BRIDGEPORT, Ohio — To look at Ohio is to glimpse America in a nutshell – a state full of places where laborers, truck drivers, cooks, store clerks and business owners form the backbone of small-town life. Places where the deli cashes checks, cars and trucks are “vehicles” and the NFL takes a back seat to high-school football.
It also is a place where presidents are made. No candidate has won without Ohio’s 18 electoral votes since John F. Kennedy in 1960. Barack Obama won here in 2008 by about 260,000 votes, 52 percent to 47 percent.
That’s why Ohio’s white, working-class voters have taken center stage in the election, with Obama and Mitt Romney crisscrossing the state this week as they enter the campaign’s homestretch.
These voters may well decide who wins the White House. So what do they want? About two dozen interviews in eastern Ohio revealed some answers:
They are looking for a president who understands what it’s like to punch a time clock all month and still come up short on the bills, for a leader who will help the people in work boots as much as those in wingtips. They see money being doled out, from welfare to bank bailouts, and ask why nobody has lent them a hand. They talk of getting rid of everyone in Washington and starting fresh.
Generations of sweaty work and union membership make many deeply skeptical of a Republican multimillionaire CEO like Romney, and polls show he trails among white working-class Ohioans. But there also is widespread frustration with the Democratic president and pessimism about the future.
“If the election was right now, I’d choose `none of the above,'” says coal miner J.R. Cross, leaving a payday loan store in Bridgeport with money for his oldest son’s college bill.
He voted for Obama in 2008 but thinks the president helped Wall Street and the auto industry instead of the working class. He thinks Romney favors the rich and that he bankrupted companies to make investors a profit. His vote will be a last-minute decision – and he doubts it will make a difference.
“Whoever gets elected, we’re screwed,” Cross says.
Nationally, Romney holds a strong edge among white voters with jobs and no college degree: Sixty-three percent favored Romney, compared with 28 percent for Obama, according to an Associated Press/GfK poll conducted Sept 13-17.
But the president does much better in union-heavy Ohio, where Obama’s auto bailout has helped keep unemployment a point below the national rate. Fifty-one percent of white voters with no college education preferred the president, compared with 45 percent who backed Romney in a recent University of Cincinnati/Ohio Newspaper Organization poll. The margin of error was plus or minus 6 percentage points.
“I think Obama can bring things back. I really do,” said Valinda Liggett, an electrician, as she shopped in a dollar store in Dillonvale. “He’s trying. Rome wasn’t built in a day. He can only do so much.”
Still, conversations with people along the hills and in towns around state Route 7, which hugs the Ohio River on the Ohio-West Virginia line, showed much frustration with the economy.
Shuttered steel mills and the Great Recession have drained businesses and jobs from what once were vibrant towns. Many dislike the Obama administration’s stance on the coal industry, which puts food on thousands of tables in this region. Along the two-lane roads that curl through the hills west of Route 7, yard signs reading “Stop the War on Coal – Fire Obama” are a common sight.
Millie Brown, who tends tables and the grill at a Steubenville truck stop, has some choice words for both candidates. When you make $20,000 a year, she says, every day is a struggle.
“It’s hard to make enough to buy gas to drive to work, let alone pay bills,” she says, pulling on a generic menthol cigarette. “A gallon of milk is $4.29. That’s ridiculous. I never thought I’d see the day when eggs are $2 a dozen.”
Like many others interviewed, Brown says the economy would be much better if Obama had used stimulus funds to give large checks – five, six or even seven figures – to individual working Americans.
The math doesn’t come close to adding up, but this frequent flight of fancy shows how wrong it feels to many of these voters when bailed-out banks pay huge bonuses, or first lady Michelle Obama goes on an expensive trip, or Romney parks some of his millions offshore.
“I’m a white guy with a job. I won’t get no help,” says Tony Gern, a truck driver from Coshocton.
His girlfriend works two jobs, but they are still barely scraping by. Gern came up short one recent month and tried to get some government assistance but was turned down. “A guy that has no job, 10 kids, he can go to the welfare office and they hand him a check,” he says.
Gern says he will watch the debates before deciding how to vote. Right now, he sees Obama as more of a regular guy than Romney.
“If I was digging a ditch, Obama would come down and get a little dirty. He’d probably do it with me,” Gern says. “Romney, he wouldn’t do it. He’s never done that kind of work. He’s never had his hands dirty.”
But Romney’s business career is a plus for Russell Banfield and his wife, Betty. The retired couple – he was a coal miner; she was a secretary – are classic Ohio independents who voted for Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Obama.
Now, they are disappointed by the president’s decisions on the deficit and the stimulus.
“If I have a problem here on my property, will the USA bail us out?” Russell Banfield says, standing outside his one-story house in Belmont, population 453. “We’re on a limited income. We have to make do. Why doesn’t Congress? Why doesn’t the president?”
“Romney is rich, he made money, he worked, he earned it,” Banfield says. “He had a brain to know how to do it, so he has a brain to know what to do now.”
An hour down the road, behind the cash register of a small market, Debbie Winland greets customers by name as they buy items like spaghetti sauce, beer, hot pepperoni rolls wrapped in foil and high school football tickets. Movies on VHS tape cost $5.
Winland is troubled by bailouts, the stimulus and people who work their whole lives but end up with nothing. Both candidates seem out of touch: “They’re neck and neck, really. Zero to zero,” she says.
“Give me someone to vote for.”