The Hardest Vote
The disaffection of Ohio’s working class.
by George Packer October 13, 2008
Barbie Snodgrass had agreed to meet me at a Kentucky Fried Chicken outlet, on a strip of fast-food restaurants and auto shops west of downtown Columbus, Ohio, but she didn’t have much time to talk. Her shift as a receptionist at a medical clinic, which got her out of the house at six in the morning, had just ended, at three; the drive home, to a housing development in a working-class suburb south of the city, took half an hour. She then had a little more than an hour to eat, change clothes, let the dog out, check up on her sister’s two teen-age daughters—Sierra and Ashley, who were under her care—and then drive back into Columbus, where she worked the evening shift cleaning the studios of a local television station, and where her day ended, at ten. She also worked some weekends. She was forty-two, single, overweight, and suffering from stomach pains.
Snodgrass sat down at my table and refused the offer of a soft drink. She was wearing a drab ensemble of gray cotton sweatpants and a loose-fitting pale-yellow knit top, and her brown hair fell in bangs just above her eyes. I asked for her thoughts about the Presidential candidates, and she said, “Someone who makes two hundred or three hundred thousand a year, who eats a regular meal, who doesn’t have to struggle, who doesn’t worry if the lights are going to be turned out—if he doesn’t walk in your shoes, he can’t understand.”
In Snodgrass’s shoes, it hardly made sense to draw a paycheck. “You’re working for what?” she asked. She hadn’t finished college, and the two jobs that kept her “constantly moving” brought in a little more than forty thousand dollars a year, but after the mortgage (a thousand a month), car payments (three hundred and fifty), levies for supplies at the girls’ public high school, fuel, electricity, stomach medicine, and a hundred dollars’ worth of groceries each week (down from eight bags to four at Kroger’s supermarket, because of inflation) there was basically nothing left to spend. She could cut corners—go out for a McDonald’s Dollar Meal instead of spending seven dollars on a bag of potatoes and cooking at home. But that meant the end of any kind of family life for her nieces.
“These days, you have to struggle,” she said. “As a kid, I used to be able to go to the movies or to the zoo. Now you can’t take your children to the zoo or go to the movies, because you’ve got to think how you’re going to put food on the table.” Snodgrass’s parents had raised four children on two modest incomes, without the ceaseless stress that she was enduring. But the two-parent family was now available only to the “very privileged.” She said that she had ten good friends; eight of them were childless or, like her, unmarried with kids. “That’s who’s middle-class now,” she said. “Two parents, two kids? That’s over. People looked out for me. These kids nowadays don’t have nobody to look out for them. You’re one week away from (a) losing your job, or (b) not having a paycheck.”
Snodgrass, who has always voted Democratic, was paying close attention to the Presidential campaign—she had taped both candidates’ Convention speeches, and watched them when she had time—but her faith in politicians was somewhere close to zero. She wanted a leader who would watch out for people in the “middle class,” people like her who had no one on their side. “I think McCain is going to be just like Bush the next eight years,” she said. “I don’t see how it’s going to change.” To her, Sarah Palin, a working mother close to her own age, felt more like a token choice than like a kindred spirit. “I think McCain picked her so women can relate to her, not because she’s the best person for the job,” Snodgrass said. “She’s more of a show for the American family.” Hillary Clinton had been better, but even she couldn’t fully apprehend Barbie Snodgrass’s predicament.
She remained uninspired by Barack Obama. His Convention speech had gone into detail about his policy proposals on matters like the economy and health care, which seemed tailored to attract a voter like Snodgrass, but they filled her with suspicion. His promise to rescind the Bush tax cuts for wealthier Americans struck her as incredible: “How many people do you know who make two hundred and fifty thousand dollars? What is that, five per cent of the United States? That’s a joke! If he starts at a hundred thousand, I might listen. Two hundred fifty—that’s to me like people who hit the lottery.” In fact, only two per cent of Americans make more than a quarter of a million dollars a year, but that group earns twelve per cent of the national income. Nonetheless, the circumstances of Snodgrass’s life made it impossible for her to imagine that there could possibly be enough taxable money in Obama’s upper-income category—which meant that he was being dishonest, and that she would eventually be the one to pay. “He’ll keep going down, and when it’s to people who make forty-five or fifty thousand it’s going to hit me,” she said. “I’d have to sell my home and live in a five-hundred-dollar-a-month apartment with gang bangers out in my yard, and I’d be scared to death to leave my house.”
