Political allegiances are as divided as football loyalties in the country’s heartland, home to deeply depressed economies, middle America values and profound doubts about whether either Barack Obama or John McCain will be able to reverse the worst financial turmoil this country has seen since the Great Depression.
"I don’t want four more years of Republicans, let alone eight," said independent Craig Phipps, echoing nearly everyone else decked out in Ohio State University gear during a pre-game tailgate party. All but one in this group agreed when Phipps said: "McCain is no different than President Bush."
Across the parking lot, under a Purdue University tent, it was McCain who was the favorite — by default, it seems. Obama, although a fellow Midwesterner, "doesn’t understand our values at all — even though Chicago’s in the Midwest," said Tami Lee. She’s a Democrat who once backed Obama but later became disenchanted with him.
Not far out from Election Day, weighing their choices in the midst of an economic crisis, there were still plenty of undecided voters in this swath of tailgaters, many of whom echo the doubts of Shannon Wells: "I’m not convinced that either one of them can change anything."
This is how many distill their choices: Obama, a first-term Democratic senator from liberal Chicago who is 47 years old and would be the country’s first black president. McCain, a 72-year-old, four-term Republican senator running to succeed an unpopular president when most people think the country is headed in the wrong direction. Neither one, it seems to these voters, offers much hope for an economic turnaround.
The political winds strongly favor Obama, though Republicans and Democrats alike say McCain still has a shot. Most national polls show Obama with a lead of varying degrees but some, including an Associated Press-GfK survey, show the race a dead heat.
Interviews on a recent weekend with more than two dozen people in the economically ailing Midwestern battlegrounds of Ohio and Indiana, which lean more conservative than liberal, showed that the contest still is volatile.
Voters express the same doubts about the candidates as they have all year — that Obama is not the right fit, and that McCain represents a continuation of Bush. Those who have settled on a candidate explain their preferences by laying out what they don’t like about the other guy. And, those who are undecided say they’re turned off by both.
Anxiety is palpable as many people wonder aloud if anyone knows how to handle the economic crisis.
New Castle, Ind., has seen better times. Boarded-up storefronts in this factory-and-farming town attest to that.
Amber Hall is about to lose her job as a payroll supervisor at a plant that’s closing. "We’re in real trouble," she said as she pumped $23.01 in gas. "My concern with either one of the candidates is whether they can do enough to turn it around."
She doesn’t ascribe to a political party and said she’ll probably vote Obama for one reason: "I think we need something different. McCain is along the same lines as Bush."
Down the road, eating at the Bob Evans, the Marckels, who call themselves conservatives and abortion opponents, were siding with McCain. They don’t want to risk an Obama presidency.
"He’s untested," Les Marckel said. Wife Cindy Marckel was turned off by anti-McCain literature from Obama filling her mailbox, and said: "I can’t trust somebody like that. That raises serious suspicions."
In Wilmington, Ohio, "Help Wanted" signs hanging from businesses belie the city’s expected job losses when shipping-company DHL closes its local hub.
Waitress Deanie Pendall, who claims no party affiliation, lamented fewer tips as she plugged quarters into a laundromat washing machine and said she had little faith that anyone could fix "the mess." Put her down as a likely McCain voter if only because of running mate Sarah Palin and her discomfort with Obama.
"There’s just something about him," she said of Obama.
"You know when you see someone for the first time and you just get a feeling?" Pendall said, though quickly added that the issue wasn’t his skin color.
Democrat John Dumolt said Obama’s race is an issue for some folks in southern Ohio, though not for him: "It’s time that the country sees everyone as equal, and I think he can do the job."
He’s backing Obama.
Yet, Dumolt, who lost his 13-year job "swinging a hammer" for a homebuilder and now is a truck driver, was uncertain that Obama really could do anything to strengthen the economy — nor any president for that matter. Climbing back on his Harley Davidson after fueling up, he said with a shrug: "It’s bad everywhere."
It’s no wonder voters sound so sour about the country — and the candidates themselves.
Since early September, Wall Street crumbled, stocks fluctuated, government intervened, layoffs rose and money was siphoned from people’s retirement accounts. Voters depressed with the direction of the country became even more dispirited. Just 9 percent in a recent Gallup survey said the country was on the right track.
At the same time, Obama and McCain have been working relentlessly to plant negative impressions of one another in voters’ minds.
McCain has sought to stoke voter unease about Obama, tagging him as the Senate’s most liberal member while painting him as an unknown and unacceptable option. He’s also raised Obama’s links to questionable characters, including 1960s radical William Ayers, a founder of the anti-war Weather Underground.
"Who is Barack Obama?" McCain has asked. Palin’s answer: "This is not a man who sees America like you and I see America."
The Democrat is countering with an ad that bespeaks Americana. It shows pictures of him with his white mother and grandparents, and talks of the values that shaped his life. "Hard work, honesty, self-reliance, respect for other people, kindness, faith. That’s the country I believe in," Obama says in the ad.
Obama continues to cast McCain as no different from Bush. The argument has resonated even more since the economic crisis put the president’s policies back in the spotlight. "We just can’t afford more of the same," Obama’s ads say.
He also has repeatedly asserted that McCain has been unsteady in his response to the crisis, saying: "I don’t think we can afford that kind of erratic and uncertain leadership in these uncertain times."
McCain’s rejoinder: "I am not George Bush." He’s also now running an ad that says: "The last eight years haven’t worked very well, have they? I’ll make the next four better."
Listening to tailgaters at the Ohio State-Purdue game was like watching each candidate’s TV commercials.
At the Herderick family’s spot — amid chicken sizzling on the grill, beer chilling in coolers and a sea of Buckeye scarlet and gray — all but one person backed Obama.
"He is clearly a Midwesterner with Midwestern values. And McCain has shown himself to be erratic," said Ed Herderick, 25, a graduate student and a Democrat.
Tim Herderick, 50, a flight attendant and an independent, lamented his thinning pension and said: "We had eight years of Republicans and look what they got us into."
A lifelong Republican, Katie Herderick, the family matriarch at 78, explained why she’s breaking with her party: "I just don’t like McCain" and Palin wouldn’t be a good president if needed.
Political sentiments — as well as team allegiances — were just the opposite in a nearby tent, where most people talked of supporting McCain as they snacked on deviled eggs, bags of chips and a vegetable tray.
"It’s more about Republican Party values than McCain himself," said Republican Mark Iiames, 31, decked out in Purdue blue and gold. Of Obama, he said: "I don’t know that I’ve heard or seen enough of him to say whether he’s truly in touch with Midwestern values."
Lee, a 40-year-old teacher, voted for Obama during the primary but came to believe he couldn’t relate to heartland voters when he said that Pennsylvania voters frustrated with the economy "cling" to guns and religion. Now, she said: "I’m really voting for Palin."
Of the crew, only independent Marie Budd, a 31-year-old teacher, said she was willing to choose Obama.
"Why not?" she said. "I’m ready for a change. I’m ready for a new path."