Democrats find fertile ground in must-win Ohio


A grim local economy appears to aid Obama in this crucial state, writes Denis Stauntonin Columbus, Ohio

ALL ACROSS the Oval, the main common space at Ohio State University in Columbus, small groups of students were this week registering voters, selling T-shirts and chalking messages on the pavement in support of Barack Obama.

The student volunteers were not working on their own, however, but were under the constant supervision of a squad of unsmiling young campaign operatives, who monitored every detail, right down to the chalk drawing of a logo that would be worn away by the next day.

Amid all the Obama activity stood a single table promoting John McCain, manned by Chris Grewe, a political science major at the university.

"We've had people walk by and laugh and give us ugly looks," he told me. "But it's mostly good-humoured and we're laid back. We don't try to stop people to talk; we just let people come to us."

There's nothing laid back about the Obama campaign in Ohio, a state both parties have long regarded as a must-win in presidential elections. During the past 100 years, no Republican has won the White House without winning Ohio and just two Democrats have done so - Franklin D Roosevelt in 1944 and John F Kennedy in 1960.

Last week alone, 6500 Obama volunteers made 443,000 phone calls in Ohio and knocked on 391,000 doors. The Democrat has 89 field offices in the state and more than 300 paid staff, second only to Florida. Obama has more staff in Florida than McCain has in the rest of the country.

"I've never seen a ground operation like the Obama campaign has," says Jim Hallett, who has been covering Ohio politics for the Columbus Dispatch for almost 30 years. "They're just everywhere."

Ohio was the scene of Hillary Clinton's second comeback in the Democratic primary campaign and Obama won only five of the state's 88 counties.

Cities like Cleveland and Youngstown in northern Ohio, which have been at the epicentre of American job losses, are fertile ground for any Democratic candidate and Obama appeals to the educated, affluent voters around Columbus, the only big city in the state that has seen its population grow in recent years.

The southwest, around Cincinnati, is a Republican stronghold, however, more like a southern state in its conservative outlook. The Appalachian southeast, the poorest part of the state, changes with almost every election.

"Southeast Ohio is a swing area of this state because voters down here are always angry because their economic lot never improves," says Hallett.

With the second-highest unemployment rate in the US, one person in 10 on food stamps and one child in three on free or reduced-cost meals, Ohio has suffered more than almost any other state from the decline of American manufacturing.

"Ohio has been stuck in a recession for the last eight to 10 years," says Tim Burga at the AFL-CIO union headquarters in downtown Columbus.

"When you lose your production-oriented economy, you lose your way of life. It's finally come to a head." The unions are targeting their members with phone calls, mail shots and face-to-face canvassing, often addressing the issue of Obama's race directly.

"We're telling them, if you have any issues regarding skin colour, get over it," says Burga.

Despite its economic difficulties, Ohio remains a centre-right state and Republicans believe that they have a more focused field operation in the state.

Using data from public sources and buying information from credit card companies and market tracking agencies, the party has up to 200 separate pieces of information about every voter.

"What type of magazines you read, what type of car you own - that information is out there for people," says John McClelland at the Republican state headquarters.

Organisations like the National Rifle Association and pro-life groups share their membership lists and Republicans maintain that they have fine-tuned their campaign to the point that they don't waste resources contacting voters who cannot be persuaded.

Democrats are taking a different approach, seeking to expand beyond their base by picking off voters in Republican rural and suburban areas.

"It's having a snowball effect as we create a neighbour-to-neighbour campaign," says Tom Reynolds from the Obama campaign.

"We know their voting history, their age and demographics. We use every piece of data there is to target every voter." Ohio Republicans have accused the state official with responsibility for elections, who is a Democrat, of turning a blind eye to massive voter registration fraud. Out of 666,000 new registrations, more than 200,000 were inconsistent with driver's licence and social security records.

Hallett believes that, despite the claims, this year's election will be smoother."There's a big difference between voter registration fraud and voter fraud," he says.

"You can register Mickey Mouse but Mickey Mouse is not going to vote and if he does, he'll be caught."