Snodgrass reacted with equal skepticism to Obama’s proposal for expanding health care. “It scares the heck out of me,” she said. “If the employers are going to cover more, we’re going to get less in our raises. My raise every year is like a cost-of-living raise. How are they going to be able to give me more money?” The margin of error in her life was so slim, she felt, that any attempt to improve lives with ambitious new programs could only end up harming her. Obama’s idealistic language left Snodgrass cold. “He’s not saying to me how he’s going to make my life better,” she said. She wanted to hear exactly how the next President was going to remove some of the tremendous financial weight bearing down on her—reduce gas prices, cut the cost of medicine—not in the distant future but right away. A friend of hers who worked three jobs refused to support Obama on the theory that he was a Muslim, but Snodgrass said that it didn’t matter to her what race or religion the next President was, nor did the ugly tactics of the campaign have any effect other than to disgust her. What mattered was “your daily life, your daily day, job, family, what you do that keeps you from robbing the video store down the street.”
Snodgrass sat talking for much longer than she had initially offered; by the end, her words tumbled out in a plaintive rush, as if under some inner pressure. “You want somebody there who’s going to take care of us,” she said. “I’m very scared about who they put in there, because it’s either going to get a lot worse than it is or it’s going to keep going where it is, which is bad.” She almost gasped. “Just give us a break. There’s no reprieve. No reprieve.”
Until the mid-seventies, the white working class—the heart of the New Deal coalition—voted largely Democratic. Since the Carter years, the percentages have declined from sixty to forty, and this shift has roughly coincided with the long hold of the Republican Party on the White House. The white working class—a group that often speaks of itself, and is spoken of, as forgotten, marginalized, even despised—is the golden key to political power in America, and it voted overwhelmingly for George W. Bush twice, by seventeen per cent in 2000 and twenty-three per cent in 2004. Thomas Frank’s 2004 book “What’s the Matter with Kansas?” directed its indignation at the baffling phenomenon of millions of Americans voting year after year against their economic self-interest. He concluded that the Republican Party had tricked working people with a relentless propaganda campaign based on religion and morality, while Democrats had abandoned these voters to their economic masters by moving to the soft center of the political spectrum. Frank’s book remains the leading polemic about the white reaction—the title alone has, for many liberals, become shorthand for the conventional wisdom—but it is hobbled by the condescending argument that tens of millions of Americans have become victims of a “carefully cultivated derangement,” or are simply stupid.
Last year, four sociologists at the University of Arizona, led by Lane Kenworthy, released a paper that complicates Frank’s thesis. Their study followed the voting behavior of the forty-five per cent of white Americans who identify themselves as working class. Mining electoral data from the General Social Survey, they found that the decline in white working-class support for Democrats occurred in one period—from the mid-seventies until the early nineties, with a brief lull in the early eighties—and has remained well below fifty per cent ever since. But they concluded that social issues like abortion, guns, religion, and even (outside the South) race had little to do with the shift. Instead, according to their data, it was based on a judgment that—during years in which industrial jobs went overseas, unions practically vanished, and working-class incomes stagnated—the Democratic Party was no longer much help to them. “Beginning in the mid-to-late 1970s, there was increasing reason for working-class whites to question whether the Democrats were still better than the Republicans at promoting their material well-being,” the study’s authors write. Working-class whites, their fortunes falling, began to embrace the anti-government, low-tax rhetoric of the conservative movement. During Clinton’s Presidency, the downward economic spiral of these Americans was arrested, but by then their identification with the Democrats had eroded. Having earlier moved to the right for economic reasons, the Arizona study concluded, the working class stayed there because of the rising prominence of social issues—Thomas Frank’s argument. But the Democrats fundamentally lost the white working class because these voters no longer believed the Party’s central tenet—that government could restore a sense of economic security.
Such a change in party allegiance across a vast section of the electorate takes decades to achieve, and to undo. But this year should mark the beginning of a reverse migration. When will the class war ever finally drown out the culture war, if not in 2008? Under Republican rule in Washington, wages have stayed flat while income inequality has increased; the numbers of uninsured have soared; unemployment recently passed six per cent, its highest level since the early nineteen-nineties; gas and heating-oil prices have doubled, while basic food prices have gone up by fifty per cent; and the country’s financial system has come closer to collapse than at any moment since 1929. More profoundly, Republican dogma no longer offers convincing solutions, and in some cases it doesn’t even acknowledge the problems. (Income inequality has long been considered a nonissue in conservative free-market circles.) The question that Ronald Reagan asked voters to such devastating effect in 1980, when the white working class began turning away from Democrats—“Are you better off than you were four years ago?”—should, in theory, produce an equal and opposite effect this year.
