The New Battlegrounds Hamilton County, Ohio
Modest, workmanlike and a little wary of theatrics, Ohioans have nonetheless developed a flair for the dramatic when it comes to presidential elections. In 2004, election night came and went with no clear winner in the Buckeye State, and for a few long hours it seemed that the nightmare of 2000 just might repeat itself. When the results were finally tabulated, George W. Bush had won the state by just over 118,000 votes--a difference of fewer than 11 ballots per precinct.
This year Ohio is gearing up to put on another show. Both campaigns have spent enough time here that they should have invested in Quickpay cards for doughnut runs to Tim Hortons. John McCain chose Dayton for the site of Sarah Palin's coming-out party, and Barack Obama turned up in Canton to launch his "closing argument" speech for the last week of the race. In the latest TIME/CNN/Opinion Research poll, Obama held a 51%-to-47% lead over McCain but trailed him 48% to 50% among pivotal suburban voters.
Both McCain and Obama expected hand-to-hand combat in Ohio as the 2008 campaign drew to a close. But Hamilton County, which includes and surrounds Cincinnati, was never in anyone's battle plan. Over the past 100 years, its voters have backed the Democratic presidential candidate only four times. The county has been such unfriendly territory for Democrats that former Ohio governor John Gilligan, a Cincinnati native, once famously remarked that, "they hunt Democrats with dogs for sport in Hamilton County."
This year, however, Hamilton is up for grabs. Nestled in the southwestern corner of Ohio, where table-flat corn and wheat fields abruptly give way to hilltops, Cincinnati overlooks Kentucky from its perch above the Ohio River. "It's really two cities," says Dorothy Weil, 78, whose husband chaired the local Democratic Party two decades ago, "the East and the West." Culturally and politically, the West Side closely resembles its Kentucky neighbors and is dotted with working-class Catholic towns where people still place one another by asking which parochial high school they attended. Across town is the East Side, an affluent web of hillside communities that house executives from Macy's, Procter & Gamble and the seven other FORTUNE 500 companies that are based in Cincinnati.
For years, the social conservatism of the western part of the county and the fiscal conservatism of the eastern part formed an unbreakable Republican lock in Hamilton. Democrats like Weil focused their efforts on urban neighborhoods and only occasionally picked up support from surrounding townships and cities. But this year the Obama campaign sees a chance to pick the lock. Four years ago, Bush won the county by less than 6 percentage points; in 2006, Democrats took over the county commission for the first time in 44 years. In 2000, the last time both parties had a competitive primary, 115,300 voters participated on the GOP side, while only 54,600 cast votes for Democrats. This year the numbers are flipped: 83,400 voted for Republican candidates, and nearly 165,000 participated in the Democratic primary. Although Hillary Clinton won Ohio easily, Obama's best showing statewide came in Hamilton, where he won 63% of the vote. "We have a reservoir of support there," says Isaac Baker, Obama's Ohio spokesman.