Al Edmondson is worried about the election. His “Earn My Vote” Facebook page and YouTube channel feature interviews with local politicians filmed at A Cut Above the Rest, the five-chair barbershop he owns in Columbus, Ohio, its walls decorated with scenes from African-American history. “I take out my tablet and ask them, ‘What are you going to do to help our neighborhoods?’” Edmondson says. “We hold them accountable.”
A veteran of the first Gulf War who still wears the high-and-tight fade, Edmondson’s whole being rebels at the idea of remaining on the sidelines. “I just held a big back-to-school rally about health care. We offered blood-pressure screenings for families. Taught young people to do hands-on CPR.” In August, “we had a basketball game between rival high schools. To get a ticket, you had to be registered to vote.”
In 2008, Edmondson was part of the massive get-out-the-vote effort that gave Barack Obama a 100,000-vote lead in Columbus—a margin that increased by 17,700 votes four years later, when Obama won Ohio by just 103,000 votes. But this year Edmondson doesn’t see the same excitement—or organization. While he’s as active as ever, his customers are another story. “They’re not gonna say it, but a lot of them… they’re gonna sit at home.”
I hear the same worry on the other side of town. “If you asked me two weeks ago, I was so confident,” says Anne Jewel. “But I live in an upper-middle-class part of Columbus, and there’s one Hillary sign on my block. Just one.” In Cleveland, Caitlin Johnson, cofounder of Clevelanders for Public Transit, tells me that in 2008 and ’12, “Obama’s people were everywhere. It just isn’t the same.” In Cincinnati, Robert Miles, chairman of Communities United for Action, a neighborhood group, says, “In 2012, you saw a lot of canvassers. I haven’t seen that this time. Instead, a lot of younger people give you the argument that voting isn’t worth it.”
In Ohio, as elsewhere, Clinton faces two principal opponents. One of them is Donald Trump. The other is despair.
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Ohio gave Hillary Clinton two primary victories, and her husband won the state in 1992 and ’96. But in this year’s general election, she’s in trouble. On paper, Ohio should still be Clinton country. Yet as David Pepper, chairman of the Ohio Democratic Party, admits, “Everyone’s been watching her postconvention lead unwind.” Ahead by five points in August, Clinton has been chasing Trump in Ohio since early September—when she consigned half of his supporters to “a basket of deplorables,” only to briefly become a basket case herself a few days later, after she was filmed stumbling into a van leaving a 9/11 memorial service in New York.
Clinton’s health recovered, and she kept Trump on the defensive at their first debate. But her campaign here remains in critical condition, prompting claims that Ohio no longer matters or that she’s written the state off. In a memo meant to reassure supporters, campaign manager Robby Mook pointed out that unlike Trump, Clinton has “many paths” to victory without Ohio—a state that didn’t appear on her travel schedule for nearly a month.
Campaign expenditures, however, tell a different story. Bloomberg reports Clinton spending more on TV ads here than anywhere apart from Florida and Pennsylvania. She’s booked $6 million in ads for Cleveland–Akron (compared to $270,000 for Trump) and over $4 million in Cincinnati (versus $394,000 for Trump.) “A lot of money,” Time observed, to spend on a lost cause. Surrogates, too, suggest that Clinton is still fighting for Ohio. In the wake of her pneumonia, Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren both visited the state. Her game plan here is simple: “If we re-energize the Obama coalition—young people, progressive whites, minority voters—we win,” Pepper tells me.
And if they don’t? I spent a week driving from Cleveland in the northeast to Cincinnati in the southwest, talking to activists, party officials, Trump and Clinton volunteers, and swing voters. I learned two things: Hillary Clinton is not Barack Obama. And her troubles in Ohio are not exclusive to her—or to the state.
Everywhere you go in Ohio, there are reminders of a prosperous past: John Roebling’s gorgeous bridge spanning the Ohio River in Cincinnati; the ruins of Daniel Burnham’s Union Station in Columbus; Cleveland’s Terminal Tower, once the second-tallest building in the world; the Rubbermaid outlet in Wooster, relic of a company whose plant shut down in 2004 after Wal-Mart switched to a cheaper Chinese supplier.
