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The Trail: 2012 Presidential News from the Field / Campaign 2012

Battleground Counties: 'People Get Along Across the Divide'

An expert on the nation's 272 purple counties says they hold a lesson for Washington.

President Obama walks with former President George W. Bush during the unveiling of Bush's official portraits in the East Room at the White House.(AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)

photo of Naureen Khan
June 9, 2012

David Dent is an associate professor of journalism at New York University who is showcasing the 272 counties in the United States that were carried by George W. Bush in 2000 and 2004, and by President Obama in 2008, on a website called BushObamaAmerica.com. Dent has traveled widely across these Bush-Obama counties, conducting interviews with the voters who tipped the scales in 2008 and will likely determine the outcome of the 2012 elections. He recently talked to National Journal about his findings in these swing regions of the country. 

NJ You’ve gone to these Bush-Bush-Obama counties all over the country. Why is that the frame that you chose?

Dent I was fascinated by looking at this piece of American culture—looking at people who are not necessarily as predetermined in their political leanings as others. I also think that’s where to some degree you find more cultural growth, where you find people that are able to often look at issues without the ideological baggage that besets people who are deeply grounded in the left and the right. Because the Bush-Obama population is so diverse—I mean diverse in terms of socioeconomics and ideology—it is really kind of the core of what will happen in 2012.

 

NJ What kind of commonalities did you find in these places?

Dent There’s a level of civility in places, where there is a swinging back and forth and where there is a large centrist population—a population that you can’t necessarily account for one way or the other. Look at what’s happening in Washington—the relationship between Congress and the White House now, and the gridlock. But when you go to these so-called purple places, you see how people get along across the divide in a way that might behoove Washington to watch and explore.

There are a lot of examples of this. I’ll start in Ohio, where we interviewed two best friends and business partners who started a company together. One is very strongly for Obama and one will vote for anyone but—and that’s Romney now, of course. In another, the chair of the Democratic Party is a history teacher and the chair of the Republican Party is his student. Their relationship is very collegial. Of course they have their feuds, but they get along very well.

In another one of the counties ... people thought things had become so tense between people over the [2008] election that they decided to have what you would call partisan sensitivity sessions.

That’s not to minimize the political divide across the country. But [I’m] looking at people who live with large pieces of the red and blue cultural experience every day, who cannot afford to dismiss people because they are across the aisle or what have you.

(RELATED: Full coverage of Battlegrounds 2012)

NJ There was a lot of disappointment with the perceived failures of the Bush administration. Do you sense that same level of disappointment with the Obama presidency as well?

Dent I interviewed several Bush-Obama Americans who were veterans and who had voted Republican all their lives, who were hugely disappointed by the sea change over the economy and the perceived incompetence of the Republicans. These were people who really believed in Bush after 9/11 and they felt deceived.

Now, they had high expectations of Obama too. The question is how has Obama lived up to those expectations? And that’s what going to be, I think, one of the key questions for that population in these counties.

NJ Do you still see a lot of that disappointment in subjects that you interview? Will they back the president again?

Dent A lot of them are still undecided. There a lot who are with him, who say Obama was dealt a very dirty hand. There’s a lot more optimism than one might perceive, based on a lot of the coverage, when you talk to people in these counties. One of the things about a big chunk of this population is that there’s a lot of pragmatism there and they are not as reflexive as both people on the right and the left. There are people who are going to consider what the country was like in 2008 and how it may not be as good as they want it now but it’s better and perhaps it’s on its own way. That is a big chunk of the people we’ve interviewed.

The issue is, has Obama made it easy for this population to say, 'Yes, he’s our guy'? Has he done enough to appeal to this piece of the country--these swingers, so to speak? Has he disappointed them, are they excited about him? The answer is largely in between, so that’s the reason it’s still a mystery and it’s still evolving.

NJ Are there specific areas of the country where the disenchantment is particularly high?

Dent Ohio is surprisingly understanding, as well as Colorado.

It’s actually in some of the counties in red and blue states where you find that there are more absolutes. That’s where I’ve found a lot of people who say, “I never should’ve voted for him”—counties in California, New York, South Carolina, Alabama, and Mississippi. People say they felt betrayed.

That really doesn’t matter when you look at the electoral map. What matters is Colorado, Ohio, North Carolina, and Florida, and there’s an undecided piece in the counties there. Even when you look at the polling number and the approval ratings, it reflects not a total disappointment.

One of the best interviews we had was with an entrepreneur in Wisconsin—he was very reflective of a lot of ambivalence about the president’s performance. First of all, he says, 'I think I’ll probably vote for Obama because there’s no Abraham Lincoln running,' but he’s still on the fence. He voted for Bush in 2000 and 2004 and voted for Obama in 2008. He understands the condition of the country and that things have improved overall but does not think that the president has lived up to the promise. At the same time, he’s not in love with the alternative. He’s what you would say is a quintessential representation of what we found in a lot of the counties, when we look at Bush-Obama voters.

 

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