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.

Vote early, vote often… Obama casts his ballot in his home town of Chicago last week. Picture: AP

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.

Obama’s Chicago

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.

Colorado’s warning

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.

You can see more clearly from the back of a horse… Picture: CNN

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.

Austerity California

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

Comments on this post will close at 8pm AEST.

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    • iansand says:

      06:10am | 01/11/12

      On your last paragraph, I have travelled from Truckee (on the California/Nevada border) to Salt Lake City, and from Denver to San Diego. by train.  It is truly an awesome journey.  Across the desert under a full moon and through the Rockies during the day.  All of the glory without the tacky freeway detritus and those ugly, sprawling western hamlets.


      06:49am | 01/11/12

      Hi Richard,

      I must say that this is a very pleasant surprise! You do lead an exciting life and I did watch your shows on CNN way back.  And I am most certain that you have been almost everywhere on the world map, that would surely make you a good observer and a commentator on most issues like the the upcoming presidential elections in the USA. I am only guessing that this particular election is no different from the ones before or is it?  I also wanted to know who has more influence and pull in very important issues in the USA,  Americans living in the big cities or in the country side? And do they really think alike in some issues such as unemployment, healthcare, defence budget and education?

      We can have all the research , surveys and polls in the world but can we really predict how it is all going to turn out?  Having said all that I feel that this presidential election will be remarkable and different from the others. During my travels I have met some very young and intelligent Americans and just by talking to them made me realize that there is a whole new generation of potential young voters wanting more from their leaders! And come election day, those young voters will make all the difference in the world. That isn’t actually counting the power of the undecided votes in the very last moment.  Kind regards.

    • Maddy says:

      07:12am | 01/11/12

      Can I just add the comment that I adore you Richard Quest. I love your show.
      Fan girl comment done, and great article.

    • Greg says:

      09:23am | 01/11/12

      Interesting caption on the picture: the Chicago Democratic motto: Vote early and vote often.

      But never forget that any attempt to prevent vote fraud and improve voter identity checks is “racist”.

      But I suppose that anything that Democrats don’t like is racist.

    • Reality Check says:

      10:51am | 01/11/12

      Here’s a clue: passing laws that will disenfranchise tens of thousands of people to prevent a couple of hundred instances of voter fraud isn’t a good deal.

      Here’s another clue: when a law is written in such a way that it will inevitably disenfranchise tens of thousands of blacks and hispanics, that raises questions about the motives of the lawmakers.

    • Chris L says:

      10:59am | 01/11/12

      Rate of attempted voter fraud in the US: 1 in every 15 million voters attempting voter impersonation, which is the only fraud ID would work against.

      Population without sufficient identification: 11% of population.

      Prevent 21 million people (mostly poor people, students, immigrants) from voting to prevent 10 people from attempting fraud. Great idea.

      Note that student ID would not be sufficient, but a gun licence would be. Draw your own conclusions about what they’re trying to do.

    • Greg says:

      02:19pm | 01/11/12

      @Reality Check, voter ID laws don’t disenfranchise anybody. You are telling lies. The truth is that anybody who is eligible to vote can still vote. All they have to do is verify their identity, with one of many approved sources of ID. Furthermore, free government issued IDs are available to anybody who doesn’t have any other type of recognised ID card.

      And guess what, the free ID cards are available to black and hispanic citizens too.

      The extent of voter fraud cannot even be determined when there are no checks for it, so made-up estimates of a few hundred proven cases are irrelevant.

      Voting is not compulsory in the US and there are often low voter turnouts, making it easy to vote as another person without being detected.

      It is the reluctance of some lawmakers to support voter ID laws that raises questions about their motives, especially when their own relatives and campaign staff have been encouraging fraudulent voting:

      Voter ID laws will make it more difficult for any party to rig elections, including any Republicans who might attempt to do so.

    • K^2 says:

      09:27am | 01/11/12

      “felt the brave new world promised in 2008 remained distant. “
      I wish the media would stop parrotting this “brave new world” phrase.  Do you have ANY idea at all what it means Richard!?  If you did, you wouldn’t be using this terminology, unless you agreed with what it stands for.
      Try reading Aldous Huxley and his brave new world for starters.

      Next - why do we care who wins?  We cant influence it, we cant change it, whoever wins is not up to us, and we know from history that Americans have a long and distinguished history of picking corrupt idiots to run the country (and influence the world) so the best we can hope for is someone not so corrupt.  Unfortunately corrpution in American pollitic is extremely deep seeded, and its not likely we will ever get someone honest there, because all candidates are corrupted somehow, its just the nature of their system where corporate entities can lobby and pay for those in power to be there.  The system is corrupt by design, this much is obvious to anyone with half a brain. 

      The next president has already been (S)-Elected, and nothing we wish or hope for here is going to amend their agenda.

      As for gun control, the whole purpose of gun control is to take guns away from the people so they cant rise up against government.  So the more control government gets the more they want guns out of the hands of the people, because the less they want to give up their power.  It took one event in Australia to disarm the nation - and what do we see now, drive by shootings, plenty of gun crime and those that truly need protection and will use the guns responsibly left completely defenseless to rely on the state for protection instead of being able to exercise their natural law right to self defence. the crooks still have guns (including the uniformed, state sponsored, crooks) the ones that need the guns for self defence are just screwed because occasionally one idiot cant control themselves.

    • My name my vote says:

      10:35am | 01/11/12

      @Greg says:09:23am | 01/11/12

      Just wondering where this outbreak of vote fraud is happening?  Have to say the balance of articles I have noticed are more about long term (& likley Obama voters) residentsbeing notified in the post about having their registrations removed because information on one government data base didn’t match another data base or challenged at the balllot box because they look Hispanic. 

      Seems more like an effort to knock out likley democrat voters to me.

      By the way, voted in Council elections in Vic on the weekend and we are not asked for ID here…. guess you want to change that as well?


    • simonfromlakemba says:

      11:43am | 01/11/12

      Romney flip flopping again, this time with FEMA

      “Every time you have an occasion to take something from the federal government and send it back to the states, that’s the right direction,” Romney said at a debate last June. “And if you can go even further, and send it back to the private sector, that’s even better.”

      Asked by moderator John King of CNN whether that would include disaster relief, Romney said: “We cannot afford to do those things without jeopardizing the future for our kids. It is simply immoral, in my view, for us to continue to rack up larger and larger debts and pass them on to our kids.”

      AND NOW

      “I believe that FEMA plays a key role in working with states and localities to prepare for and respond to natural disasters,” Romney said in a statement supplied by his campaign Wednesday. “As president, I will ensure FEMA has the funding it needs to fulfill its mission, while directing maximum resources to the first responders who work tirelessly to help those in need, because states and localities are in the best position to get aid to the individuals and communities affected by natural disasters.

      Reminds me of Abbott and FWA!

    • ted says:

      12:57pm | 01/11/12

      Or Gillard in support of Rudd, surpluses, refugess, carbon taxes, mining taxes…...zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz

    • stephen says:

      04:27pm | 01/11/12

      Obama is OK, but he does not want to get hoodwinked by Iran.
      It and Egypt - which is now very unstable, and in all ways -  may want to convolute a pact with Hezbollah to further destabilize Syria.
      May be already happening, and I reckon that the entry wound for us will be Iran.

      You gotta wonder for what reason Iran is playing for time.


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