Barack Obama, Jay-Z and Bruce Springsteen at a rally last night in Columbus, Ohio.
Last night, I saw Obama in Columbus with Bruce Springsteen and Jay-Z. There's a trio to give you some kind of hope in America. Romney was right across town with Jack Nicklaus and a bald little gnome named Scott Hamilton. I went to both, why not, but I didn't actually stay to see the end of either.
The Obama rally was in the downtown arena, where the Columbus Blue Jackets play. There were lots of empty seats in the upper decks. Helene Cooper from the Times seemed to remember him filling arenas like this. The reporters around me worried openly about the "enthusiasm gap". I stood with a heavy thirty-something photographer from Cincinnati and a pretty famous magazine journalist from California. The photographer said "Hey, so, guys. Don't hate me but I've voted Republican every election I've ever voted in. But I voted early for Obama." The magazine journalist said that she should contact the campaign. "They ought to make an ad about you." She was too modest.
Bruce Springsteen came on. I mean, I have a fucking Bruce Springsteen tattoo and even I was a little baffled by what the hell he was doing up there. But this is no time for rock criticism. Except to say that Jay-Z, who came on after Springsteen, played five songs that were, bar none, the most thrilling musical performance I've seen in my adult life. On stage, he related a conversation:
Jay: Who's this?
Obama: Jay, I need you in Ohio with me and the Boss.
Jay: You mean Michelle is coming?
He did "99 Problems" but said that he had all those problems but "a Mitt" wasn't one.
The crowd was much more a Jay crowd than a Bruce crowd. It was young, black, smaller than it might have been. Which is basically the argument pundits have been making about the Obama coalition all along. And in Ohio it's really hard not to state the really obvious: Romney can still win if black people in Columbus, Cleveland, Cincinnati, Akron and Toledo haven't voted early, don't vote, if they're prevented from voting or their ballots are disqualified in large numbers.
We are here right now in Columbus because a rally in the capital can be spun off, if you try, as a rally just in "Ohio", whereas a rally in Cleveland is a rally in Cleveland. Obama's going to win Franklin County and the city of Columbus. But there is suddenly a great deal of worry about how much he's going to win it by, and here in the press corral we are all suddenly talking about the Franklin County suburbs, which are another one of those suburban bellwethers (what is the literal definition of a bellwether? Anyone?) that supposedly decide an election at the micro scale. They drew 15,500 people to the arena, same as in Cincinnati. But in Cincinnati there were 13,500 in the actual arena and 2,000 shivering in the overflow tent. These details draw comments. The comments are not necessarily informed.
But down in Cincinnati, where Republicans have always controlled the political architecture of the surrounding Hamilton County, things are going to be wild. Last night the Times anointed it as the bellwether. But the voter disqualification effort there has been going on since the summer and it's highly developed. Obama won it in 2008. I'll grow David Axelrod's moustache if he wins it this year, but if he can come close even after all the sneaky tricks at the county board of elections and with all the True the Vote suppressionists fanning out, as I write this, to go bully black voters out of voting, then he'll certainly be able to carry the rest of the state.
One thing you would maybe not expect: Hip-hop radio stations all across Ohio are completely bought out with political ads. I listened to Power 107 in Columbus for two hours before I heard one non-political ad, a Rite Aid spot advertising flu shots. One other thing you might not expect: Romney is advertising on black radio stations. But mostly it's stuff like this:
"Women are voting in record numbers! Black men, we need to do our part!"
"Show president Obama we've got his back!"
And indeed at all of these rallies in Ohio you can hear black men yell at pauses in the speech: "Barack! I got your back!"
I went over to the Romney rally. Obama has Bruce Springsteen; Romney has Jack Nicklaus. Ann was with him. The event was at an aircraft hangar owned by some defense contractor, I think. I was too late to bother with anything but directions. They tried to actually drive the plane into the hangar, but the pilot nearly hit a wall with the right wing, and they had to back up and try again. They made it the second time. "That was s-o-o-o cool," said Beth Myers, senior staffer. That's a real quote! They talk like that.
The crowd was slightly scary. You had to fight your way through it just to get to the press filing area, and you got plenty of elbows for your trouble. The famous magazine journalist was there too, and he mentioned that he'd been at a Romney rally in Port St. Lucie Florida, where the crowd started yelling at everyone on the press risers to sit down. "They were throwing things and pushing it," he said. "And we said, 'well, it's a pressriser! We're supposed to be standing!' And they said that they didn't care who we were."
Robert Stacy McCain, my reportorial nemesis (he was talking shit about one of my articles, in which I pointed out his hideous fashion sense), was there in the press booth, taking pictures of little girls in Romney shirts with his pink digital camera and telling the rest of us, "You should tweet about this!"
Rob Portman spoke. Ann Romney spoke. The crowd chanted U-S-A in that particularly brutal way that only a crowd of white families who really still believe that we have a problem with welfare queens in this country can really achieve. Romney spoke. You don't care what he said at this point.
The Times is already up with their voters-to-the-polls story, which contains this line about my home county: "And in Ohio, the vote in Hamilton County, which Mr. Obama and Mr. Bush both won, could signal who takes the state." Which is to say the nation. So I'm off to see.
When I left early I asked a Secret Service agent how I should get out. He said casually that I had to go through the crowd. And then he looked at me, in my leather jacket and ridiculous cowboy boots and uncombed hair, shrugged and said: "Listen man, good luck."
Jay-Z photographs by Brett Marty (BrettMarty.com). All other photos by James Pogue.
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