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Impressions from a Morning in Ohio

TOLEDO, Ohio—Two polling places and about two dozen voters. That’s not even close to a scientific sample, even if the sample is from Ohio. If you're reading in order to divine how the rest of the nation will vote, please stop. You won't find it here.

But staking out interesting precincts has become an election year tradition for me, because conversations with actual voters inevitably yields some insights about how they are thinking—and, more specifically, how they process the information and arguments so familiar to those of us in the business of politics. And if one theme emerged from interviews this morning, it’s that Obama retains strong support in the northwest part of the state, even in some places he might reasonably be expected to have lost support over the last four years. Obama's supporters here may not be as hopeful as they were four years ago, but they are not voting with strong reservations, either. They say they want to give him a chance to finish what he started—and, by the way, they want to keep Mitt Romney far away from the White House.

One polling place I visited was in the northern part of Toledo, a working- and middle-class community that was predominantly white but with a decent-size African-American population. The influence of the auto industry was strong here: The polling place, an elementary school, was literally five blocks from a GM Powertrain plant. And Obama's rescue of the industry is obviously helping. But during the 2008 general election, Obama carried this precinct by a modest margin, smaller than in most of Toledo. And during the primaries, he lost badly to Hillary Clinton. I was in this neighborhood for that contest and it was not, back then, solid Obama territory.

The other polling place was 30 minutes away, in Grand Rapids—a rural, generally conservative town. McCain ran much stronger here in 2008, effectively tying Obama. The road to Grand Rapids passes gun shops and yards with Romney-Ryan signs: The area, voters told me, leans conservative.

And it was here I heard the most enthusiastic support for Romney. “I knew two years ago that we had an incompetent person seving as president,” Mel Zehnder, a 62-year-old retired health care administrator and teacher said. Zehnder said he liked Romney because “he’s got a record of achievement in business. He’s turned around companies. We need more people with business experience instead of legal experience.” He wasn’t worried about what Romney might do to Medicare, he said, because it needs saving for the next generation—and Congress has robbed it before, “and it was both Republicans and Democrats.”

Brent Wienmann, 49, and his son Jacob, 19, both supported Romney. “I’m concerned with the direction of the country,” said Brent. “Our liberties are being taken away.” He owns a small business and says he is being “inundated” with regulations and legislation. “It’s a real pain.” He also mentioned his opposition to the requirement that Catholic institutions provide health insurance including birth control coverage—an argument I heard several times during the morning. In Toledo, Sheila Nash, a 48-year-old county inspector who described herself as “staunchly pro-life,” said she, too, was angry about that requirement.

Another sentiment I hear almost universally among Romney supporers: Obama hadn't addressed the problems of rising national debt.

But even in Grand Rapids, I heard from several Obama supporters. They were people who thought Obama had done a good job over the last four years—or, at least, good enough, given the political obstacles he faced and the severity of the economic problems he inherited upon taking office. “He got a lot done,” Kim King, a 44-year-old homemaker told me, “and Bush screwed all of us.” Her husband David, a 45-year-old carpenter, agreed. “Obama got stuck with a lot of stuff.” Both said they appreciated the Obama Administration’s rescue of the auto industry, even though neither one worked directly for or with it.

In Toledo, voters expressed those sentimetns even more strongly. “Look at all the years it took for our government get into debt, and that was under Republican administrations” Alice Forsythe, a 55-year-old greeter at a Toledo supermarket, said. “Took us a long time to get into this much trouble, it’s going ot take more than four years to get out of it.” Allen Jones, a 29-year-old grade school teacher who voted for Obama in 2008, said “We need to give [Obama] a chance to finish up the job.” Raina Cramer, 32, said, “I’m voting for Obama. I think he deserves more time to fix what Bush did.”

Probably the most colorful comments I heard all day came from Frank Colello, an 81-year-old retired millwright from Jeep. Asked about his political beliefs, he gave me a history of Democrats he’d admired, going back to Franklin Roosevelt—who, he reminded me, "gave people jobs when they didn’t have them. My father worked for the city, making $25 a week, and that put food on our table." The only Democrat about which he had mixed feelings, he said, was Bill Clinton—because Clinton signed the North American Free Trade Agreement, sending factory jobs to Mexico. But Obama was ok, he said. He supported unemployment insurance, just like FDR had. And he helped save GM and Chrysler.

Speaking of the auto industry, I’m honestly not sure how important it was here. Everybody is obviously aware of it and most people think saving the industry was important. When I asked Romney supporters about it, they told me they thought Romney would have allowed the companies to go through the same process—although one person said the companies could have reorganized in bankruptcy with government loans guarantees, rather than direct federal loans. Autoworkers, on the other hand, cited the rescue as a reason to vote for Obama, particularly since they did not believe, based partly on public statements, that Romney would have done the same.

But in my interviews, at least, Obama benefitted from something else: A perception that Romney is out of touch. Bob, a 42-year-old state corrections officer who requested that I not use his last name, told me that he voted for McCain last time. This time he selected Obama—not because he was thrilled with him, but because he just didn’t trust Romney. “He seems like a rich guy who’s lost touch with the middle class,” Bob said, calling Obama the “lesser of two evils.” Several Obama supporters mentioned Romney’s wealth and their perception that he didn’t understand average Americans. Michael Erd, a 53-year-old worker at the nearby Jeep plant, talked about the 47 percent video and said “Romney has no idea what being a working man is all about.” Over the course of the day, I met only two Obama defectors. Both said they voting for Gary Johnson, the independent candidate, because they wouldn’t vote for Romney.

As for turnout, poll workers in northern Toledo told me it was running higher than in 2008. The poll workers in Grand Rapids said it was running no stronger than, or maybe even a little lower than, in 2008. That could reflect varying levels of enthusiasm, the impact of early voting, or nothing at all. Like all of my other impressions, we’ll have to wait until tonight to see if they’re indicative of a broader story—or just a particularly skewed sample I happened to encounter.