Before the storm: in search of an elusive election decider
The US Elections and the railways are long-standing bedfellows. No campaign during the 1800s would be complete without a ‘whistle stop tour’ – when candidates would charter trains to take them to the voters they hoped would carry them into office. This month I set out on my American Quest, travelling by train into the heart of some of this election’s most contentious issues, via some of its most keenly contested states.
Amtrak’s California Zephyr is one of the US national rail operator’s most famous services. This double decked train, with its iconic 1970s carriages, takes 48 hours to travel from Chicago to San Francisco. On the way it rolls from Obama’s Illinois heartland, through the critical swing state of Iowa and into rural Nebraska. It travels on via independent and unpredictable Colorado, to Romney’s Mormon base in Utah, and the beautiful Sierra Nevada. Finally, 4000 kilometres later, it arrives in California, and one of the world’s most liberal cities: San Francisco.
You would be hard pushed to find a more diverse slice of America, and that is precisely what we discovered on our trip.
We also found a country that is more divided than I have ever seen in almost 30 years of reporting on its elections.
My journey began in Chicago. The President’s majority in this state is vast. He lived and taught law here, and started his political life. Illinois was also where he announced his run for the presidency and delivered his victory speech. The night before we boarded our train we settled into a fiercely Democrat bar called The Old Town Ale House to watch the Vice Presidential debate.
Every inch of wall space in this self-styled dive bar was covered in bawdy caricatures of famous Republicans, past and present. Pride of place was reserved for a naked Sarah Palin, brandishing a rifle. The two dozen or so patrons were not just there to cheer on Joe Biden, however. I was hugely impressed by the immaculate decorum. There were no cheers when Biden landed a hit on Ryan, and anyone breaching the peace was quickly shushed by a choir.
Only at the end did the cacophony of political wisdom get underway. Obama was being robbed of the election. The Republicans were lying. Biden had smashed it out of the park. Ryan looked like a schoolboy. The country was being unfair to Chicago’s favoured politician. The bar of political feeling and engagement had been set pretty high here in America’s third largest city.
The battleground of Iowa
The next day, we boarded the train and headed to Iowa. Appropriately, for one of this election’s major battlegrounds, we made our way to a civil war re-enactment, close to the little town of Broomfield. Under ominous skies and the occasional fierce downpour, the Unionists fought the Confederates in a recreation of one of the war’s most northerly skirmishes.
Their commitment (the weather!), attention to detail (some, including an astonishingly convincing Abe Lincoln impersonator, remained in character throughout), and their passion for this traumatic period in America’s history were there for all to see. Scratching below the surface, so were the reasons why this is a swing state: a unionist soldier said it was only now that people like him were really focusing on their choices. His Confederate rival bemoaned the deceit in the campaign, which made it hard to know who was telling the truth. And the civil war nurse admitted it was hard to know who was best.
At the core of the election, all agreed, was the role of government in America. Getting government “out of their lives” was the constant refrain, but exactly how was harder to define. Government had gone too far, they believed. ‘A return to the Constitution’ was needed, I was told, again and again. There should be more respect for individual freedoms. ‘Government’ was the problem, not the solution. It all seemed rather nebulous.
Only on the issue of gun control, as you might expect among a group of people running around the countryside with muskets, was the consensus more clearly marked. Romney, in this instance, clearly got the nod from both sides. They liked their guns.
Next stop for the Zephyr, after an overnight glide through Nebraska, was Colorado – a state that has picked the winner in 8 of the last 10 elections. If you wanted a clue as to the next occupier of the Oval Office, this was the place.
People move to Colorado from all over the country for its lifestyle, opportunities and easy going nature. Partly as a result, it is tricky to categorise its people, who span the full gamut from pot-smoking liberals (the state has actually put legalisation of marijuana on the ballot) to camouflage-clad deer hunters. As many as 7 per cent of Coloradans are registered Independents.
I was told that faith in Obama had been shaken here. While people acknowledged the tough task he took on, they felt the brave new world promised in 2008 remained distant. Patience was there, but in shorter supply. Likewise, there was a sense that people were beginning to look at Romney more seriously. The message to Obama was clear – this state will go to the wire.
Mitt’s apathetic alma mater
Along the rails from Colorado is Utah, one of the Republicans’ safest states. There we visited Provo and BYU, the Mormon-funded college from which Romney graduated. Unsurprisingly, we found lots of Republicans, but their support for their church’s famous member was about ‘values’ not religion, most claimed – even if that seemed to amount to the same thing.
Less predictably, we also discovered an active society of Democrats. Their president said he would be proud to see a Mormon elected, just not this one. He didn’t see how Romney’s policies could deliver the kind of caring, inclusive society he wanted. He didn’t want to see his religion’s stance on issues such as same sex marriage and birth control imposed on all whether they liked it or not.
What struck me more than anything was the relative apathy we found when it came to the presidential debate, which was due to air on the evening of our visit. Few on campus seemed excited by it. We couldn’t find a public place showing it. I ended up watching it in a hotel with a pizza balanced on my lap.
Reaching California, the sun was shining above us and San Francisco was going about its business of being bustling, beautiful and laid back all in one go. It was hard to see how hard times could affect this place, but Californians are worried about the economy and jobs.
At 10.2 per cent, California’s unemployment rate is the 3rd highest in the country. Immigration and health are also big concerns. This state’s high standard of living and superb college system are under threat. Its estimated $16bn budget deficit would make even the Eurozone blush. California tends to set trends, and European austerity seems to have arrived here; whoever wins the election, they will face a tough task to stop it spreading to other states.
Bitterness, diversity and ‘undecideds’
My work has taken me to America for many years, and I have lived and studied here, so I was ready for the unique diversity this country holds. But what has surprised me on this trip is just how divided America is leading up to this crucial election. The ability to compromise, once seen as a quality, now seems to be viewed as a weakness. And this bitter election battle, with its half truths, personal attacks and downright lies, has taken its toll on the electorate.
This contest is far too close to call; and the number of people who simply cannot decide which candidate to get behind will be pivotal. It may be that, on the day, they simply vote for who the like best. To me that seems a poor way of deciding on a president.
On a happier note, I have discovered that there is no finer way to see this beautiful country than by train. I’ve seen utterly breathtaking scenery, dined with a 92 year old lady, talked politics with an Amish man, and slept comfortably in my ‘Roomette’ as the world passed gently by. As the song goes, dinner in the diner, nothing could be finer…
Richard Quest has taken to the U.S. Railways during the presidential election. The result, American Quest, will screen on CNN on:
Saturday Nov.3 at 3.30pm and 11.30pm AEDT
Sunday Nov.4 at 8am and 6.30pm AEDT
Monday Nov.5 at 9am AEDT
Tuesday Nov.6 at 9.30pm AEDT
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