COLUMBUS, Ohio — Barack Obama looked scary. On darkening South High Street, the cardboard cutout of the president, grinning in a dark suit with folded arms, stared out from the shabby house’s window like a Halloween decoration. Hardly anyone walked up to inspect the more welcoming message taped to the house’s wooden door. “Please Come In,” it said. Below that, a red, white and blue sticker added, “Ohio Votes Early. Register to Vote Here.”
The last thing the Obama campaign wants to do is scare people away. Inside this, one of their myriad campaign offices throughout the state, scattered signs promoted “Early Voting in Person!” and a “Get Out the Vote Leadership Manual” sat on a desk under a handmade banner that read “Canvassing.” In the next room, a whiteboard reminded volunteers of “weeks to go” and kept track of their calls made, doors knocked, voters registered. On a recent evening, two college-age volunteers hovered over their laptops. The one wearing chunky hipster glasses did data entry. The one in torn skinny jeans cut labels reading “Not just for some of us.” They didn’t seem the ideal people to reach the “us” — white, blue-collar, swing voters — who will probably determine the election between Obama and Mitt Romney.
The last month has been a period of hysterics in the presidential race. First there was the Democratic high and the certainty that Romney was dead in the water. Then came the disaster in Denver that convinced many Obama supporters that all was lost. Swing states swung from the left to the right. The president’s supporters took to rending their garments, and Romney worked lines into his stump speech contrasting a disappearing Obama campaign to his own surging. (“A crescendo!” he says.) In the middle of all this sits grizzled working-class Ohio.
And it appears largely unmoved.
The two campaigns are doing everything in their power to move the state, which has leaned, almost stubbornly, for Obama. Democrats and Republicans are arguing about when and where people can vote and have poured in resources. In Columbus, where the American Federation of Labor, the forerunner to the modern labor movement, was founded, union leaders are organizing their troops for Obama and reminding all those dependent on the auto industry that the president fought to save it. The Obama campaign is sending in a dynamic duo of Middle Class Heroes, Bill Clinton and Bruce Springsteen. On Romney’s behalf, Rob Portman, the state’s star senator and Romney confidant, has appeared outside his family’s Golden Lamb, the oldest hotel in Ohio, urging conservatives in the south of the state. “Would you please vote early?” he asked as Romney stood at his side, his palms flat against his thighs.
Some people back on South High Street, a long and broad artery connecting Columbus’ scrappy working-class neighborhoods to its corporate downtown to its boutique and restaurant-dotted college district, have already cast their votes.
At the foot of the ramp leading to the 104 South expressway below Southland sits Dan’s Drive In (Classic All-American Diner) , where locals trickled in for the gravy-doused roast beef and potatoes. Jerald Fridley, an 80-year-old retired truck driver, took a seat by the window across from his wife, Phyllis, a 72-year-old retired worker in a Columbia public school cafeteria, and discussed the $6.95 specials. As for the presidential candidates, they had already decided.
“I’ve already voted,” Fridley said, adding that he and his wife had waited out in the rain last election, and preferred to stay dry. Fridley said he had voted Republican most of his life, from Eisenhower through George H.W. Bush. But then Bill Clinton came along, convinced him Democrats could build a better economy, and then George W. Bush came along and convinced him that Republicans could not. Obama, he said, convinced him that things could be different, and he hadn’t given up that hope. “I thought, ‘Give the guy another four years. He was left with an awful mess. He isn’t going to fix it overnight.’ ”
The couple commiserated over Obama’s anemic debate performance (“We don’t know what happened, he just wasn’t there,” Phyllis said.) As for Romney, who had arrived in Ohio for another campaign sweep only hours earlier, Jerald said, “he’s blowing hot air.
“The 47 percent can go to hell?” Phyllis added. “I thought, ‘Never.’ ”
A few tables away, under the ceiling fans and 1950s style stainless steel, John Thompson, 68, wearing a white bearded, wool hat and leather jacket, finished up the bean soup. It reminded him, he said, of his mother’s recipe growing up the son of a reverend in the Ohio countryside. He and his wife, Karen, took care of their bill and said that it was important that the government took care of its citizens. “Romney doesn’t give the impression that he cares about working people,” said Thompson, a carpenter. He said that he and his wife had absentee ballots ready for mailing on their desks back home. “What Romney’s saying is that we are just a bunch of moochers!”
