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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Ohio Swings

Air Date: Week of

The predicted close election hinges on swing voters and host Steve Curwood talks with some of the “undecideds” in the battleground state of Ohio about how their environmental concerns influence their choice for president.


CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. And let's consider a few facts about the upcoming presidential election. There are 148 million registered voters in the United States. A hundred and three million of them are likely to go to the polls on November seventh. And most have already decided whom to vote for. Now, if we don't count the states in which the race is already decided, and those states with few electoral votes, we're left with less than a million undecided voters in a few crucial swing states who will choose our next president. Less than a million people, and most of them live in the nation's heartland.

MAN: You're standing on a map of the state of Ohio, okay? How many counties do we have in Ohio, how many?

CHILDREN: Eighty, eight-five? MAN: You're close.

CHILDREN: Eight-six? Eighty-eight?

MAN: Eighty-eight, eighty-eight. Good answer, 88 counties. All right...

CURWOOD: These school kids touring the Ohio Statehouse in Columbus are getting a civics lesson about their state. And if they delve a little deeper into Ohio's voting history, they'll learn that in the last 25 presidential elections, Ohio has picked the winner 23 times. No Republican has won the White House without winning Ohio, and the state's 21 electoral votes make it a valuable prize in a tight race. So candidates spend a lot of money and time here.

NEWS ANNOUNCER: In other news tonight, after the first presidential debate last night in Boston, the candidates were back on the road today. For Governor George W. Bush, it included a stop right here in central Ohio...

CURWOOD: Ohio leans to the GOP but went for Bill Clinton in '92 and '96. Republicans control most statewide offices. Democrats rule most cities.

ASHER: Ohio is a very strong two-party state.

CURWOOD: Herb Asher teaches political science at Ohio State University.

ASHER: I think everybody expects that here in Ohio, by and large, Gore and Bush will do a good job in holding onto their base, and then it's down to a relatively small number of swing voters. Some of those swing voters, I think, might be moved by environmental concerns. So I think the environment has the potential in certain areas, in certain communities, to make a difference.

CURWOOD: That's why we've come to Ohio, to the Columbus area, the very middle of middle America. We're here to talk with undecided voters about how their environmental concerns might make a difference in the presidential race. Our first stop: the Columbus suburb of Worthington.

(A horseshoe is tossed, clinks)

MAN 1: A ringer, isn't it?

MAN 2: Yeah, rebounds don't count.

CURWOOD: When we meet Emily Briscoe and her husband Don Steckell, they are pitching horseshoes with their neighbor Jack Arnold in the back yard. It's a generous lot bordered by walnut and cottonwood trees. And out back, a creek runs along a railroad track. (Horseshoes clink; a train whistles)

CURWOOD: Emily and Don moved into their modest white Cape a few months ago. Their infant son Max is napping inside. Emily, Don, and Jack are thirty-something professionals. They all say the environment is not their only issue. But along with education, abortion, and welfare reform, it ranks high on their list.

BRISCOE: I would say they're in my top ten issues. They've been less important to me in the past, but I have a young child now. And so they're becoming increasingly important.

CURWOOD: How about you, Jack? Do you consider yourself an environmentalist?

ARNOLD: I suppose. I like to hunt and fish, so I'm very concerned about deforestation, air and water quality. Especially water quality, because I fish more often than not.

CURWOOD: All right, Don, you're on the hook now.

STECKELL: My turn?

CURWOOD: Yeah, your turn. You know the questions.


CURWOOD: So, in what ways would you consider yourself to be an environmentalist?

STECKELL: These are all going to sound like petty things, but they're the small things that we do every day. We recycle. Emily takes the bus and I drive the car that's old but gets better than 30 miles to the gallon. I don't drive an SUV. Just the small things. We try to be conscious of how much waste we produce.

CURWOOD: Emily, Don, and Jack claim no party affiliation. But all three voted for Bill Clinton in 1992. Emily and Don went for Clinton again in '96, but regarding that election, Jack confesses.

ARNOLD: I have to admit I sat that one out.

(Emily gasps)

Part of the reason why I made sure to register to vote early and get involved this time around is because I guess I'm becoming more of an environmentalist. The more I fish, the more I see that I can't eat almost any of the fish in the state of Ohio, at least if I catch them in streams. The more upset I get. And I feel like I sort of dropped the ball by not getting involved last time around.

CURWOOD: How about for you, Emily? What difference do you think the President of the United States can make for the environmental issues that you're concerned about?

BRISCOE: I'm looking for some pressure on the auto industry to make more efficient cars, less polluting cars. To sort of give economic incentives to develop new energy sources. To give some economic incentives to businesses to stop polluting. To limit their waste. I'm looking for a lot out of the president.

CURWOOD: Have you picked a candidate for President yet?

