In the sleepy Appalachian town of Athens, Ohio, a building that had once housed a thrift store—and might soon host a strip club—is now Sen. Barack Obama's southeast Ohio headquarters for the 2008 Democratic primary. Home to Ohio University and its 20,000 students, Athens is a plum concentration of Democratic votes in this sparsely populated region of the state. Polling for this part of Ohio has shown strong support for Sen. Hillary Clinton, and any Obama hopes of getting enough votes to pull a good share of delegates out of the 6th Congressional District count on a big win in this town.
At a meeting soon after the office opened, the regional organizer gathered volunteers to talk about canvassing. "The campaign is going to emphasize the economy, especially the downside of NAFTA," the organizer said in an upbeat voice. "That's what matters to Ohio's voters.” At this announcement, seasoned minds recalled the 2004 Kerry campaign. Then, professional organizers seemed to parachute in from nowhere with ground plans written up, ready with computer-generated phone lists and micro-targeted canvassing routes. And, as we all know, the Kerry campaign failed to win Ohio. And by losing Ohio, it lost the election.
With fear of a replay of 2004 in our minds, one of us volunteers interjected: "Um, you're in a college town, and it's really the war that matters to people." After all, the area we were about to canvass had houses that sat nicely on brick-paved streets and averaged four bedrooms and a couple of advanced degrees. NAFTA might matter elsewhere in the county (not too far away, in fact), but it wasn't on the minds of the people in the in-town neighborhoods. The organizer was taken aback at first, but then he quickly said: "OK, if that's how you see this neighborhood, talk about what matters to you as a voter." It appeared that Obama was running a different kind of campaign. The pros were here, but the pros were good enough to harness the local population's capacity to deliver the sort of micro-targeting that actually works.
This reaction—with its mix of flexibility and respect for grassroots initiative—was indicative of the strengths of the Obama campaign across the state. And that strength has butted its head against Clinton’s ties to the establishment element of Ohio’s Democratic Party. Clinton has some good traditional machinery in place and the strong support of Ohio's governor (who became a nodding head in the now-famous "Shame on you, Barack Obama" press conference). But Clinton's traditional strengths probably won't be enough to deliver the sort of decisive margin necessary to gain enough delegates or bragging rights for anyone but the perpetually self-deluding Mark Penn to call it a meaningful victory.
If Obama's campaign represents a grassroots insurgency, it's not populist in nature or tone, the way Sherrod Brown's successful 2006 Senate run was. Brown derided free-trade policies and Bush’s favoritism toward the wealthy to win his Senate seat; he also had the advantage of running at a time when Republicans, both in the state and nationally, were scandal-ridden. But that sort of tone doesn’t seem easily accessible to either presidential candidate this go-around. Indeed, once John Edwards dropped out of the race, there appeared a vacancy—no populist candidate to rally the downtrodden against the corporate octopus. Nonetheless, Clinton has recently tried to fill the void, becoming an insta-populist, somewhat like Al Gore right after the Democratic National Convention in 2000. She has focused her attention on the working class, traveled through Appalachia, and taken up the themes that Edwards initiated.
Though this strategy makes a certain amount of sense in Ohio, it poses numerous problems for the Clinton camp. First, Obama is no longer easy to tag as the spokesman for the "wine track." He's picked up important union endorsements on the way to Ohio. With the Teamsters, the United Food and Commercial Workers, and the Service Employees International Union behind him, Obama can dodge the "latte-sipping liberals" tag and build meaningful support among blue-collar citizens, extending his claim on demographic territory that was once Clinton's. Particularly with the Teamsters, the campaign picks up a bit of macho swagger. These endorsements and the financial war chests of these unions will make it particularly difficult for Sen. Clinton to campaign as a populist in the Buckeye State.
There's another problem with Clinton's insta-populism. It's put her in the awkward position of simultaneously trashing NAFTA, touting her White House years, and sending her husband to campaign in Appalachian Ohio. Need we restate the obvious? NAFTA, as they say around here, has Bill's name "all over it." We haven't had the honor of hearing him speak yet, but his speeches must get a bit subdued when he gets to the part where he's supposed to rail against NAFTA as the beast that destroyed Ohio's jobs.
More frustrating is how the fixation on NAFTA leads to pandering. And both Obama and Clinton are guilty of this. Every denizen of rust-belt America knows that the industrial decline and outflow of jobs is a lot more complicated than NAFTA. The overly simplistic, almost cartoonish political image of this one piece of legislation creating the region's problems in the midst of an endlessly complex global economic transformation is beneath us all. Maybe it's because our part of southeastern Ohio is so rural and so poor that we never had any steel to rust, but we think that the NAFTA card is being overplayed by both sides. Here, John McCain is refreshingly candid when he says that eliminating NAFTA won't bring the jobs back.
And there really are more honest and effective answers to the voters' economic concerns. The health-care proposals are critically important as health-care insecurity is one of the great fears for working families as they shift from job to job trying to patch together a living wage while shackled by the absurdity of job-based health care. Furthermore, both Democratic campaigns have exciting proposals for economic revitalizations surrounding the pressing need to develop new economies of energy and green technology. Talking up these programs, instead of grandstanding on the political symbols from the past, would be a lot more in tune with the better tendencies in each campaign. It would really be the politics of hope and change.
With these strategic problems in mind, there are a few things to be said about this primary. The hard work of grassroots organizing has paid off. It's clear that, though Obama is still behind in most statewide polls, he has caught up to Clinton during the last month. By embracing humility and avoiding the hubris of "inevitability" Obama has shown how a campaign that is insurgent yet tempered can do well. Even if he loses, that doesn’t seem such a bad lesson to teach those wondering about the future of Democratic politics in the Buckeye state.