By Alec MacGillis
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, November 3, 2008
CHILLICOTHE, Ohio, Nov. 2 -- With the presidential campaigns pressing to get out the vote in the race's final hours, no state is being more fiercely contested than Ohio, which provided President Bush with his decisive margin of victory four years ago.
Both tickets sought to rally their supporters Sunday, with Sen. Barack Obama holding events in Columbus, Cleveland and Cincinnati. Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, the GOP vice presidential nominee, closed out the race's last weekend with events in Canton and other cities across the state.
Both sides expect a close finish, something of a paradox in a struggling state in a year in which the poor economy is driving support for Obama and other Democrats. Ohio lost 300,000 manufacturing jobs this decade and its median income has dropped by 3 percent, yet polls show Obama with no more than a narrow lead in a state that Sen. John F. Kerry lost to Bush by two points.
That may be because the weak economy has driven away younger and college-educated residents who lean Democratic, because abortion remains a potent issue and because an African American candidate with an unusual name remains a tough sell in some corners. But voters also say the poor economy has not swung more voters to Obama precisely because the state has been down for so long -- many have come to see the woes as systemic, and not easily blamed on a particular party.
Obama has mounted an ambitious effort to correct the mistakes of Kerry's campaign, which boosted turnout in cities but lost the state by ceding exurban counties and rural areas. Obama has scattered dozens of offices and scores of paid organizers across central, southern and western Ohio, hoping to find enough pockets of support to put him over the top.
The Republicans aim to counter that approach with the formidable network of volunteers and reliable GOP voters built by strategist Karl Rove, which has been enhanced by high-tech telephone systems that allow supporters to place more calls than in the past. In the party's strongest areas, the exurbs of Cincinnati and Columbus, offices are packed with veterans of 2004 -- nearly all women, many of them antiabortion activists wearing lipstick pins in honor of Palin.
Elsewhere, though, are signs that Democrats have the organizational edge. In polling in Ohio, more voters report being contacted by Obama's campaign, which has 89 offices to Sen. John McCain's 46. With its operation organized into 24 regions and hundreds of "neighborhood teams," the Democrats are better prepared than in 2004 to absorb out-of-state volunteers.
Here in Chillicothe, in a county in south-central Ohio that Bush won by 10 points in 2004, Republicans have focused mainly on distributing yard signs, a much bigger priority for McCain statewide than it is for Obama. Unlike in 2004, Republicans in Chillicothe have made do without a paid organizer and did little canvassing until this past weekend.
"We're talking to more people by letting them walk through our door than by canvassing," said Bill Jenkins, a retired corrections officer who is helping to lead the campaign in town. "If they're coming through the door, we know it's going to be a good conversation, as opposed to going door to door and having people say, 'Get off my porch.' "
The Democrats have been more active. To close the gap, Tammy Simkins has spent weeks recruiting volunteers, knocking on doors and calling voters, her eye fixed on the number of votes she has been told her territory must produce: 1,482.
She took heart that the Obama operation had been so much more organized than the McCain one based just up Main Street. But then came word last week that Palin was visiting. Residents rushed the GOP office for tickets, providing a treasure trove of new voter names, and a crowd jammed downtown the next day to cheer Palin.
"I'm anxious," conceded Simkins, 39, a mother who recently returned to college. "We need to make sure we get all our voters to the polls."
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In 2004, Kerry carried Ohio's large and medium-size cities, the industrial Mahoning Valley around Youngstown, and the northern edge of Appalachian Ohio. Bush carried exurbs, most of Appalachia and the rest of rural Ohio.
This year, the Republicans are targeting the Mahoning Valley, where Obama was crushed in the state's Democratic primary. Democrats typically win more than 60 percent of the vote there, and the Obama campaign says the region is holding strong, thanks partly to the efforts of organized labor. But McCain and Palin have visited repeatedly, and even as polls nationally show Obama faring better with white working-class voters than Kerry did, valley Republicans say they are winning supporters of Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, as well as rank-and-file union members. They have given out more than 1,000 "Democrats for McCain" signs in Trumbull County alone.
"I'm struck by the uneasiness people express about Obama," said Mahoning County GOP Chairman Mark Munroe. "He doesn't seem to fit real well with my Midwesterners here."
In Columbus, one of several cities where Obama is counting on big support from both white and black voters, Franklin County Commissioner Marilyn Brown said she has been unsettled by questions about Obama's trustworthiness when she speaks to fellow Jewish voters. But in general, Brown is upbeat. The Obama operation, she said, is better run than Kerry's, which relied on an outside group for turnout help that by law could not be coordinated with the campaign.
Most encouraging for the campaign are the numbers from early voting. Of the 30,000 people who cast early ballots through Oct. 26 in Franklin County, 15,000 were Democrats and 1,260 were Republicans, with the rest unaffiliated. Democrats have returned absentee ballots at twice the rate of Republicans.
"It's a little frightening to me," Brown said. "You have to believe that the Republican Party, having been so well organized in '04, will have something coming, but I don't know what they're doing. I just can't believe they can make up this much ground."
Top McCain staff members in Ohio dismiss Obama's early-voting lead, saying the Democrats have simply been getting their most reliable voters to the polls, while Republicans have been targeting only sporadic voters for early voting.
Obama's biggest push has come far from the cities. In Appalachian Ohio, he is being aided by Gov. Ted Strickland, who hails from the region and has put his statewide network behind Obama, an asset Democrats lacked in 2004.
