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Ohio Undecideds

Mhari Saito

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An Ohio voter during early voting in Toledo, Ohio.
(J.D. Pooley/Getty Images)


Two weeks from Tuesday voters go to the polls. Election Day. We never thought we'd get there when this campaign started way back in, like, 1840. Obama and McCain are hitting the battleground states hard. Over the last few elections, Ohio seems to be perpetually held up as one of the most important and swingiest of swing states. Mhari Saito from WCPN in Cleveland has been talking with voters around the state for months now.

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Mhari Saito: Hi, John.

John Moe: Where have you been going to talk with voters recently?

Saito: We've been talking with voters in the southern and eastern parts of Ohio. These are predominantly white, working class areas. As you know, Ohio is critical if you want to get to the White House. These parts of the state are critical if you want to win Ohio. And that's because they flip. These are people who voted for Bill Clinton, and then George W. Bush. Then in the 2006 midterm elections, a majority of folks voted democratic again, for governor and senator.

Moe: So they get to be the belle of the ball.

Saito: Definitely. Barack Obama was there last week on a jobs tour, followed closely by Sarah Palin and Joe Biden. I went down the evening of an Obama rally in Portsmouth, a town of about 20,000 on the Ohio River. Instead of going to the rally, I walked over to the nearby Kroger's supermarket. In the parking lot, I met people like Michael Thompson, a dad of two who works for minimum wage at a local restaurant.

Michael Thompson: The whole economy around here has pretty much gone down the drain. It's been down for years. The only way it would get better is if they get someone in there that could do something. Like anyone would do that.

Saito: At this point, a taxi came up to take Michael, and his wife and kids were waiting for a taxi. Then the cab driver said he wouldn't let them in unless they paid up front. Michael turned to me and said, "See what I mean?"

Moe: About the economy. Did he have the money?

Saito: I don't know, but they seemed really offended by this. So they walked home with the baby, stroller and a cart half full of groceries.

Moe: Is that a common story around there?

Saito: Scioto County has over nine percent unemployment. It's like that all around this region. I also went over to the local Republican Party office in Portsmouth, where volunteer Brenda Willis was finishing up a night of calls to potential voters.

Brenda Willis: People are asking us about abortion. And the economy, that is the big issue.

Saito: Four years ago, voters in Ohio seemed much more preoccupied with issues like the war and gay marriage. Now it's all about the economy. Back in Portsmouth, I met 31-year-old Luke Haywood. He couldn't find a job near home, so he commutes 40 miles to Kentucky to work as a crane operator.

Luke Haywood: If I can't feed my family, I don't care... I'd elect a Martian, if it means feeding my family. You know what I'm saying? I don't care about the race.

Moe: What prompted him to talk about race just there?

Saito: I decided to ask people directly about race because it keeps coming up in coded ways. This whole election cycle, reporters in our newsroom have been getting weird questions about Barack Obama - after we'd turn off our recorders. So we stopped turning off the recorders, and here's some tape if you want to hear it.

Elderly woman: He's a Muslim, you understand, and I like Muslims, but he's a wicked one.

Younger woman: I have a hard time with his name, with Osama's name, because of what we're going through and what this country's been through and maybe that's wrong, but I don't really know of his affiliations because of his name.

Moe: Wow. After everything we've been through with this election, they think Barack Obama's a Muslim. And they transpose his name with Osama bin Laden's.

Saito: Comments like this are hard things to play - they certainly don't represent the majority of Ohio voters, but pollsters do say race works both for and against Obama here. To get some context, I talked with Deborah Burstion-Donbraye. She is an African American conservative Republican. The party put her in charge of expanding outreach to minorities in Ohio four years ago.

Burstion-Donbraye: There's a part of you that wants to cry and maybe get upset. But there's another part of you that's like this is exciting. We have to confront all of these things that we didn't want to talk about in polite company. Now we have to deal with these things, and I think this is great.

Moe: So she was in charge of getting more minorites in Ohio to vote Republican in 2004. How's it going this time?

Saito: She doesn't work for the state party anymore. She's still a Republican, but in what's been an incredibly difficult decision for her, this year she's voting for Barack Obama.

Moe: Mhari Saito of WCPN. Thanks, Mhari.

Saito: Thank you, John.

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