Is Ohio McCain Country?

Roughly 18 months after his defeat in the 2004 presidential election, John Kerry spoke at the commencement of Kenyon College, a small liberal arts college in rural Ohio. The students and faculty, predominantly Kerry fans, were regaled with his stories from the night of the election. At the onset, the Massachusetts Senator noted, "Class of 2006 - fellow survivors of November 2, 2004...," and he continued the theme throughout.

For example:

For the Election Day event that united us was a disappointment. There's no way around it. Even as we flew in over Columbus this morning, I was looking down at the Ohio landscape, thinking: we came so close. So what.

I watched a CSPAN replay of that Kerry speech while vacationing in Ithaca, New York, a few weeks after it transpired. I recall musing that Kerry's U.S. geographical knowledge, though better than the 2008 Democrat nominee's, was lacking. This part of Ohio, John, like most American small towns, especially in the Midwest, was Bush Country. While Ohio has more small "progressive" liberal arts schools (Kenyon, Denison, Oberlin, Antioch) than most states outside of New England, they all sit in small towns. Conservative politics are the rule once you leave the campus gates.

But Ohio, America's seventh most populous state, also has nine cities with close to, or more than 100,000 people -- all of which lean left, from the metropolises of Cleveland, Columbus, Dayton, and Cincinnati to the mid-size union towns in the north like Akron, Toledo, and Youngstown. And while Hillary Clinton did very well in the Buckeye State, it's unknown how Obama will be received.

Since the Electoral College dictates that only seven or eight states truly matter on November 7, and because Ohio might well be the state that tips the scales again in '08, I set out to find out where people will lean in the fall and why.

Fast forward two years from the night that I viewed the Kerry speech. My fiancée and I were taking a weekend trip from Indianapolis to Cleveland to visit family. Rolling along I-70 past sitting water from the great 2008 flood of early June in southeastern Indiana, we stopped for a food break from the sun and mugginess at an Ohio legend: Skyline Chili.

The walls in most Skylines I've eaten at are adorned with American pride: heroic scenes from 9-11, the Iwo Jima Memorial, and patriotic flare. And this individual franchise, in the flatlands just north of Dayton, Ohio, was no different.

After wolfing coneys and pasta, I went to pay our bill and struck up a discussion with some gentlemen I'd overheard at the next table who had been talking about umpiring local baseball. I was going to ask them about their political views when news broke of the passing of Tim Russert. One of the men crossed himself and said a small prayer for the fallen journalist. He then noted to me, "Kind of a loud mouth, but we cherish any life equally."

I didn't press further. The statement was telling. We changed the subject back to sports and he eventually left with his friend, another athletic looking 40-year-old with a blue tooth in his ear. As I was leaving, I asked one of the three clean cut Skyline workers if they knew about those guys, since everyone seemed local, and they noted, "Oh yeah, that's Mr. Wilson and Mr. Baker. They're good people."