she says. “So many things are changing so horribly.”
Obama has some good ideas, she says, but she thinks McCain is “a bit of a rebel” who would also bring change. “I think Obama is too inexperienced, but then I think John McCain is too old. I told my husband I don’t know how I want to vote.”
Obama and McCain remained locked in a close battle for Ohio, according to polls throughout September, even as Obama took a widening lead in national polls, like those of the New York Times and Washington Post. But some studies, such as an early September Ohio Poll, showed nearly a quarter of the state’s voters are “up for grabs,” undecided or open to change.
On balance, prospects look good for Obama, but uncertainty revolves around the role that white voters’ misgivings – conscious and unconscious – about Obama’s skin color will play in the election. In particular, can Obama and his supporters convince enough older white voters that he, more than McCain, can change the economy to help people like them and their grandchildren, despite their discomfort – stoked by Republicans – about who he is as a person?
The worsening national economy helps Obama, as McCain flounders and large majorities see Republicans as responsible for the financial crisis. Ohio has suffered economically throughout the past eight years, never regaining the number of jobs the state had before the 2001 recession.
Unions are attacking the role of McCain and his campaign manager in approving the DHL takeover of Airborne Express, which is now resulting in more than 8,000 workers losing their jobs in southwest Ohio. They are also criticizing McCain for his support of free-trade deals that they blame for the recent troubles of century-old Norwalk Furniture, in Norwalk, Ohio, which has almost been undercut out of existence by Chinese imports.
Economic anxieties push both independents and even some Republicans toward Obama – or at least away from McCain.
“I’m very scared right now with the economy,” says Taryn Cottell, 33, who earned a master’s degree in business administration but now stays home with two kids in the working-class suburb of Lakewood. She says her husband, a manager of an insurance company, “will probably vote for McCain” because “he’s been raised to be very conservative.” But, Cottell says, “I’ll probably vote for Obama. I’m not strong one way or the other, but I tend Democratic. It’s just Obama’s viewpoints on education. And I’m very much pro-choice. Palin’s selection was a great move by McCain for the election, but not if they get elected.”
“I’m really a Republican, an old rich guy,” says George J. Flannik, 60, a retired gas company manager whose retirement investments have suffered and who now works part-time cleaning up shopping center parking lots. He’s upset about the economic crisis and the Iraq War’s drain on the military and the nation’s wealth. And he’s ready to vote Democratic.
“I think you’ll find a lot of Republicans voting Democratic because of their worries about the economy,” he says. “There’s not too much about Obama that appeals to me, but I just want to slap the Republicans in the face and say, ‘Enough is enough.’ All the grandparents are saying, ‘What’s going to happen to our children and grandchildren?’ I’m worried about there being no good jobs for them.”
Most Republicans, like two of Flannik’s neighbors who are 30-something financial-service industry employees, support McCain. They aren’t enthusiastic, but they see him as more experienced. they also ideologically favor cutting taxes and spending, and say they want to “finish what we started” in Iraq. Unlike the energized evangelical Christian conservatives, they aren’t impressed with the meagerly qualified Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin as his vice-presidential choice.
A changing electorate
This year’s Ohio electorate is more Democratic than in past elections, and the party is in better shape to influence the election. Since 2004, Democrats have registered 1 million new voters, compared to 356,000 for the Republicans, according to the Columbus Dispatch. And the 2006 elections saw Democrats sweep out Republican state office holders, electing Ted Strickland as governor and progressive Sherrod Brown as U.S. senator.
Democrats also will likely gain from increased enthusiasm among young and minority voters. The Obama campaign, for example, has been signing up new voters in an African-American ward on Cleveland’s east side where only 20 percent of eligible voters cast ballots in 2004. And at Cleveland State University (CSU), most of the predominately working-class and middle-class students I interviewed strongly backed Obama.
“If you like the way things are going, vote for McCain,” says 25-year-old CSU finance major James Evanoff, whose normally Democratic mother is leaning toward McCain. “If you want better, go Obama. If you’re worried about experience, remember Palin is one heartbeat from the presidency.”
Even wavering students tend to lean to Obama. “I feel one candidate seems to be lying to us, and the other is too arrogant,” says John Kopasaki, 20, a history student who says he is politically independent. “Obama is like we’re going to do this, this and this – like he’s going to part the River Jordan. I’m hoping he will do a lot of what he says. We should have universal healthcare. But he sounds like he’s going to burn out. But I know I’m voting Obama.”
So are Kopasaki’s father, a conservative, swing-voting engineer, and his homemaker mother, who is somewhat more liberal.
But the enthusiasm and increased registration among young people and voters of color may not compensate for Obama’s apparent difficulty consolidating the Democratic base among white voters, including union members, women and older voters, who have often voted more Democratic than the Republican-trending white, non-union men of working age with some college education.
Democrats, who were hurt severely by Ohio Republicans’ voting shenanigans in 2004, have an advantage this year: Democrat Jennifer Brunner is secretary of state. Although some voting rights advocates wish she were more protective, she has blocked Republican efforts to purge voter rolls and restrict early voting.
Partly because of Brunner’s work, Petee Talley, coordinator of the Ohio Voter Protection Coalition, says, “I feel more confident than in the past” that voters will be able to vote and have their votes counted accurately.