BRISCOE: I am waffling at this point between Al Gore and Ralph Nader. I'm waffling because we're in a swing state, being in Ohio, and the fear that a vote for Nader is a vote for Bush is pretty, pretty powerful.

CURWOOD: So how do you decide?

BRISCOE: I'll decide probably the day before I go to the voting booths, what the polls show. If it's neck and neck between Gore and Bush, I'll vote for Gore, just to try to help swing it. If Gore's got a comfortable lead, I'll vote for Nader because I want to send a message to the Democratic Party that they've got to support the agenda of the progressives or they'll lose the vote.

CURWOOD: If Ralph Nader were here right now, what would you need him to say or do to firmly get your vote?

BRISCOE: I don't know that he could say anything that would take me out of my quandary. I don't know that he could say anything that would make me support him any more than I do.

CURWOOD: If Al Gore walked in the door, what could he tell you that would convince you to vote for him?

BRISCOE: He would have a lot of explaining to do about the past eight years. And he may be able to do it with saying ãlook at the Congress we had to work with.ä I guess what I would like to hear from him, the one issue that could slant me, is if he came out and said he was going to do some major campaign finance reform, public funding of campaigns. That could turn me.

GORE: And I wish Governor Bush would join me this evening in endorsing the McCain-Feingold Campaign Finance Reform Bill.

MODERATOR: Governor Bush?

BUSH: You know, this man has no credibility on the issue. As a matter of fact...

CURWOOD: If the recent round of debates did anything, they showcased differences between the two major candidates, and the sharpest divides were on the environmental front.

GORE: Governor Bush is proposing to open up some of our most precious environmental treasures like the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to the big oil companies to go in and start producing oil there. I think that...

BUSH: And you bet I want to open up a small part of Alaska, because when that field is on line it will produce a million barrels a day. Today we import...

CURWOOD: So, while debates have their limitations, they do help some voters make up their minds. Voters like Ed Bane.

BANE: I really haven't paid real close attention to the issues all across the board. But when Bush said that he wanted to drill in the National Wildlife Refuge that pretty well set the hammer down for me, to make me feel that Al Gore is the one to vote for.

CURWOOD: We meet Ed Bane in the Columbus neighborhood called Clintonville. He manages a small natural foods co-op here. Smells of incense, candles, and ground coffee greet you when you open the door.

(Bells ring)

BANE: I'd say this is ground zero for the folks in the neighborhood, especially, who put the environment as their top concern.

CURWOOD: Like many of his fellow shoppers at the Clintonville market, Tom Ernie is split between voting for Al Gore or Ralph Nader. We caught him in mid-stream.

ERNIE: As I'm leaning toward Al Gore now, I don't think I'm voting for the lesser of two evils between George Bush and Al Gore. Which is sometimes, when I'm talking with my friends, this is the discussion we get into. They say, "If you don't vote for Nader, you're just voting for the lesser of two evils." I don't think that's the case. I don't consider Al Gore to be evil. I agree with the guy 75 percent of the time. But I'm concerned about the environment. That's what makes my dilemma. This would be easy if I could trust him, because he's made the environment a centerpiece of his campaign. I trust him on the other issues and where he stands on education. I trust him where he stands on gun control. On the other issues that are very important to me. When it comes to the environment, this is the one I'm concerned about.

CURWOOD: Why do you distrust Al Gore so much on the environment?

ERNIE: Well, I think because we had this uranium plant in Ohio, that he came and said that he would close down, and it did not close down. The Clinton administration, I think, had wonderful opportunities to really punish corporate polluters. And I think had an opportunity to refocus our agenda and to empower environmentalists again to work for good in their communities. And I think they missed that opportunity. I think they compromised too much.

CURWOOD: It's the day after the election. Al Gore has won. He's won by ten points, the polls were wrong. And you voted for Al Gore instead of Ralph Nader, whom you feel closer to. How do you feel then?

ERNIE: I feel good. I feel good about it. I don't think there's anyone out there who really believes that Ralph Nader is going to win this election. But I think this is laying the groundwork for future elections. And this gives him an opportunity, if he gets enough of the vote to obtain federal funds, to build the kind of movement that could happen from this point. I just don't think that our country is ready for that movement right now. I'm ready for it; I've been ready for it for years. But I don't think (laughs) that the rest of the neighborhood of Clintonville is ready for that movement, to be honest with you. It would be a difficult decision to make not to vote for Ralph Nader. He's long been a personal hero of mine. If I do vote for Al Gore and he does win, then I'll feel like I did the best, made the best decision possible.

CURWOOD: Make the best decision possible. That's a phrase we heard more than once as we spoke to shoppers at the Clintonville market about what they'll do on election day. As we left the store, Noreen Mulkayhee told us she'll have no regrets regardless of the outcome.