This is particularly true in big, aging, economically battered swing states like Michigan, where unemployment is nearly nine per cent, and Ohio, where residents told me that a whole generation of young people is leaving the state to seek higher education and work elsewhere. A man in Brown County, along the Ohio River, in the southwestern part of the state, said that a year ago there was one foreclosure notice in the local paper each week; now the number is six or eight, and the listings for the week of September 12th announced fifty-three foreclosure sales in a county with only fifteen thousand households. In the town of Wilmington, outside Dayton, a D.H.L. facility with eight thousand workers—a third of the area’s population—is likely to close. On September 9th, the day I flew into Cincinnati, a woman named Marla Bell, attending an Obama rally near Dayton, told National Public Radio, “It almost feels like it’s a dying state.”
The next day, Governor Ted Strickland, a Democrat who remains popular in Ohio, announced a budget shortfall that would require painful spending cuts across the board. The state’s budget director, Pari Sabety, told me, “There are a lot more part-time jobs, jobs without benefits, jobs that require a broader social safety net than we currently have. We are not creating high-value jobs at a rate that can absorb people who are losing high-value jobs of the old economy.” The economic crisis, she went on, is so grave that it has created room for a renewed discussion about the role of government in people’s lives. “Here’s the opportunity before us. What’s happening is a slow-motion Katrina to economies like ours. I feel like we are where F.D.R. was.”
Obama has had particular trouble with the prized demographic group that once delivered the Presidency to Roosevelt and his successors. Anecdotally, and in polls, unusually large numbers of working-class voters seem to remain undecided or determined to sit the election out, as if they couldn’t bring themselves to vote Republican this year but couldn’t fathom taking a chance on Obama. Roger Catt, a retired farmer and warehouse worker, who lives in a small town near Eau Claire, Wisconsin, characterized the choice this way: “McCain is more of the same, and Obama is the end of life as we know it.”
Gloria Fauss, the longtime political director in Ohio for the Service Employees International Union, or S.E.I.U., which backs Obama, said, “I’m very worried. The conventional wisdom is that the economy will trump this year. I’m not so sure. The economy may override social issues this year and people still might not vote for Obama.” Fauss has spent years studying the results of polls and focus groups among Ohio voters, and she has learned that judgments about character and values can be decisive even among those who rate jobs and health care as more important than abortion. “You can’t make the assumption that because people are suffering economically and the last eight years have been downhill and things are very bleak for them—you can’t make the assumption they’ll vote Democratic. There’s just no basis for that.”
Obama understands that he is an imperfect vehicle for an already difficult message. In April, at the San Francisco fund-raiser where he damaged himself with working-class whites by delivering a speech connecting their “bitter” outlook to guns, religion, bigotry, and xenophobia, Obama also described the situation of voters like Barbie Snodgrass acutely. “In a lot of these communities in big industrial states like Ohio and Pennsylvania, people have been beaten down so long,” he said. “They feel so betrayed by government that when they hear a pitch that is premised on not being cynical about government, then a part of them just doesn’t buy it. And when it’s delivered by—it’s true that when it’s delivered by a forty-six-year-old black man named Barack Obama, then that adds another layer of skepticism.”
During the first Presidential debate, Obama spoke directly to “middle-class” economic anxieties several times, and he later attacked McCain for never even using the word. But Obama’s middle class has no face, no name, no story. Even as he becomes more specific on policy, partly in response to criticism, he still has trouble making a human connection. Bill Clinton could always employ the drawl and roguish charm of Bubba to let the working class know he was one of them, but Obama’s life story is based on upward mobility, on transcending his complex origins. There’s no readily apparent cultural identity he can fall back on—no folksy or streetwise manner he can assume—that won’t threaten more white voters than it attracts.
Gabe Kramer, the S.E.I.U.’s chief of staff in Columbus, told me, “You talk to people about the issues and the issues resonate. But what you hear people talking about on the street and on TV and radio is the other things. Is Obama like us? Does Obama share our experience of the world? Which is not the same thing as racism, but overlaps with it.” Obama, Kramer added, is “very good at talking to professionals—people who care about policy—and comes across as judicious, careful, thoughtful. But he has a harder time talking about them in a way working-class white Ohioans can relate to.”
