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.