MULKAYHEE: I went out and did my civic duty, you know. I voted my conscience. But I would feel like the people who didn't get out and vote are really the ones who should be, you know, feeling guilty.


(Bird song)

KING: My name is Denise King. We're on the banks of the Sciota River in central Ohio. It's a beautiful fall day. We'll probably see some osprey and great blue herons fly by while we're sitting here.

CURWOOD: Denise King is a woman who loves the land, especially this stretch of it near her workplace.

KING: I can put in my kayaks four-and-a-half miles upstream at the O'Shaughnessy Dam and paddle through ten small riffles to the office. It's a very meaningful part of living here. It's a very beautiful part of living here.

CURWOOD: Here is Dublin, Ohio, a suburb of Columbus. And Denise King is a suburban soccer mom. She's pro-choice and supports gun control, but she favors a flat tax and doesn't want U.S. troops overseas. She's what political pundits call a ticket-splitter. She mostly goes Republican but voted for Bill Clinton in '92 and '96. This year, she's split between Al Gore and George W. Bush. And she's slowly, carefully, almost methodically plotting her choice. She knows that whom she sends to Washington will affect what happens at home.

KING: I work with natural resource management issues, and I have an opportunity to see every day the impact of decisions made by public policy makers on the world we live in. Sometimes they're very, very direct, such as passing a low that allows more pollution to streams or less pollution to streams. And other times, they are indirect, like when our local Congressman would keep a bill from coming up that would have set us back rather than improving the world in which we live. I think it's critical for people to take the preservation of natural areas, the preservation of these really special places, whether it's in Ohio or any other state, into account when they make decisions about who they want to elect.

CURWOOD: How do the two candidates stack up on that issue?

KING: I was pleased to see that Bush had come up with some incentives for land conservation, working through the public-private partnership. That was a very good thing to see. Gore has his land legacy program, which is also along those same lines. But with both of them, I'd like to have a better understanding of which threads they're likely to pull out of the environmental carpet. Which parts of the environmental fabric are they going to undermine? That's what concerns me.

CURWOOD: You have your reservations about Mr. Gore being the best candidate to do conservation because...

KING: I'm more focused on land conservation and preventing sprawl, and he seems more focused on energy, transportation, global warming, some of those cosmic issues.

CURWOOD: And you doubt Mr. Bush being good on land conservation issues because...

KING: Actually, I think he has pretty good incentives for a land conservation program that he announced on the shores of Lake Tahoe back some time ago. I found that when I was reading the Vote Smart Web site. It involved private incentives for landowners to participate, and I think that has a lot of merit. But I'm concerned that there are enough people in the party who believe in the rights of individuals over the rights of the community, that he might have a tough time supporting land conservation. Especially in an area like Ohio, where the land is already so chopped up. I worry about people in his own party supporting him.

CURWOOD: Ohio is considered to be a swing state, so your vote may end up counting a lot more than in a place, say, like Texas, which probably Mr. Bush is going to carry; or Massachusetts, where Mr. Gore is very likely to carry. Does that affect your decision?

KING: Yes. I relish the fact that Ohio is a key state, and that I am a swing voter. It's nice to be sought after. And, quite frankly, the candidates need to care about ticket-splitting women like me.

CURWOOD: By election day, the candidates will have spent sizeable fortunes in Ohio, wooing undecided voters like Denise King, Tom Ernie, and Emily Briscoe. It's a huge investment, but the candidates know Ohio is a valuable prize. They also know, no matter how much time and money they spend here, there are no guarantees.

WHITE: He moved through Ohio six times in the course of the campaign. On his last trip, on October seventeenth, campaigning from Middletown through Dayton through Springfield through Columbus. It had been such a day of marvel and splendor as is reserved only for heroes and gods.

CURWOOD: Assessing the size and enthusiasm of crowds that turned out to greet John F. Kennedy in 1960, Theodore White chalked up Ohio as a certain Kennedy victory. But Ohio went to Richard Nixon by nearly 300,000 votes. It was the biggest upset of the election, and as White wrote in The Making of the President 1960, a bitter pill for Jack Kennedy to swallow.

WHITE: The candidate had listened as the profile of Ohio's preference traced the biggest disappointment of his campaign. And slowly he rolled back his sleeve. His right hand, by the end of the campaign, had swollen with the handshaking of the months to grossly disproportionate size, and he displayed it now: calloused, red, the scratches reaching as far as his elbow. He held up the inflamed hand, bared to the elbow, and said, "Ohio did that to me. They did it there."

(Music up and under: "It Don't Mean a Thing if it Ain't Got That Swing")

CURWOOD: Our story on Ohio's swing voters was produced by Chris Ballman, with help from Jennifer Chu and Carly Ferguson.



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