Glouster, a coal-mining town with a population of fewer than two thousand (and falling), lies hidden amid the gentle slopes and thick woods of southeastern Ohio’s Appalachian hills. If the state is dying, Glouster was long ago left for dead. Over the past few decades, it has lost its Baptist church, grocery store, railroad depot, parking meters, four car dealerships, ten of its dozen bars, and—crucially—all but one of its deep mines. It’s become the kind of town where several generations of white families live on welfare, and marijuana is the local cash crop. I was given a tour by Bob Cotter, who is seventy-four, and Pete Morris, seventy-one, both retired from the post office. We walked in a warm drizzle along Main Street, which was nearly deserted, with a few parked cars and no pedestrians. Half the storefronts were shuttered, although a local citizens’ group had arranged hand-painted furniture and traditional quilts in the show windows of some of the vacant stores. It looked as if nothing had been built since the fifties. In the middle of town stood a prominent three-story brick building with the words “Sam & Ellen’s Wonder Bar—Home of the ‘Wonder Dog’ ” painted across an exposed side. Morris had once owned the bar before selling it to his cousin, in 1971; now it was boarded up. Farther down the street, a hotel, a restaurant, and a two-lane bowling alley had been demolished, leaving a weed-strewn lot.
Every morning at seven, Cotter and Morris had coffee at Bonnie’s Home Cooking, on Main Street across from the gas station. The menu was scrawled in Magic Marker across a whiteboard, and almost nothing cost more than five dollars. On the morning I visited, a dozen men and women came in for their coffee and eggs. One of them, a retired union coal miner, was identified to me as if he were a rare species of bird. Three people, including Morris, expressed reluctant support for Obama. The nine or ten others were roughly split between voting McCain or sitting it out.
Dave Herbert was a stocky, talkative building contractor in an Ohio State athletic jersey. At thirty-eight, he considerably lowered the average age in Bonnie’s. “I’m self-employed,” he said. “I can’t afford to be a Democrat.” Herbert was a devoted viewer of Fox News and talked in fluent sound bites about McCain’s post-Convention “bounce” and Sarah Palin’s “executive experience.” At one point, he had doubted that Obama stood a chance in Glouster. “From Bob and Pete’s generation there are a lot of racists—not out-and-out, but I thought there was so much racism here that Obama’d never win.” Then he heard a man who freely used the “ ‘n’ word” declare his support for Obama: “That blew my theory out of the water.”
A maintenance man at the nearby high school, who declined to give his name, said that he had been undecided until McCain selected Palin to be his running mate, which swung his support to Obama.
“So you’re a sexist more than a racist,” Herbert joked.
“I just think the guy Obama picked would do better if he got assassinated than McCain’s if he died of frickin’ old age in office,” the maintenance man said.
Four women of retirement age were sitting at the next table. All of them spoke warmly of Palin. “She’d fit right in with us,” Greta Jennice said. “We should invite her over.” None had a good word to say about Obama. “I think he’s a radical,” a white-haired woman who wouldn’t give her name said. “The church he went to, the people he associated with. You don’t see the media digging into that.”
“I don’t know anyone who’s for Obama,” said Jennice, a Democrat who supported Hillary Clinton and who won’t vote in November.
“If they are, they don’t say it, because it would be unpopular,” an elderly former teacher named Marcella said. That had not been true of Bill Clinton, Al Gore, or John Kerry, she added.
“I think the party-line Democrats are having a hard time with Obama,” Bobbie Dunham, a retired fourth-grade teacher, told me. When I asked if Obama’s health-care plan wouldn’t be a good thing for people in Glouster, she said, “I’ll believe it when I see it. If it’s actually happening, I’d say that’s good.” But she and the others had far more complaints about locals freeloading off public assistance than about the health-insurance industry and corporations. Dunham declared her intention to write in a vote for either Snoopy or T. Boone Pickens. “I’m not going to vote for a Republican—they’ve had their chance for the last eight years and they’ve screwed it up,” she said. “But I really just don’t trust Obama. He only says half-truths. He calls himself a Christian, but he only became one to run for office. He calls himself a black, but he’s two-thirds Arab.”
I asked where she had learned that.
“On the Internet.”
In 2002, John B. Judis and Ruy Teixeira published “The Emerging Democratic Majority,” a prophecy of Democratic political success based on the growing electoral clout of professionals, minorities, young people, and women. Although they emphasized that the Democrats couldn’t ignore the white working class, they were essentially sketching a new politics that could win without it.
