Four years ago, Clark County, Ohio, voted Republican instead of Democratic, as it had in 2000, thumbing its collective nose at John Kerry and giving President Bush enough votes to win Ohio and thus re-election.
The county was deemed so vital that a British newspaper, The Guardian, urged its readers to write letters to undecided voters in Clark County, urging them to consider the international repercussions of electing the right president. (The letter-writing campaign was somewhat of a disaster, leading The Guardian to drop Operation Clark County after targeted voters starting writing back with pointed suggestions on what the newspaper could better do with its time.)
No Republican has won the presidency without winning Ohio since 1860 when Abraham Lincoln won. For the past 100 years, the winner in Ohio went to the White House 24 out of 26 times. Only two Democrats, Franklin D. Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy, won the White House but lost Ohio. In 2004, Kerry and Bush and their running mates traveled to Ohio 82 times between the March primary and the election.
Today, voters in pivotal Clark County are struggling to figure out how to vote. One certain sign: There are ubiquitous yard signs for local and state candidates; there are surprisingly few for either Obama-Biden or McCain-Palin.
Despite growing concerns about Sarah Palin’s credentials to be vice president (and frequent reminders by Democrats that one out of three vice presidents eventually becomes president), in Clark County Palin still is hot. McCain is not. Questions about Obama still are legion, but in Ohio he is leading McCain, 50 percent to 42 percent, according to a new Quinnipiac University poll. Nonetheless, Ohio is still considered skirting the margin of error, and both sides are fighting hard for the state.
The financial meltdown and collapse of Wall Street have chilled voters to the marrow. Springfield, once a farm implements capital of the world, has become a poster child for the Rust Belt. It is fighting to remake itself a retirement Mecca as a regional health care provider, but for-sale signs litter its neighborhoods and ads offering cherished pets for sale fill the classified newspaper columns as owners find their dogs and cats too expensive to feed. The county was hit hard by the remnants of Hurricane Ike, with some homes out of power for more than a week and yard debris still lining some streets.
The county has been losing population since 1970, declining from 157,000 to 144,000. The median annual household income in 2004 was $40,800, compared with $43,400 for the state of Ohio, and only slightly higher than it was in 2000.
Interest in the election is high. Applications for absentee ballots are much higher than in 2004; on the first day it was possible to vote early, there was a line.
And how do Clark County and Ohio, which preferred Bush in 2004, rate him now? His approval rating is an abysmal 24 percent; his name rarely even comes up in political conversations. It’s almost as if voters are surprised he is still president. But whether it is fair or not, undecided voters are tending more each day to link McCain to the nation’s current rash of staggering problems, especially on the economy. By almost 20 percentage points, Ohioans overall do not like the administration’s $700 billion bailout plan.
But, as elsewhere, voters here are holding their breath, waiting for an October surprise that could change election dynamics yet again. "I’m too old for such a roller-coaster election. You wake up in the morning, and everything is all topsy-turvy again," said one woman sorting through two-for-the-price-of-one packages of chicken breasts at her local grocery store. "Truth is, I don’t think any of ’em make much of a difference."
Four years ago, she said she had four Bush-Cheney signs in her yard. This year she has rejected efforts of both Republicans and Democrats to put signs on her property.
(Scripps Howard columnist Ann McFeatters has covered the White House and national politics since 1986. E-mail amcfeatters(at)nationalpress.com.)