By Bill Boyarsky
PORTSMOUTH, Ohio—From the Southern California suburbs to Ohio’s Appalachia, places that have not been especially friendly to African-American candidates, Sen. Barack Obama seems to be convincing a substantial number of whites that their votes should be determined by their economic troubles rather than race.
That’s what I am seeing three weeks before the presidential election. At present, I am in Portsmouth, a small city in Ohio across the Ohio River from Kentucky, where unemployment is close to double digits. It is one of the hardest-hit areas in the state and the nation. Two weeks ago, I visited Riverside County in the Southern California suburbs east of Los Angeles. Foreclosure signs are commonplace and the unemployment rate is 9.7 percent.
I chose both places because they have a conservative tradition that makes them tough electoral territories for an African-American presidential candidate.
The immensity of the bad economy was clear when I visited Moreno Valley, a city in Riverside County. Immediately afterward, I posted this for the blog LA Observed:
“I had read about the foreclosures that have hit the area and seen television reports on them. But nothing I had seen or read prepared me for the sight of six houses for sale in a .4 mile stretch of a street, two of them now owned by banks. Disaster has struck in a random manner. Some blocks had no for-sale signs. Some just had one or two. Then I came across one with a big “Auction” sign, reminiscent of scenes from movies and books about the Great Depression. In some houses without for-sale signs, neglected yards and generally shabby appearances suggested the owners had left and the occupants were renting.”
A few days later, I talked to Ronald O. Loveridge, the mayor of the city of Riverside, where Democrats hold just a slight margin over Republicans. “My sense is that Obama being African-American was more important six months ago than it is now,” he said. “It is old news.” What’s most important, he said, are “economic circumstances, when you talk to hairdressers, business folk, people at carwashes.”
S. Cherylynn Glass, getting out the vote for Obama, said, “Most of the people I talk to are enthusiastic. But some are a little worried because he is African-American and they say he doesn’t have the experience.” She said she was cautiously optimistic.
For Obama, Ohio is of much more importance than California. He’s a cinch to carry California. In Ohio, it’s a fight.
An Oct. 14 compilation of Ohio polling put Obama ahead 49.6 percent to 45.3 percent. An ABC News/Washington Post poll taken Oct. 3-5 gave a more complex view because it broke down the findings by race, among other factors. It showed Obama trailing among whites 51 percent to 44 percent. Obama led statewide 51 percent to 45 percent.
President George W. Bush won the state narrowly in 2004, and if Sen. John McCain does not carry Ohio this time, he probably will lose the election. Portsmouth and the surrounding area are crucial to Obama’s drive to capture Ohio and its 20 electoral votes. He doesn’t have to win this heavily white area, but he needs to run well.
Portsmouth is a friendly old riverfront city. As fall begins, the trees are turning color in town and in the nearby forests. But empty stores on the main street are evidence of economic troubles, as is the closing of some local plants. “Whether or not they follow the news, many of our students are concerned about the economy, and many work and they are worried about the jobs they have,” said Darren Harris-Fain, chair of the department of English and humanities at Shawnee State University.
At McCain’s Portsmouth headquarters, volunteer Judy Welch told me the Republicans are mounting a get-out-the-vote drive patterned after the one that worked well for Bush four years ago.
Democrats, she said, are moving over to McCain. “I hear a lot about his [middle] name, Hussein, and some have commented on his race, but the majority just don’t like what he is standing for,” she said.
Here, it’s tough persuading even the economically worried to vote for Obama, according to Jeanette Langford, an African-American woman volunteering for Obama. “We will win,” she said. “But we have to struggle for every vote because of the racial climate. The southern Ohio environment is not overly friendly to an African-American as president.”
Obama spoke to a crowd estimated at between 8,000 and 10,000 last week at Shawnee State, which has an enrollment of about 4,000. That visit, and a speech at a neighboring city the next day, cheered his supporters here, where Hillary Clinton trounced him in the primary. Obama seldom visited southeastern Ohio during that campaign, Langford said, and that made “people a little angry.”
On the Shawnee State campus, I talked to two students having a snack. Durelle Love is African-American and Victoria Botts is white. They had arrived at the Obama speech toward the end and, while neither was especially enthusiastic, they were impressed—sort of.
“I think Obama could hold an intelligent conversation,” Love said. “I think I would like talking to him. But I don’t know how I’d feel about him as a person.”
Botts said, “I’m not really sure how I feel about Obama. I see him more as a president than McCain. But I’m not really sure. A lot of people are skeptical of him. Obama seems like he would be better for the United States, but I wish Hillary had stayed.”
I didn’t ask them about race. I thought it would be stupid and obvious, a journalistic hack question. They were friends, sitting around talking. What was there to ask?
After talking to them, I thought about what I had felt since I started writing about this campaign many months ago: The media, with the most well-known pundits and reporters in middle age or on the verge of it, see race through an outmoded prism. The country is changing.
Two weeks ago, I got an explanation of how it is changing from Martin Johnson, a professor at the University of California at Riverside, who conducts public opinion polls. His campus, like the rest of California and much of the rest of America, is a multiethnic place, with Latinos, Asians, whites and African-Americans.
People, he said, “try to put things in a white-black paradigm and you just can’t do it.”
Of course you can’t. America is too complicated. Spurred by the worst economic collapse since the 1930s, we may just put that old-fashioned paradigm behind us.
AP photo / Rick Bowmer
Barack Obama poses with workers during a tour of the RMI Titanium Co. plant in Youngstown, Ohio.