Yet during the long Democratic primary fight it was precisely the white working class that kept denying Obama a lock on the nomination. The problem first became manifest in New Hampshire, a state that much of the media declared in advance to be the end of the road for Clinton. Two days after her victory, Andrew Kohut, of the Pew Research Center, published an Op-Ed in the Times about the failure of polls to predict the outcome. He had a theory: undetected racism among working-class whites. Clinton, he noted, beat Obama among whites with family incomes under fifty thousand dollars and also among those who hadn’t attended college. “Poorer, less well-educated white people refuse surveys more often than affluent, better-educated whites,” Kohut wrote. “Polls generally adjust their samples for this tendency. But here’s the problem: these whites who do not respond to surveys tend to have more unfavorable views of blacks than respondents who do the interviews.” This statistical glitch is different from the Bradley Effect, named for the black mayor of Los Angeles, Tom Bradley, who lost the California governorship in 1982 despite polls that had showed him in the lead, apparently because a small percentage of respondents would rather lie to a pollster than admit to opposing a candidate on the ground of his race. Still, the Bradley Effect and the Kohut Lacuna produce the same conclusion: a black candidate is likely to fare worse than preëlection polls would suggest.
By the spring, after Ohio, Texas, and Pennsylvania, polls showed Obama getting trounced two-to-one or more among less-educated, lower-income whites. The numbers were so stark that they inspired Clinton—whom conservative pundits had long condemned as a symbol of everything hateful to red-state America—to make herself over into a shot-and-a-beer gal. Even when Obama’s eventual victory seemed certain, he was crushed by forty-one and thirty-five percentage points in West Virginia and Kentucky—unheard-of margins for the party front-runner late in the primaries. By then, his campaign had begun to change its tactics, making the candidate’s oratory less lofty and putting him among smaller groups, in bowling alleys and veterans’ halls.
Yet the resistance remained. In April, I travelled to Inez, a town in eastern Kentucky, where McCain was scheduled to speak at the county courthouse. Afterward, I noticed a group of Clinton supporters holding signs across the tiny town’s main road, next to the Straight Talk Express. I approached a man wearing a button that said “Hillary: Smart Choice.” He was a retired state employee named J. K. Patrick.
“East of Lexington, she’ll carry seventy per cent of the primary vote,” Patrick said. “She could win the general election in Kentucky. Obama couldn’t win.” Why not? “Race. I’ve talked to people—a woman who helped run county elections last year. She said she wouldn’t vote for a black man.” He added, “There’s a lot of white people that just wouldn’t vote for a colored person. Especially older people.” Indeed, no one among the two dozen people I talked to in Inez would even consider voting for Obama. His name often evoked a sharp racial hostility that was expressed without hesitation or apology.
These were not views that many Americans had been willing to reveal to reporters. For obvious reasons, neither Obama nor McCain wants to address the conjunction of race and class in this election. The national press corps—which more and more confines its political coverage to politicians, campaign officials, strategists, and itself—has often discussed the role of race in the campaign, but the conversation is inevitably softened by euphemism. Americans accustomed to discussing race politely, or not at all, might follow the campaign without a real sense of the potency of skin color.
Patrick himself feared that Obama’s race would threaten his own security and well-being. He said that it would be only natural for a black President to avenge the historical wrongs that his people had suffered at the hands of whites. “I really don’t want an African-American as President,” he said. “I think he would put too many minorities in positions over the white race. That’s my opinion.”
Trade unionists in the Obama campaign know better than anyone that their candidate is not an easy sell with the working class, including some of their own members. This summer, the Wisconsin A.F.L.-C.I.O. sent out a brochure offering “Straight Answers to Real Questions . . . About Barack Obama”: Is he a Christian? Was he sworn in on the Bible? Was he born in America? Does he place his hand over his heart when he says the pledge? The S.E.I.U., whose membership includes prison workers, put out a flyer in Ohio that insisted, “Barack Obama Won’t Take Away Your Gun . . . but John McCain Will Take Away Your Union.”
Lisa Hetrick, a registered nurse and the secretary-treasurer at the S.E.I.U.’s regional headquarters in Columbus, fumed that her son was supporting McCain because of national security, and that her husband was wobbling because of firearms. Like everyone else at the office, Hetrick had a story about a racist colleague, relative, or friend. “Oh God, it’s terrible,” she said. “I don’t know what we’re going to do! They’re rednecks.” She mentioned a prison worker and union member down in Chillicothe who, four years ago, had berated her for not enlisting him and his colleagues to volunteer for Kerry; when she made sure to call him this time, he told her that he wouldn’t work for Obama, and she understood the reason to be race.