Polls suggest, though, that the Obama campaign is having the most success improving on Kerry's margins in central, western and southwestern Ohio, where it is trying to capitalize on discontent among independents who voted for Bush in 2004. In Warren County, an exurb between Dayton and Cincinnati, Bush won with 72 percent in 2004. That year, the Democrats' office was open 10 hours per week; now it's open 10 per day, with more than 300 volunteers available.
The campaign hopes to increase the Democrats' share in Warren from 27 percent to 35 percent. It is counting on voters like John Frame, 45, who supported Ronald Reagan and Bob Dole but has been disillusioned by Bush and sees Obama as a "different kind of Democrat." Tapping the Wall Street Journal next to his plate at a Bob Evans restaurant, Frame said that people like him, who stay informed and play by the rules, have been let down by a Republican Party that devalued knowledge and accountability.
A former airline employee who returned to law school after being laid off, Frame was ambivalent about volunteering at first because he has long liked McCain, but the selection of Palin prompted him and his wife to go all out for Obama. They are "neighborhood team leaders," overseeing the campaign for all of Springboro, and they are surprised by the response they have received.
"We thought we were the only ones in our area who thought the way we do," he said.
But the Republicans are doing what they can to hold the exurbs. Their Warren office was filled all of last week, buttressed by a couple of "marshals" -- GOP operatives from Washington who volunteer their time to help organize in swing states.
Palin's role in motivating the operation is palpable. Lori Viars, who works part time for a local antiabortion organization, said she was not that energized about McCain until he picked Palin. Joy Glover was still glowing over the memory of Palin accepting her gift of a silver elephant necklace during a recent visit.
The office ran out of yard signs after handing out 10,000. Viars said she and another evangelical Christian have distributed to fellow church members 5,000 copies of a "voter issues guide" that describes Obama as supporting human cloning and opposing "protecting the lives of children who are born alive and survive a botched abortion," both misstatements of his record.
It looks similar in Delaware County, a Columbus exurb where Bush won 66 percent of the vote in 2004. On a recent evening, the Republican office, a former lighting store, had volunteers at many of its 32 phones. Traci Saliba, a court clerk who chairs the county campaign, said there were even more volunteers this year, thanks to a growing population. The volunteers have managed to block out all the talk of McCain's poor odds, she said. "We're not focused on what everyone else in the universe thinks we should be focused on," she said. "We're on task, and we're stronger than ever before."
One new volunteer is Kate Yonkura, 32, who oversees the county canvassing operation while her two sons play at her feet. She said she has gotten involved out of fear of an Obama victory. "It's the national security thing, the threat from terrorists -- that's what keeps me up at night," she said.
That evening, there was much less activity at Obama's Delaware office -- it was empty but for two organizers, one of whom had arrived days before, and three local teenagers.
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The Obama push was more evident in Chillicothe, a city of 22,000 that sits on the line between flat farmland and Appalachia, that served as the state's capital 200 years ago, and that is home today to two state prisons, a veterans hospital, and a large paper mill and a large truck plant, both of which have laid off hundreds.
The Obama office is staffed by three organizers and plastered with sign-up schedules for get-out-the-vote shifts in the final days. Fifty volunteers from Ross County and an adjoining county attended voter-turnout training last month.
Simkins, the wife of a highway laborer, volunteered to be a neighborhood team leader after being urged by her brother, an ironworker, and hearing Michelle Obama speak in Chillicothe. "She really spoke to me about family issues, what the government can do to help us, and helping us to help ourselves, and everything not being about the wealthy," she said.
Early last week, Simkins was making calls to ensure voters who had requested absentee ballots had returned them. Then the emphasis shifted into getting out the rest of the vote.
The GOP office is quieter. In the absence of any volunteer schedules, it is dominated by a sign with pictures of rifles and the caption "If you want to keep these, vote McCain." A member of the party's county board, David May, was upset about the lack of communication with the national party. As residents came in for Palin tickets, volunteers made no attempt to recruit them to help the campaign.
This weekend, the office was closed by 6 p.m. Saturday and Sunday, while Obama's office had half a dozen people working past 8.
The most active volunteer in the GOP office, Carol Myers, who moved to town four years ago from Alabama to care for her grandchildren, did not get involved until September, after the media's coverage of Palin moved her to action. She had hoped the campaign would have done more canvassing. "I'm 65, and if I do one more thing in my life, it's to put God back in our country," she said.
Obama's challenge in Ross County was clearly demonstrated among a group of 60-something residents who meet each morning for coffee after walking together. The group has chewed over his candidacy enough that some now refer to him as "Barack," yet it is still trying to come to terms with the prospect of his being president.
One, Rita Hawkins, a retired social service worker, calls Obama a "visionary," says the Republicans have "got so far off base" with social issues, and doesn't understand McCain's attacks over William Ayers, the former radical with whom Obama sat on the boards of nonprofit groups, saying she has sat on boards with all sorts of people herself.
But she is outnumbered in the group. Her brother, Steve Zurmehly, 61, a farmer, is voting for McCain even though Hawkins argues that he has lacked health insurance coverage his whole life and might benefit from Obama's proposals. "Health care has been an issue for so many years, and no one's going to do anything," he said.
Hawkins's sister Diane McDonald, an occupational therapist, is voting for McCain even though she thinks Obama is "articulate, intelligent, unwavering."
"So why don't you vote for him?" Hawkins said.
"Because it doesn't mean I believe in his politics," McDonald said. "A lot of women have gotten in trouble because of men like that."
Back at the Obama office, the volunteers have been discussing how they would feel if Obama won the presidency but lost Ohio. "I'd be very disappointed," Simkins said. "I'd be happy if he won, but I'd be disappointed if he lost Ohio. We've all worked so hard."