[On the road again, this time in Virginia, which is technically not really being “on the road” since I can go home at the end of the day. But I’m literally pounding the pavement in Virginia to talk to people about the election, the economy, and the very nature of being Virginia. I live within sight of Virginia but am always nervous about venturing there, since all the roads are named Glebe Road and if you try to follow the signs to National airport you’ll wind up in Delaware. I navigate in Virginia on muscle memory and instinct, interpreting the texture of the landscape and when in doubt going right. Keep turning right and things usually wind up okay. The lefts will kill you.
But seriously, a question for you folks out there: Where does The South begin? Where’s the real border?]
[In case you missed it, here’s my story from Steubenville Ohio. Check out the great photos in the gallery by Michael Williamson.]
Steubenville, Ohio — Hank Segle, 59, is one of Mitt Romney’s “47 percent.” He lives off a $982 monthly Social Security disability check and intends to vote in November for Barack Obama. He volunteers in the campaign office of the local Democratic Party, which beats sitting at home doing nothing.
“I can’t take this being-disabled stuff,” he says. “I can only watch so many episodes of ‘NCIS’ and ‘House.’ It’s driving me batty.”
Segle spent two decades as a broadcast engineer before medical problems forced him into retirement, followed by suicidal depression. He’s recovering and now wants to get a degree in social work.
As for that monthly government check: “How can I be a ‘taker’ when I paid into Social Security all those years? That’s my money.”
This historic city is highly contested territory in what may be the most important swing state in the presidential race. Four years ago, voters in Jefferson County, which includes Steubenville, cast nearly 36,000 ballots for president, and Obama squeaked past John McCain by 76 votes. No Ohio county was so evenly split.
Although it’s not big enough to be a major target for campaign strategists, Jefferson County is a good place to plumb the divisions in American political life. Walk down the street, and you’ll hear strong opinions about the direction of the country and the proper role of government — and the opinions will be all over the ideological map.
Of course, people were talking in recent days about Romney’s “inelegant” (his word) description of Democratic voters as slackers who don’t pay taxes and expect the government to care for them. Such words can sting in a place where, despite some recent economic improvement, the jobs are still scarce, the steel mills are hollowed out and many of the smokestacks spew nothing into a clean and clear post-industrial sky.
This place on the bank of the Ohio River is a vintage working-class community. Longtime residents have a memory of the steel mill’s whistle, of crowds on downtown sidewalks and plenty of jobs that could let a person with only a high school diploma raise a family and own a home. People here don’t think of themselves as moochers.
But interviews with several dozen county residents last week suggest that Romney’s comments haven’t altered the political calculus. Ohio may be the most iconic swing state, but it’s hard to find genuinely undecided voters who are teetering between Obama and Romney.
The two candidates have been running for president for six years, counting the past election cycle. They represent parties that have become internally more homogeneous, with distinctly different philosophies. The ratings-driven news culture accentuates those divisions, and the result is that national politics has taken on aspects of trench warfare. A loose remark on the campaign trail, no matter how shocking to the pundit class, doesn’t seem likely to dislodge many voters from their foxholes.
A lot of voters are lukewarm about the guy they support, but they are white hot about the guy they loathe.