Hetrick put me in touch with Tom Guyer, Jr., a parole officer in Lorain, on Lake Erie. A Democrat with “Republican views” about some issues and a fondness for Bill O’Reilly, Guyer confessed to being undecided. He had no enthusiasm for McCain or Palin, but, he said, “The more I hear about Obama and some of his—I don’t know if character is the right way to describe it, but maybe he’s not ready to lead.” This idea had been the theme of McCain’s August campaign ads. Guyer brought up something that he had just heard on the radio. Three days earlier, on September 7th, in an interview with George Stephanopoulos on the ABC program “This Week,” Obama had said, “You’re absolutely right that John McCain has not talked about my Muslim faith.” From the context, it was clear that Obama was simply compressing “the idea that my faith is Muslim” into fewer words, but for anyone already harboring doubts the phrase was suspect, and Guyer wondered why Obama would say such a thing.
One evening, in the basement of S.E.I.U. headquarters, I met a group of members—nursing-home workers, janitors, hospital staff—who had just returned from canvassing unionists door to door in mixed-race Columbus neighborhoods. Their score had been encouraging: out of a hundred and six contacts that day, sixty-nine had been solidly for Obama and only seven solidly against. They told me that race hardly ever came up, but other sensitive matters that might stand in for race sometimes did. Jacynth Stewart, a Caribbean-born woman who had come from New York, where she is a food-service worker at Beth Israel Medical Center, to help the Ohio campaign, encountered one woman who believed that Obama was Muslim. “Didn’t you see ‘Obama Revealed’ on CNN Sunday night?” Stewart asked, and then she explained Obama’s life story—the Kenyan father he hardly knew, the white mother from Kansas. After ten minutes, the woman at the door declared that she would vote for Obama. Another woman had read in a mass e-mail that Obama wouldn’t allow the American flag to be displayed on the tail of Air Force One. She was harder to win over.
In the static-filled bedlam of viral e-mails, cable-news square-offs, mangled media clips, fake-news Web sites, political ads, and malicious rumors, with a new lie popping up somewhere every hour, the Obama campaign faces the nearly impossible task of putting out stories before they spread across a political landscape that is often dry tinder for them. In Eau Claire, Tom Giffey, the editorial-page editor at the Leader-Telegram, described the profusion of cut-and-paste e-mails that his page has received during the campaign. “In the old days, there were Republican or Democratic newspapers, but there was more of a level playing field and both sides had to argue from the same facts,” Giffey said. “Now we’re in an age when you can simply reinforce your own viewpoints. And it’s hard to have a discussion of the facts when you’re dealing with two separate sets of facts—two sets of talking points that came down from on high. With the Internet, all of us were going to be content producers, but it’s become an echo chamber.”
As Dave Herbert, the building contractor at Bonnie’s Home Cooking, put it, “Partisanship has crept into every crease in this country.” In 2008, a customer at a breakfast spot in Appalachia, or a worker at a union office in Columbus, is able to repeat the latest dubious campaign sound bites within days, if not hours. Everyone hates the media, and everyone sounds like a talking head.
One night in Glouster, sixteen people gathered in the modest living room of an elderly woman named Helen Walker, whom everyone called Babe. Walker had invited her friends and neighbors over to meet the Obama organizer in the area—a young woman from Arizona named Kristin Gwinn. It was clear that not all of the guests were wholeheartedly committed to the cause. Pete Morris was there because Bob Cotter had asked him to come, and Bob Cotter was there because Babe Walker had asked him to explain to the organizer why he wouldn’t vote in November.
“I think the Democratic Party has kind of walked away from me,” Cotter said. The issue that had alienated him from his party was its refusal to take a strong stand against illegal immigration. “It is not just Obama,” he went on. “The élite of the Democratic Party, the Kennedys, the Clintons, they’re pushing this thing.” Cotter had contacted everyone from Howard Dean, the Democratic Party chairman, to the Athens County Democratic Party about the cost of illegal immigration to the country, without satisfaction: “Hell, nobody cares.”
Gwinn, the organizer, responded earnestly, “The fact that there are two hundred staffers like me out here having this conversation with you means somebody cares. And I’ll have this conversation with you every day, if you want.”
Cotter said that abstaining in November still felt like his most potent option. “How are we going to get them to pay attention to us, if we don’t send a message?” he asked.
Travis Post, a gangly twenty-two-year-old, mentioned that he had worked with immigrants on a landscaping crew. “These are human beings you’re talking about,” he said. “They come here and work hard seeking a better life just like our ancestors did. For us just to send them back? That’ll never work.”
“There are a lot of other things affecting your friends and neighbors here in Glouster,” the organizer told Cotter. “If people who typically vote Democratic don’t vote at all, we’re handing this election to John McCain.”
