Reading Voters

Tagging along on Operation Ohio in pursuit of the college vote

There was one week left before Ohio's voter-registration deadline and lots of work to do. Stephen Elliott was at the wheel of a rented van, shuttling around the Ohio State campus in Columbus, coordinating the movements of a dozen people. It was the first day of Operation Ohio, Stephen's personal campaign to help tip the scales in the election he'd been covering since last year for his new book, Looking Forward to It. After writing so much about politics, he said, he wanted to make some politics happen. So he organized a series of literary events in the state, hoping that a visit from some of the country's best-known literary authors to college campuses would help register and energize student-age voters.

"With the book done," Stephen said, "I had September free, and I wanted to get involved. I have a little bit of guilt because I worked for Nader in 2000, and so I figured I better put in for Kerry. And who can just sit around anyway at a time like this? Everyone should be doing something."

As the election runs hotter than ever, it seems everyone is doing something. The national party committees, more flush than ever, are churning wakes through the swing states like ocean liners. A bit more nimbly, MoveOn's digital democracy is changing the political landscape with its innovatively funded and clever ad campaigns. Grassroots organizations of all kinds are springing up to fill in with letter writing, phone banking and walking precincts. In Ohio alone, Bush backers claim to have more than 60,000 volunteers spreading the word through their Amway-style multilevel-marketing operation. America Coming Together has fielded an army of professional canvassers to lay the groundwork for what will be the biggest Election Day Get Out the Vote operation in the history of Earth. To that end, they've raised $125 million—10 times what the DNC spent on GOTV in 2000. A lot of that coin is spilling into Ohio, but the war chest keeps replenishing itself: The week we arrived, the Vote for Change tour, a set of fund-raising concert dates featuring musicians ranging from Bruce Springsteen to Death Cab for Cutie, was under way across the state, on its way to raising another $44 million.

It was into this storm of activism that Stephen's literary assembly made a landing in late September—a bumpy one, as it happens, since everyone flying in that day sensed the planes getting tossed roughly on the final approach into the Columbus airport. Having traveled with Stephen for much of the campaign season, I came along as an observer. Plus, I too felt compelled to take action. With a month left, why not get started? Now in Columbus, four hours before curtain time, as Stephen was finishing last-minute preparations, we were talking about the question that must plague all small-scale organizers: Does any of this matter?

"Goddamn right it matters," he said emphatically as we parked and found our way to a class where we were supposed to speak to students and convince them to come. "If there's anything we learned last time, it's that all effort counts. If we can get 1,000 people signed up, we'll be that much better off. It won't deliver the state, but it will help. Even if we don't get that many, it will help. But we'll see what happens. I've got my fingers crossed."

"Why Ohio?" Stephen asked rhetorically in his introduction later that night. The audience was assembled in the Wexner Center, and the writers were in the green room, waiting to come onstage. "At first, Ohio seems like an arbitrary place. But then again—why not Ohio? Everybody should get their chance to decide the presidential election. And this is your chance. In fact, I think the swing-state committee—the one that decides where the critical states in the next elections would be, like the Olympics—has picked Oklahoma for 2008. And Alaska after that. So you should take this opportunity."

It was a good opener. But in reality, of course, neither of those states will ever get the kind of political attention as does Ohio. And the Buckeye State's leverage has been amplified by an overpowering mythology of electoral importance, grounded in the twin axioms: 1) No Republican has ever won without Ohio's 21 electoral votes; and 2) Ohio has voted with the winner since 1964. Ohio, the theory goes, is a natural barometer for national politics because it's like nowhere else, and that's because it is in fact like everywhere else—a place of representative regions, with an industrial heart around Cleveland, the farm belt in the northwest, classic exurban geography in the center, and strong regional representation with all the Southern drawl around Cincinnati and a rather sizable slice of Appalachia in the southeast.

All of this is apparent at Ohio State, where 90 percent of the students are local. And despite the fact that Columbus, the state's capital, is a Democratic stronghold, it is ringed by a vast, archetypal, red "donut" of Republican counties. These are the reaches of exurbia, where the Bush minions going on "mission" are expected to bring a 6-to-1 margin for the president in those areas come November. And these are the people who fill the stands at Ohio Stadium, the campus' most imposing edifice, a fascist-looking arena of masonry where the Buckeyes play football.

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