Guest Column: Battleground Ohio is so vital, it’s even drawing global tour groups

Nicholas Wood

OXFORD, England – In recent months I’ve taken groups of internationally curious people to crisis spots as far flung as North Korea, Bosnia and Greece. The aim of these trips is to give people direct access to some of the hottest spots on the globe today. At the end of this month, we’ll fly to Ohio.

Ohio may seem like the odd one out on any list of crisis spots. However, most tour participants come from outside the United States and the Buckeye State is an obvious choice for outsiders who want a front-row seat on the American presidential election. After all, it is the bellwether state that has backed the presidential winner every election since 1964.

In the last week running up to the vote we will meet with farmers, church groups, unions and autoworkers across Ohio, trying to understand their concerns and motivations. The state’s complex demography – Rust Belt and rural, white and black, labor and business – provides far better insight into what’s motivating American voters than Washington ever could.

We foreigners care about your elections for the obvious reason that you have a large say in how the world is run. Indeed, some of us would gladly cast a vote in America, if we could.

A recent poll suggested most Europeans would pick Obama. It is certainly true to say, I think, that there is a natural bias in favor of the incumbent.

We see him flying around the world looking presidential and we do not have to consider the finer details of “Obamacare” or high unemployment. In much the same way, Americans admired Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair long after their sell-by date in Britain.

Ohio’s appeal goes well beyond the question of which candidate will win the White House.

For me the bigger question in U.S. politics at the moment is to try and understand the enormous partisan divide that has emerged in American politics. It is a shocking spectacle to see the hostility of politicians toward one another in Congress, the lack of cooperation on legislation that has brought the world’s superpower close to default on its enormous debt.

And that observation comes from a country that is home to prime minister’s question time in the House of Commons, which can be more raucous than any congressional debate. It is as though America is tearing itself apart ideologically, oblivious to the world outside.

Ohio, it seems, has surprises up its sleeve and may challenge my notion of the great partisan divide.

Trailing by as much as 10 points in the Ohio polls, Mitt Romney is being accused of throwing away an election that, with the aid of an abysmal economy, should be his.

It seems Obama’s lead is so significant that some Ohio commentators suggest that the problem is not entirely due to Romney’s character or handling of the election. They point to a more worrying trend for the GOP.

Commentators such as Jack Torry at the Columbus Dispatch suggest the Republicans’ political strategy of appealing to their tea party electoral base is alienating voters.

This was borne out in Ohio last November when voters emphatically rejected newly elected Republican Gov. John Kasich’s proposals to restrict collective bargaining rights for Ohio’s government workers.

“Could it be that the Republicans have become too conservative for the majority of Americans?” Torry wrote recently.

Various columnists have suggested that Americans of a classical conservative bent would prefer a party that promotes harmony among the states, businesses and individuals, but also limits government’s role as much as possible.

Dare I say it? Maybe they would prefer a more European brand of conservatism. As an outsider that seems more appealing and familiar to me than the fractious drive of tea party-propelled politics.

But I don’t know if that’s true for American voters and neither do any of the others on our tour of Ohio. Perhaps America is not as divided as we outsiders perceive. We want to find out for ourselves.

And, as October comes to end, we will – in a proud and diverse Mideast state that already has produced seven presidents and could well decide who the 45th one will be.