And the entire city of Youngstown. “Forbes called it ‘the fastest-dying city’ in America,” says Kirk Noden, executive director of the Ohio Organizing Collaborative, who grew up there. From a peak population of some 170,000 in the 1930s, the eastern Ohio city now has barely 65,000 inhabitants. Although GM still builds the Chevy Cruze in Lordstown, about 20 minutes away, Youngstown never recovered from the demise of the US steel industry. When the Youngstown Sheet & Tube Company closed in the 1970s, says Noden, “there was an amazing organizing effort—a plan to do a community co-op. All we needed was federal loan guarantees.” Jimmy Carter backed the plan—and then changed his mind. “We could have had Mondragon [the huge Basque worker-owned cooperative] in Youngstown. Imagine how history would have been shifted!” Since then, he says, “Democrats at every turn have gone down the other path. You can’t sell out people forever and not have that come back on you.”
Eight years ago, Clinton got 50,000 votes in Mahoning County, home to Youngstown, clobbering Obama. In this year’s primary, she carried the county with just 21,000 votes. Where did her voters go? Trump got 17,000 votes in Mahoning. In May, The Columbus Dispatch reported that “three times as many Democrats became Republicans in Ohio’s primary as vice versa.”
Clinton’s baggage on trade—from her husband’s push for NAFTA to her own oscillations on the Trans-Pacific Partnership—has won her few friends among Ohio’s working class. Her admission that “we’re going to put a lot of coal miners and coal companies out of business”—intended to show empathy but coming out horribly callous—will cost her not just in eastern Ohio’s Appalachian region, but in Pennsylvania and West Virginia, too.
At the local Republican headquarters in Wooster, about 80 miles west, I come across John O’Brien, a Long Island transplant who used to be a union rep with Local 66 of the Laborers’ Union. “Worked 31 years in heavy construction. I did my time in hell,” he says. Today, O’Brien is doing a brisk business in Trump lawn signs. “Take a Portman sign, too. Gotta protect your Second Amendment,” he urges visitors.
As George W. Bush’s trade representative, Rob Portman, the incumbent GOP senator, helped negotiate the Central American Free Trade Agreement. Like Clinton, he also supported NAFTA and the TPP—until he, too, changed his mind on the latter. But after $30 million in negative ads paid for by the Koch brothers and the NRA, Portman’s Democratic opponent, former governor Ted Strickland—a vocal critic of unfair trade deals who voted against NAFTA as a congressman—went from nine points up in the race to 14 points behind. Strickland’s own ads, which tie Portman to Trump, haven’t had much effect.
“Forty percent of the guys in my garage are considering voting Trump,” says Anshel Epstein, a Cleveland bus driver and member of the Amalgamated Transit Union, which backed Bernie Sanders.
At a Trump rally in Canton in mid-September, it’s clear that Clinton will never reach some of these voters. Bob Patram, a retired electrical engineer from Chagrin Falls wearing an “I’m a Deplorable” T-shirt, explains his support for Trump with “Hillary’s a crook”—a sentiment presumably shared by the woman sitting next to me at the rally in a “Hillary’s Lies Matter” T-shirt.
Thanks to Clinton’s scorn for his “deplorables,” Trump is on unfamiliar territory this night: the high ground. He, too, evokes past glory: “It used to be cars were made in Flint, and you couldn’t drink the water in Mexico. Now the cars are made in Mexico, and you can’t drink the water in Flint.” When Trump vows that if he’s elected, Apple will make iPhones and computers “inside of the United States, not in China,” 6,000 people stand and cheer.
Do they really think that all it would take is a vote for Trump and “American cars will travel the roads. American planes will fill the skies. American ships will patrol the seas. American hands will rebuild this nation”? I ask Debbie Doll, a blond woman who stands out among the crowd in her green-foam Statue of Liberty hat. “This country’s hurting right now,” she says, moving swiftly, as such conversations often do, to the topic of race. “My neighbor just had her ninth baby. She’s never worked. They need to get away from the free stuff.”
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The Roosevelt Coffeehouse in Columbus serves up “good coffee for good,” pledging to fight “the injustices of hunger, unclean water, and human trafficking” with the proceeds from its drip, V60, and Chemex brews. “If Hillary gets elected, I can live,” says Damian Sutton, a senior business major at Ohio State. “If Donald Trump gets elected, it’s the end-time. Which is funny, because I typically lean more conservative.”