As fire engines raced toward the highway, families across the street shopped under the fluorescent light of the Volunteers of America thrift store. Used gloves for 99 cents hung from racks loaded with used T-shirts, dresses, pants and shoes. In the back, two men looked over a stereo with tape decks.
“You see where I’m shopping? I can’t afford to buy anything new,” Mary Skinner, 59, said as the cashier stuffed the pants, umbrella and yellow blanket she had selected into translucent plastic bags. The nursing home at which Skinner worked had frozen pay for the last three years, a development she attributed to cuts in Medicare. But that didn’t make her more likely to vote for Obama, she said. She hadn’t paid attention to the debate about Medicare, which Obama says he would protect from Romney’s proposed reforms. “I won’t vote for Obama,” she said, pausing to instruct her granddaughter Brianna to hit the gumball machine into which she had fed quarters.
This is the sort of disaffected voter that Romney is desperately trying to activate in Ohio. Skinner said she had the sense that Romney was a competent manager who could fix things. But she also said, “I don’t think I’ll vote.”
Others in the store, similarly dependent on government assistance, were eager to cast their ballots. In the sleepwear aisle, Diana Ooten, 29, with long, bleached hair falling on her Lynyrd Skynyrd T-shirt, examined the racks for undergarments. Her young son, Giovanni, ran over from the adjacent used-toy department clutching a plastic register.
“Mommy, I want to buy this one,” he implored, fidgeting with the register. “I want people to come with money.”
“Okay, but that’s the only one,” she said.
Ooten, a single mother of four, had recently risen out of homelessness and off welfare, finding a part-time seasonal job loading and unloading trucks at a local bargain outlet. She expressed disdain for Romney, who she said had no idea what people like her go through, and said he had “no grasp of what he’s talking about” when it came to Planned Parenthood. Describing herself as personally opposed to abortion, Ooten said that she had turned to the women’s health provider for early pregnancy tests that allowed her to get her newborn children on government insurance. She said she had used her time on welfare to better herself and that food stamps helped her survive. Romney, she said, “thinks everyone is using it to sit there and be lazy.”
At this point, Ooten said she would vote for Obama. “But it’s not an election I am excited about.”
To a large degree, those most excited, or at least motivated to cast their vote in this presidential cycle, have been those who are animated by a visceral dislike for Obama and his expansion of government. People who want a change from Obama’s change also live and work on High Street.
Playing with his corgi Sprocket on the lawn in front of Cap Party Supplies, Dylan Lane, 25, said he ran this store but also owned a business called Nichols Sign and Banner. “I have two businesses that are failing,” he said, blaming excessive taxation. The president, he said, had no business experience. Romney did, and would get his vote. Next door, motorcycles were parked in front of the porch of Double Ds Pub, where a couple of guys nursed an icy pale of Bud Lights. An auto mechanic who only gave his name as George (“only give my last name to people with badges and guns”) alternated between pulls of beer and his Marlboro. “Anyone but Obama,” he said. “Government doesn’t create jobs. It sucks away jobs.”
A few miles north, the real estate signs advertising “Priced Reduced” fade and downtown’s office buildings and hotels rise up. Then they too fade, giving way to the fashionable short north district, with lighted arches commemorating High Street’s former arcades. Valet parking restaurants, Brooklynized boutiques and bars advertising “artisanal cocktails.” At a packed bar named Bodega, popular with students from the neighboring Ohio State University, people smoked cigarettes, drank dark beers and expressed their revulsion for Romney. “He hates women!” Samantha Dixon, a recent graduate of Ohio State shouted to her friends. One of them, Carlina Di Russo, a communications major with red lipstick stains on her cigarette, said there was “so much” activity around campus for Obama. For Romney, she said there was “not much.”
But even in the city’s liberal bastion, where people talked more about LGBT issues than jobs, people were split. Four people were chatting outside the popular ice cream parlor Jeni’s and almost all of them supported Romney. The holdout was Greg Beeman, a 28-year-old manager at a Whirlpool plant. He watched the debate and thought Romney wiped the floor with Obama. He understood the points his wife and friends, one of whom worked on Romney’s 2008 campaign, were making. But nevertheless, he remained unconvinced and leaned toward the president.
“We just had this discussion at dinner,” Beeman said. “I don’t think anybody would have performed well in the last four years.”