Kendra Reddick lives in Ohio and can't decide which presidential candidate deserves her vote. Like thousands of voters across the Buckeye State, Reddick is a values voter. She typically only backs politicians who share her conservative, fundamental Christian beliefs.
So four and eight years ago, Reddick, a black 42-year-old, middle-school history teacher in Cleveland Heights, a close-in suburb east of Cleveland, didn't have a hard time making up her mind. George W. Bush was an easy choice over Al Gore in 2000 and John Kerry in 2004. But this election year, Reddick is undecided. She said she is turned off by McCain's mudslinging and support of the war in Iraq. But she is opposed to Obama's views on abortion and gay rights.
"I was happy and proud to put Bush signs in my yard, even though people kept stealing them away," Reddick, a registered Republican, said during a recent interview. "But I don't have any signs in my yard. I don't know what I'm going to do this time."
If Reddick, who lives in the largely liberal northeast quadrant of the state, is this conflicted, imagine the dilemma of the white voters who live in the overwhelmingly conservative areas downstate. Given the importance of the economy, not just nationally, but in this economically beleaguered state, voters are being pushed to put aside even long-held views on race in consideration of what choice is best for their future.
Ohio is a state cut by invisible boundaries of race, geography, income and education. In effect, it's actually five states in one, with 11 million residents. There's Appalachia down in the southern foothills. There is the area surrounding Cleveland, with its old, dying steel and auto industry and the state's heaviest concentration of urban poverty. Central Ohio is largely white-collar and is dominated by the state government in Columbus. Cincinnati, with its southern style conservatism resembles Dixie up north. And to the northwest corner lies a verdant Farm Belt.
Northeastern Ohio is more likely to vote Democratic. The southern part of the state, both east and west, trends Republican. President Bush won Ohio by 118,000 votes in 2004, a razor-thin margin that many experts attribute to the imposition of wedge issues on the state ballot to turn out voters in conservative areas. Wedge issues so dominated the race that Bush carried 16 percent of the black vote in 2004, driven by black social conservatives. But the overshadowing of wedge issues by economic concerns has made it difficult for anyone to predict which way the state will go this year. Only one thing seems sure across the state: Black voters are likely to give upwards of 95 percent of their votes to Obama. Even Reddick indicated that she may ultimately choose Obama because he's an African American. And other black social conservatives, who chose Bush in 2004, may make the same choice.
If recent statewide polls can be trusted, white Ohio voters are in a quandary—much like Reddick—unwilling to swear by McCain and reluctant to join Obama—making it difficult for political experts to handicap the outcome on Nov. 4.
A joint pollreleased earlier this week by a consortium of major newspapers in the state called the presidential race "a statistical tie," with McCain favored by 48 percent of those responding and Obama favored by 46 percent, with a 3.3 percentage point margin of error. "The basic message of all the polls is that it's appearing that it's going to be a real dog fight for Ohio's 20 electoral votes," University of Cincinnati pollster Eric Rademacher, who conducted The Ohio Newspaper Poll, told The Plain Dealer in Cleveland.
John C. Green, director of the Ray C. Bliss Institute of Applied Politics at the University of Akron, said Ohio politics aren't made of the same old stuff as in recent presidential years. "The economy is much more of an issue in 2008 than in 2004 or 2000, much more," Green said. "In years past the economy was important, but so was foreign policy and social concerns like abortion and a gay marriage initiative."
Even before the recent Wall Street collapse, Ohio's main streets were in distress—and fingers were pointed at laissez-faire policies from the White House. The GOP also took a major hit in the state in 2006, after a series of scandalsplagued statewide Republican leaders. Voters ended up turning against the Republican governor, electing an almost all-Democratic slate to constitutional offices and weakening Republicans' domination over the legislature.
The net effect has been a demoralization of the GOP infrastructure and an emboldening of Democrats statewide. The shift has paid dividends for Obama. Early voting started in the state on Sept. 30, and some locations in urban areas such as Cleveland and Columbus have reported lines and mild delays. Experts say this is a sign of strong support for Obama and other Democratic candidates on the ballot.
What's more, it suggests that past and enduring racial fears may be subsiding. Of course, racism still exists, and many Ohioans say they will never vote for Barack Hussein Obama. But both the polls and anecdotal evidence in casual conversation suggest those mossbacks are a dwindling minority.
The economy is Issue One. So anyone—even a liberal, black man with a funny-sounding name—who convinces Ohioans that he can put money in their pockets and bread on their kitchen tables will earn close scrutiny—and ultimately votes—across this state.
Reddick said Bush let her down on the economy. John McCain will pay the price. "Bush is the president so he has to take the fall," she said. "I'm sorry I voted for him the last time. More and more, I like what I'm learning about Obama."
Sam Fulwood III is a regular contributor to The Root.