His friend Joey Belczak says he’s going the other way: “I think I’ll vote for Trump. But I would have voted for Sanders. I very, very much do not support Hillary Clinton. [With Trump,] I’m willing to look past the things that are not right. I don’t know what Clinton is up to. I don’t trust her. At least I know what I’m getting with Trump.”
On Saturday afternoon, I watch Elizabeth Warren light up a crowd of 400, mostly students, at the OSU Union. Calling the TPP a trade deal “that will leave workers eating dirt,” while dismissing Trump as “a twisted bully who can’t fight his own fights.… A selfish low-life who puts his own interest ahead of everyone and everything else,” Warren is on a tear. Her potted history of boom-and-bust from the 1790s to the New Deal might be the best speech I’ve heard all year. She’s having a good time, admitting “I could do this all day” and grinning when the crowd cheers. But she hardly mentions Clinton.
At Clinton’s Shaker Square field office in Cleveland, Sandra Walker, a retired judge, tries to recruit volunteers. On the phone, her voice is enthusiastic. But when she hangs up, she’s worried. “There isn’t the same excitement as for Obama,” she tells me. “Maybe because of her past actions and baggage from her husband. Obama was fresh. He didn’t really have any baggage.”
Obama is also black, as is Walker. African Americans are the most loyal voting bloc in the Democratic coalition; during the primaries, their votes put Clinton over the top in several states, including Ohio. But loyalty is not the same as enthusiasm. The election, Walker says, “is like a trial. You never know what the jury is going to do. And the jury is still out.”
“Hillary Clinton is just the lesser of two evils,” says Fred Ward. An imposing man with a shaved head and neatly trimmed goatee, Ward presides over a combination organizing hub, Afrocentric bookstore, and cultural center on Cleveland’s East Side. He’s seen too many Democratic administrations come and go—in Cleveland, in the Statehouse, and in the White House—to expect much change in his part of town whoever wins. When I ask him to explain, he suggests we go for a ride.
Cleveland, he says, is one of the most segregated cities in the country. This summer, thanks to the Cavaliers’ championship parade and the Republican convention, America saw a downtown area of sleek high-rises and lovingly restored lofts. We’re headed the other way, to East Cleveland, where we quickly leave prosperity behind, navigating pitted streets piled high with rotting garbage and abandoned furniture. The first John D. Rockefeller lived here before moving to New York, but the suburb his son developed is bankrupt, a victim of white flight (98 percent white in 1960, East Cleveland was 94 percent black by 1990). It’s also been prey to predatory lending and waves of deindustrialization, which have left GE Lighting, whose campus here was the nation’s first industrial park, a headquarters without a local factory.
The geography of Columbus tells a similar story. I arrived there just a few hours after the police shot Tyre King, a 13-year-old who was allegedly running away from the scene of a $10 robbery and pulled out a BB gun. With its flourishing arts scene, booming local economy, thriving university, and lively nightlife, “Columbus is the poster child for corporate Democrats,” says Molly Shack, lead organizer of the Columbus People’s Partnership. She calls Columbus “a tale of two cities, where four out of five kids in the public schools qualify for free lunches.” Tammy Fournier-Alsaada from the People’s Justice Project describes “waves of policing” targeting low-income areas. This was followed by “capital investment: sewers, sidewalks, streets. By then, most of the folks who lived there were gone.”
The same process of “Negro removal” can be seen in Cincinnati’s Over-the-Rhine, a thriving hipster enclave that, according to a Politico puff piece, was “until recently 80 percent African-American.” Today, tourists can enjoy $17 burgers on the very blocks that, 15 years ago, saw some of the 20th century’s worst urban riots after a policeman killed Timothy Thomas, an unarmed black 19-year-old who was apparently wanted for traffic tickets. Cincinatti’s last seven mayors have all been Democrats. Grandin Properties, Over-the-Rhine’s biggest private developer, is run by Peg Wyant. Her husband Jack is part owner of the Cincinnati Reds. Their son Chris, a Grandin board member, is Clinton’s Ohio state director.
