TOLEDO, Ohio--I didn’t expect Sue Wolfinger to tell me much. Forty-five and trim, and wearing a blue zip sweatshirt, she looked like she was in a hurry as she left her polling place this morning. While she agreed to answer a few questions, her expression and body language suggested I’d get a few perfunctory words, at best.
But it turns out Wolfinger had a lot to say. Her family is down to one paycheck, after her old employer, a security firm, downsized. And her husband’s job isn’t exactly secure. He works at a local Chrysler plant, one of several automobile factories in Toledo. For the last few weeks, they’ve been nervously watching the news, to see whether a rumored takeover by General Motors would happen--and whether the inevitable job losses to follow would include his.
They can survive on one salary, but it’s meant cutting back. She has three kids--ages 16, 10, and 4. The first two went to preschool. They’re keeping the third home, because school would be too expensive. They’d hoped to buy the 16-year-old a car--nothing fancy, just something she could use to get around town. They’ve scrapped those plans, too.
None of this makes Wolfinger particularly unique--not in America and definitely not in Toledo, a manufacturing city with (I’m told) the worst unemployment rate in Ohio. But Wolfinger was also typical of the type of voter John McCain once coveted. “To be honest,” she told me, “I was a Hillary supporter. And when she was out, I was going to vote for John McCain.”
What changed? McCain lost her, she told me, with his negative campaigning style, his embrace of Bush-style economic policies, and choice of Sarah Palin as running mate. “I just couldn’t stand listening to her,” Wolfinger told me. “The inexperience was unbelievable.” And as she grew more disenchanted with McCain, she found herself ever more comfortable with Obama.
It wasn’t any one thing Obama said or promised, she said. It was just a feeling she developed, over the course of the campaign, that he was both serious and sincere in his desire to protect the middle class. “I just want our lives to be like they were nine years ago, when we had a nice living.”
Wolfinger was pretty typical of what I saw--and heard--all morning long.
The polling place I visited was on the North side of town, down the street from a General Motors Powertrain plant. It’s a heavily white, working- and middle-class area with lots of retired auto workers and veterans. I’d come to this same polling place eight months ago, on the morning of the Ohio primary. Based on that experience, I knew I’d find plenty of former Clinton supporters. And since the precincts voting here backed John Kerry in 2004, with 65 pecent of their combined vote, I was curious to see whether Obama would perform well here, too.
If anything, Obama seemed to be doing better. I interviewed 23 people over the course of two hours. Seventeen of them said they were voting for Obama. That works out to about 74 percent, which is about ten percent higher than Kerry's combined vote from '04.
The numbers alone probably don't mean much, given the small sample size and my less-than-scientific canvassing methods. But the explanations people gave me, as always, were rather telling. Very few people expressed doubt or uncertainty. Most had made up their minds some time ago. They were primary concerned about the economy--in many cases, because the hard times had affected them personally.
But what really struck me was how eager these people were to share this information. This is the fifth or sixth time I’ve staked out a polling place on the morning of an election. Invariably, the biggest challenge is getting voters to stop and talk to a total stranger. Some people don’t like talking to reporters. Those that do are often hesitant to reveal their vote, particularly (and understandably) when I’m asking for their names.
Not so today. At least half, maybe more, of the voters I met this morning volunteered their choice even before I asked. And many stood with me for five or ten minutes, recounting what their lives have been like for the last few years.
Gary Wright, a 56-year-old garage manager for Roadway trucking with 25 years of seniority, explained to me what it was like watching his employer shed half of its jobs--and then watching his 401K lose half its value.
Connie Shular, a 43-year-old, talked about losing the health insurance that her husband’s job, at a flooring manufacturing company, used to provide. Her job, at Frostbite Brands ice cream, provides coverage and they’ve switched over. But it doesn’t cover as much.
Of course, intensity alone doesn’t win elections. But it’s surely not a bad sign that Obama’s supporters feel so passionately about him, even here in the middle of Clinton country.
I’ll have more to report from here soon, including a description of the McCain supporters I met.
Update: Here is that dispatch about the McCain supporters.