“I sent three letters to Howard Dean,” Cotter said. They had gone unanswered. “The Party wants my money and my vote. After that, they don’t care. I think the Democrats are walking away from us people here.” Illegal immigrants were rare in southeast Ohio, a sort of phantom menace; Cotter’s awareness of the issue had mainly come through the media. Cotter, a mild, self-deprecating man, said with a chuckle, “I’m going to vote for Lou Dobbs, that’s who I’m going to vote for. Anyway, that’s my view. Maybe I’m just a turd in the punch bowl tonight.”
Later, Cotter told me that he was a lifelong Democrat. “I do have liberal views,” he said. “I think one of these days health care is going to have to be covered by the government. None of us want to see somebody lying out on the curb dying. Hillary was ahead of her time.” He had grown up on stories of how the New Deal had saved his family, who were miners. “I can remember the hard times, I can remember the things the Democrats have done for the working people. I can remember when rent was ten dollars a month and my parents lay awake in bed wondering how we were going to pay for it. Where do people like me go? I don’t think anybody cares what we think. I just wish our party would pay more attention to people down here in the grass roots.”
As the guests drank sodas and ate pigs in a blanket in Babe Walker’s living room, Gwinn asked for volunteers to make phone calls and go door to door. There were not many takers. “Local validators are very important,” she said, with urgency. “A lot of people are secretly for Barack, but they’re afraid to go public. You know everyone in this town. So if there’s anybody out there with misinformation, you have to find them and say, ‘It’s not true. He’s not a Muslim.’ ” Seeing an Obama sign in a neighbor’s yard could make a huge difference in a place like Glouster, she said.
As I drove around southern Ohio, I saw only half a dozen Obama yard signs. Some people told me that the campaign’s state headquarters had been slow to get them out to the far-flung counties; it was as if they were afraid that the signs would be torn down or defaced.
Babe Walker agreed to make phone calls, as long as she didn’t have to say “ratty things” about McCain.
“Barack’s father was from where? Kenya?” a seventy-one-year-old woman named Karla Cominsky suddenly asked. “Would that be any part of the world that was part of slavery?”
Gwinn explained that Obama had grown up mainly in Hawaii.
“My great-great-grandfather and grandmother came here from Morgan County,” Cominsky continued. “And guess who they brought with them? A little slave girl named Dinah. She was buried in the family plot. They felt she was one of the family.”
A campaign intern from Ohio University, in the nearby town of Athens, explained, “Most slaves came from western Africa, where the ships could just take them and go. Kenya’s from the eastern part.”
There was an awkward silence: the point of the woman’s story had not been immediately clear. Afterward, it occurred to me that this was how people in towns like Glouster were accustoming themselves to the thought of a black President.
With the media coverage a cacophonous standoff, and organizations like unions vanishing year by year, the Democratic skeptics in Ohio needed someone they knew and trusted to vouch for Obama. At S.E.I.U. headquarters, I spoke with Donna Steele, a home health aide working on the Obama campaign, about how she would make the case to Barbie Snodgrass. She said, “I’ve been where she is. I know exactly what it’s like.” A few years ago, Steele had been working in the homes of two separate clients, sixteen hours a day, seven days a week, sometimes past midnight. “I didn’t know what day it was. I was numb. I fell asleep at traffic lights on my way home—woke up when someone honked.” Steele, who had soft, startled pale-blue eyes and a frizzy reddish-blond perm, described the “weird spiral” into which she descended: “You’re afraid of change, you just keep doing what you’ve been doing. You’re afraid if you do anything different, things will get worse. You get so negative that you don’t want anything to change—you think everything would be worse than this. You don’t want anything to rock the boat. One false move and you’re down.” Eventually, she said, this mentality would make Snodgrass physically sick.
Steele went on, “I’d tell her she doesn’t have to be alone. There’s other people who’ve been down the same road. She just needs to look at the issues and it’s real simple. ‘What do you got to lose? What are you doing now? Voting for Obama and pulling that lever isn’t going to make you any less tired than you was before.’ ” With McCain, health benefits would be taxed and oil prices would go up, whereas with Obama, “I think gas prices are going to miraculously go down because of his policies.” Steele used almost mystical terms to describe the process by which Obama could transform Snodgrass’s life. Her language was not so different from that of conservative Christians, except that Steele’s community of believers was organized around class, not religion. “If she doesn’t have some infrastructure”—like a union—“that can touch her, she doesn’t have a chance,” Steele said. “She’s afraid of change, but if she doesn’t demand change she’s not going to make it. When something good happens, faith has a positive effect, the aura of it. It’s called hope, faith, and it’s change, and you get enough people together and it’s massive change.”