Strickland and Brown have also thrown themselves and their organizations behind Obama. And both the Democratic Party and the Obama campaign seem better positioned than past Democratic efforts to confront the Republicans’ well-organized ground game in Ohio.
“The Ohio Democratic Party is stronger than I have ever seen it in 30 years of doing political work,” says John Ryan, Brown’s state director. “There’s star appeal with both Ted Strickland and Sherrod Brown. Both are devoting weekends and days off working hard on this campaign and talking about the economy in ways that got them elected two years ago, especially recognizing the importance of getting people in the middle class and keeping them there.”
The Obama campaign has put more than 400 paid staff – many from out of state – into its Ohio operation, but a veteran Democratic consultant says that the campaign is using local volunteers more effectively than in the past. It is doing this with a decentralized system of grassroots committees that are contacting voters.
Fear of a black president
Organized labor is more divided than it was in 2004, as a consequence of the split in the AFL-CIO, and more united in other ways, as the Ohio Education Association and the traditionally politically independent Ohio UAW are working closely with the state AFL-CIO, according to state federation President Joe Rugola.
Although the long primary and divided labor union endorsements delayed much labor activity for Obama, Rugola says, “We’re better positioned for a Democratic, Obama victory than either 2000 or 2004. It surprises people to hear me say it, but the driving force is that working Ohioans, organized or not, are really suffering from the Bush policies on the economy.”
Union membership has shrunk by a third in Ohio since 1989, but the AFL-CIO’s community affiliate, Working America, has signed up almost 790,000 non-union, working-class Ohio families that they can reach with labor’s economic message.
“The big question is how to talk about race, the elephant in the room,” says Harriet Applegate, executive secretary of the Cleveland-area North Shore Federation of Labor. “We’ve lost everything – jobs, homes, financial security. Here’s a man who supports us on everything, against a guy who is against us on nearly everything. What’s the issue? Some people say it will be hard to vote for [Obama]. But most people aren’t talking much. It’s hard to gauge. Silence makes us nervous.”
Applegate says labor is trying to “make that emotional connection that he’s one of us. He’s black, but he’s like us. A small number of members are racist bigots, but large numbers of well-intentioned, good people have repressed racism. They don’t think they’re racist, but we all have some kind of racial feelings.”
Sometimes race is overtly the issue. When Working America canvasser Erin McCardle asked retired firefighter Martin Linn who he would support in the presidential contest, he answered, “One is for affirmative action, the other isn’t.” When McCardle pressed him about how he would vote based on the issues that affect his pocketbook, he responded: “Affirmative action affects my pocketbook. It took a job away from me.”
Sometimes race comes out more obliquely. Shirley (who did not want her last name used), a CSU student whose family emigrated from China, at first talked about McCain’s experience, and said she worried about Obama helping poor people at the expense of the middle class. Her family usually votes Democratic, and she insists she isn’t prejudiced. But eventually she acknowledges, “I’m kind of prejudiced. An African-American leader for this country doesn’t connect. I cannot accept it now – maybe 10 to 20 years later. I’m racist.”
Usually race stays beneath the surface.
May Partlo, 51, seemed a prime Democratic target – burdened with medical bills and claims denied by her insurance company, angry about lost jobs, worried about relatives losing jobs, feeling economically hard-pressed and upset about not getting financial aid to go back to school. But when asked about her presidential choice, Partlo shot back: “I don’t trust Obama. And I don’t like his wife. His minister? Come on. And he won’t say the pledge of allegiance. You should say that no matter what you believe. I’m not crazy about John McCain, but what choice have we got?”
Union leaders think that they must address the issue personally. “If you’ve got a problem with race or gender, I’ve got three words for you,” Cleveland building trades leader Loree Soggs tells his members: “Get over it.”
They also distribute literature directly rebutting the most common falsehoods, such as Obama being a secret Muslim.
But unions have concluded that leaflets, rallies and phone calls are not the best way to deal with unconscious racism, the most widespread and soluble problem.
“The only way to do that is with conversations,” says Seth Rosen, vice president for the Midwest region of the Communications Workers, “not leaflets or robo-calls. It’s about activating people’s conscious minds – their better angels – and showing how Republicans get people to vote against their best interests.”
The good news, Rosen says, is that “with labor union members now underperforming in their support for Obama – if we can get union members to support Obama – we win in Ohio. It’s doable.”
Maybe more frank conversations will blunt the escalating scare tactics and subliminally racial McCain ads (such as using the face of an African-American CEO when bemoaning corporate excess). Maybe reason and better angels will prevail.
The fate of Ohio and the nation may hinge on voters like Mary McNally. A white, 81-year-old widow of an attorney, she at first seemed undecided about the election, when Working America’s McCardle approached her at her Rocky River home. “I don’t know who to vote for,” she says. “One day I’m going for one, the other day for the other.”
Then she talks about how the economy is in trouble, how the United States shouldn’t be in Iraq, and how even though Obama seems young and unseasoned, McCain seems old. Then she pauses and thinks a moment.
“I guess it’s time we forgot about who’s white and who’s brown,” she says. “I’m going to vote for Obama.”
David Moberg, a senior editor of In These Times, has been on the staff of the magazine since it began publishing in 1976. Before joining In These Times, he completed his work for a Ph.D. in anthropology at the University of Chicago and worked for Newsweek. He has received fellowships from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and the Nation Institute for research on the new global economy. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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