Election season in America is a busy time for Margaret Wilkes.
The morning after the testy presidential debate between Donald Trump and Democratic Party challenger Joe Biden in Cleveland, Wilkes is handing out lawn signs and paraphernalia to a steady stream of Trump supporters coming through the door.
“Do you need to hear that spiel again?” asks the office administrator at the Republican Party’s Montgomery County headquarters. Wilkes’s “spiel” includes asking supporters to record their name and area of residence, as well as encouraging them to “vote all the way down the ballot” in elections for local government positions being held alongside the presidential vote on November 3rd.
She says that 7,500 Trump lawn signs have gone out over the past few weeks and months. Another 1,500 are coming in next week, she assures visitors, encouraging them to come back then and to donate whatever sum of money they can.
Trump paraphernalia laid out at the Republican Party’s Montogomery County headquarters in Ohio. Photograph: Stephen Starr
Trump tractor rallies
While much of the US election focus has been on the swing states of Florida, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, polls show Ohio is a dead heat between the president and his Democratic challenger. In 2016, Trump won the state and its 18 electoral college votes by eight points. No Republican candidate has ever reached the White House without winning Ohio.
While Ohio’s rural communities are thought to stand firmly behind the president(Trump tractor rallies are a popular weekend activity in the west of the state), he faces wavering support in the suburbs of Cleveland, state capital Columbus and in the industrial northeast.
The week before last, the president held campaign stops in two Ohio cities in one day and is spending more on television ads here than any other state except Florida, according to Politico.
“It appears as though Trump is doing worse in Ohio than he did in 2016, which matches his seeming erosion across the Midwest,” says Kyle Kondik, author of The Bellwether: Why Ohio Picks the President. “He has lost ground among white voters, particularly in the north, and that really shows up in whiter-than-average states like Ohio. Trump probably remains likelier to win Ohio, but the margin may be close, if he wins it at all.”
Centred on the city of Dayton and its sprawling, overwhelmingly white suburbs, Montgomery County is crucial to both Trump and Biden taking Ohio
In July, a corruption investigation was launched into allegations that the Republican speaker of Ohio’s House of Representatives, Larry Householder, is the centrepiece of a $60 million(€50 million)bribery case involving a failing nuclear energy company that millions of Ohioans have been propping up with their tax dollars.
Householder and four other leading Republicans have been charged with 167 campaign finance offences related to the bribery case. With this money now frozen, campaign cash for Republican candidates across the state is in short supply.
Last month Mike Turner, a Republican member of the US House of Representatives whose congressional district includes Montgomery and neighbouring Greene and Fayette counties, was criticised for spending more than $71,000(€60,000)of campaign cash on meals in Dayton, Washington, London and Brussels over the past 3½ years. He faces 32-year-old Democratic challenger Desiree Tims who, if successful, would be the first black representative to hold the seat.
These transgressions and Trump’s unorthodox style of governance have prompted some Ohio Republicans to campaign for Joe Biden.
“It’s a catalogue of problems and disappointments as we see the party surrender itself to a man who cares only about himself,” says Charles Saxbe, a former member of the Ohio House of Representatives and co-founder of Operation Grant, a non-profit organisation set up with other Republicans and military veterans fed up with the president. Operation Grant is the Ohio affiliate of the Lincoln Project and Republican Voters Against Trump, both anti-Trump Republican initiatives.
As a Vietnam veteran, Saxbe says he’s distressed to hear Trump’s reported comments calling American war dead “losers” and “suckers”.
“I think you saw in the debate a real distinction between two men, one who was a gentleman and the other who was a thug. It was embarrassing as an American to see our president conduct himself that way,” says Saxbe, who last October held a fundraiser for Biden – long before he won the Democratic Party’s nomination for president.
“[Biden] needs to not lose Ohio’s rural and small-town areas by as much as [Hillary] Clinton did,” says Kondik. “For all of the talk of Black turnout and suburban erosion, there are still a lot of Ohio voters who live in small towns and rural areas. Trump crushed Clinton in these places, and Biden has to make up ground to win the state overall.”
Pandemic-enforced measures have resulted in election rallies and gatherings being restricted across the country, affecting Biden’s campaign in particular, although Trump’s own Covid-19 diagnosis has stalled his campaign events too.
As a consequence, last Tuesday’s chaotic and intemperate presidential debate may turn out to be one of the few occasions that voters will have had a chance to weigh up the candidates against each other.
For Montgomery County Republicans such as Margaret Wilkes, Trump “was himself” during the raucous debate. “I think he scored some good points,” she says. “I think for [Biden] to stand there and refuse to say, ‘I am for law and order’ is very disturbing.”
Centred on the city of Dayton and its sprawling, overwhelmingly white suburbs, Montgomery County is crucial to both Trump and Biden taking Ohio. A plurality of voters backed Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012 before pivoting to Trump in 2016, who defeated Democratic Party candidate Hillary Clinton here by less than one per cent.
Wilkes says that the United States was better off until the pandemic set in, but she’s confident things will improve. “We are resilient, we are Americans,” she says. “We will make it.”