One day in Athens, I met Latisha Price. She was a big-boned blonde of thirty-seven, with a raw complexion, an Appalachian twang, and a forthright, vulnerable manner. “I come from a very bad background,” she said within minutes of meeting me. Her mother had been an alcoholic, and Price had grown up in a series of foster homes, attending fourteen different schools. From the age of fifteen, she had been on her own, falling in with a series of abusive men, about whom she didn’t want to say much. At twenty, she got a job in a nursing home; she still works there, as a cook and a nursing assistant.
“I noticed the union people would stand up for themselves,” she recalled of her early days on the job. “And they seemed to be like a small family, a voice. I never had that. That’s how I got active, and got so gutsy and eager to always jump in—I learned that from the union. When I first started, I was like a little mouse in the corner because I had so much drama in my life. I was too caught up in staying alive.” Price, who now lives on a farm with her boyfriend, thirty guns, and every kind of domestic animal except pigs, runs the S.E.I.U.’s Obama office in Athens, with two graduates of Smith College working for her.
Price and I drove down Route 33 from Athens, into Meigs County and a town called Pomeroy, which once had been a loading dock for coal barges and now lay prostrate and blighted along the Ohio River. Across the river was West Virginia. Inasmuch as Price had a home town, Pomeroy was it.
“Meigs County is one of the worst,” Price said as we drove. “We’re going to a racist area—I won’t lie to you. I have heard, pardon my French, ‘Get the fuck off my porch, I’m not voting for no nigger.’ ” A few days earlier, she had twice been chased away by dogs. Price canvassed for Obama alone day after day, with a can of Mace in the car. She had learned not to wear an Obama T-shirt. People didn’t react well—they seemed to take it as someone telling them whom to vote for.
She parked on a street that ran along the foot of the rock face looming over Pomeroy. It was early afternoon. There was no sign of life on the street except for two boxers in a yard, unleashed and barking at us. Price told me that their collars would register a shock if the dogs crossed a buried wire.
“I’m not scared of my home town,” Price said. “I’m a pretty tough girl. Gotta be.”
She had a list of voters—Republicans, Democrats, and Independents—and we began to go door to door. Some of the residences were boarded shut, some were trailers with appliances lying out front. One or two were large, lavishly decaying houses with overgrown gardens. A front porch was sealed off by fallen branches.
A middle-aged woman in a nightdress peered out of a screen door. Price began her pitch.
“If the election was held today, have you decided who you’ll vote for?”
The woman hesitated, then turned away to speak to someone inside. A man’s voice called out, “We’re not voting this year.”
Price noted this on her sheet and thanked the woman.
She didn’t leave the sidewalk to speak to the owner of the two snarling dogs. He said that he would probably vote for McCain, because he was a veteran. A shirtless young man in his underwear, who seemed to have just woken up, said that he was an Obama supporter and knew a few others. There was an AIDS ribbon tattooed on his right shoulder. “The ignorant ones that don’t vote, they say Obama’s a nigger and he’s going to be assassinated,” the young man said. “That is classic Meigs County.” Farther down the street, two women and a little girl—three generations of a family—were getting out of a car. The grandmother said that she was undecided. She thought that McCain was wrong on the war, but she wasn’t sure about Obama. Price left her with some literature and her phone number.
At the door of a trailer, Price knocked, then knocked again. Finally, the screen door opened a few inches. A white-haired, white-skinned ghost of an old woman identified herself as Betty.
“If the election was held today, have you decided who you’ll vote for?”
Recently, people in Ohio have told me that voters there have started to shift toward Obama. Gabe Kramer, of the S.E.I.U., said that, after the first Presidential debate and amid the financial crisis, union members seemed to find Obama’s ideas and manner more persuasive than before. But even if Obama wins he will still have to overcome the deep skepticism of struggling Americans. For Barbie Snodgrass, who has a modest amount of stock in a retirement plan, the meltdown has turned this election into a make-or-break one, tipping her away from McCain without convincing her that she can trust Obama. “I’m going to have to pray to the holy gods that whoever I vote for is going to be honest and try to get us out of this mess,” she said.
In Pomeroy, it had been a relatively good afternoon. As we drove back to Athens, Price said, “This job is a challenge, and I like that, but it’s also sad and depressing. You see all these poor people that don’t have anything, but they’re still supporting the wrong party that’s the reason they don’t have anything. I’ve canvassed single mothers with three kids, and they still don’t see what’s wrong with the Republican Party.” She thought for a moment. “Obama’s one of us,” she said. “He comes from a blue-collar family. But people don’t really see that.” ♦