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In the end, Clinton’s hopes in Ohio rest on two legs. The first is the supposed reluctance of respectable Republicans—following Governor John Kasich’s lead—to vote for Trump. When Jim Dicke II, chairman of Crown Equipment, picks me up for breakfast in New Bremen, the plates on his bright-yellow Chevy SSR read “GOP.” A member of the Republican National Committee and former commission chair of the Smithsonian American Art Museum, Dicke may be deplorable, but he’s certainly not disreputable.
“Of course I wasn’t for Trump” in the primaries, he admits. And now? “I’ll vote for Trump. I do think Hillary Clinton is fundamentally dishonest, that she sold government policy for money.” When I press him a little harder, Dicke says, “Since the convention, I’ve sent the obligatory $2,700”—far less than the $250,000 he donated to Kasich’s PAC. But when I confront him with Trump’s long list of slights and slurs, he digs in: “If he was running against a different kind of Democrat, it would be a tough call. If he was running against Sherrod Brown, I’d probably vote for Sherrod Brown. But he isn’t.”
Clinton’s second leg is organization. “We have a major ground-game advantage,” says David Pepper. “Obama shows that if it’s close, the better-organized party wins.”
Ohio isn’t the only state where Clinton is facing a close race. Of the 14 battleground states tracked by RealClearPolitics, the candidates are within five points of each other in eight. In the wake of Trump’s leaked tape, and his disastrous performance in the second debate, Clinton seems—for the moment at least—to have caught up in Ohio, with the latest polls showing her slightly ahead of Trump there for the first time since August. But winning any of these states in November means maximizing turnout, which requires enthusiasm and energy and hope. All of which appear to be in short supply—and not just in Ohio.
As a Clinton donor, I get a half-dozen e-mails every day from the campaign. Most are variations on the warning that “we keep missing our fund-raising goals.” Many of the rest evince a sour entitlement: “I am so sick and tired of pretending this guy is a legitimate option to be our president.” The only consistent note of solidarity is with other women. If she were facing a different opponent, Clinton’s scolding, feel-bad, fearmongering campaign would be a bigger problem. But even if Trump implodes, Clinton—by writing off such large chunks of the electorate—is risking her own party’s future. To disaffected whites, to young people, and to those who know all too well that in the Ohio of Tamir Rice and Tyre King, black lives do not yet really matter, she’s sending a clear message: The Democratic Party has nothing to offer but more of the same.
With her speech in Toledo earlier this month, Clinton finally began to talk the talk on jobs and trade. On trust and racial justice, and on the fundamental imbalance of power and wealth that distorts our democracy, it’s going to take a lot more than talk. But talk is never a bad place to start. If Clinton finds herself in Columbus again, I’m sure Al Edmondson would be happy to offer her a chair.
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Coda: The day I left Ohio, Clinton was five points behind Trump—a lead he maintained through the end of September. Yet by the eve of their second debate, Clinton had closed the gap, and on Monday, October 10 she drew a crowd of 18,500 cheering supporters to a rally at Ohio State in Columbus. What happened to turn things around? “This is the outcome of building a ground game for a year,” Dave Pepper told me. “If you tell people you’re holding an outdoor rally at Ohio State you’re setting a high bar. We got there—and registered more Ohio voters on the 10th than on any day in the campaign.”
Pepper also discounted the effect of the infamous Hollywood Access tape in which Trump boasted that his celebrity status allowed him to kiss and grope women with impunity, noting that Clinton’s recovery in the polls began before that tape surfaced. And while Pepper reminded me that he’d always predicted a close race in Ohio, my own sense is that Trump may well have been more damaged by the leak of his tax returns, and his subsequent admission that he’d paid no federal income tax for over a decade. Not only did the revelation of Trump’s tax dodging puncture the carefully maintained illusion that the tycoon is “one of us”—Joe Sixpack with a private jet and the ability to say aloud what other men can only think. It also critically undermined his status as a winner—always a powerful element in Trump’s appeal—exposing him instead as a business failure and a loser of epic proportions.
If Clinton succeeds in stopping Trump in Ohio, he doesn’t have an obvious path to victory nationally. But in an election where anything that can happen already has, it is still far too early to make predictions. This morning (October 12) Trump’s campaign seems to be imploding, but the lack of enthusiasm for Clinton that I saw all over Ohio was real. If Trump rallies his supporters, and the election comes down to Ohio again, we may be in for a very long night on November 8.