CANTON, Ohio–The first words from Republican state Rep. Christina Hagan when she addressed the huge crowd braving a damp chill for a Mitt Romney rally here last Friday night might have sounded more natural coming from a pulpit than from a campaign podium.
“God is pretty good, isn’t he?” Hagan called out to encouraging applause from the virtually all-white audience of nearly 10,000 sprawled across a high school baseball field. A few moments later, she added, “I am not looking for applause. Nor am I looking for a handout.” With those two pointed remarks, Hagan briskly encouraged her audience to see itself as a community whose shared values are under siege from others—unnamed, but not difficult to picture—who supposedly don’t share them.
Earlier that afternoon, about 100 people gathered for an early-vote rally at the Friendly Inn Settlement House, a community center that provides family services to residents of the surrounding Carver Park public-housing project in Cleveland. In this room, almost everyone was African-American—and the sense of siege was powerful here, too.
Hip-hop mogul Russell Simmons, actor Jesse Williams, and local elected officials portrayed the election between Romney and President Obama as a critical turning point, particularly for the black community. Speakers denounced Romney’s secretly recorded comments about the “47 percent” as a signal of contempt for the people in the room. “How do you say you want to be president ... when you have disdain for 47 percent of the population?” asked fiery Democratic state Sen. Nina Turner.
Anyone touring Ohio, the epicenter of Campaign 2012, is confronted not only with the visceral passion, but the cavernous divisions that this election has provoked. Here, and in all likelihood nationally, Obama and Romney are assembling coalitions that are inimical in their demography and priorities yet almost equal in size. Uniting Americans behind any common purpose after an election that appears certain to divide them that deeply and closely looms as a daunting, perhaps insurmountable, challenge for whichever man wins next week.
Obama doesn’t inspire the intense commitment he did four years ago, and Romney, even among his most devoted supporters, provokes respect, not rapture. And yet on both sides, the choice has stirred emotion that bleeds into despair about the prospect of the other candidate winning. Leaving Obama’s large lakefront rally in Cleveland on an unusually balmy evening last Thursday, Frank Vachon, a retired Teamster, sounded bereft at the possibility that the president could lose. “People will be devastated if it happens; I’d be devastated,” he said. “It just can’t happen. We can’t let it happen.” Romney supporters, in even more urgent and antagonistic language, often insist that the country will be unrecognizable by 2016 if Obama wins a second term.
Polls show that nationally Obama is positioned to win about 80 percent of the minority vote but struggling to attract even half as much among whites. That racial gap likely won’t be as large in Ohio, where the president (boosted by the auto bailout) is running better than elsewhere among working-class white voters like Vachon. And yet the cultural and racial gulf between Obama and Romney audiences remains enormous.
In Cleveland, Obama roused a crowd that was white, black, and brown, and included men holding hands with men, and women with women, with an impassioned plea for tolerance and inclusion. “It doesn’t matter whether you’re black or white, Hispanic, Asian, Native American, young or old, rich or poor, gay or straight, able or disabled,” the president shouted, his voice raw and ragged. “We all have a place in America.”
The next night in Canton, Romney praised liberty and patriotism, quoted “America the Beautiful,” and drew appreciative yelps from an audience dominated by flag-waving white couples with children when he made a passing reference to the Boy Scouts. “We have some Scouts here,” Romney said as the scattered cheers rose toward him. “All right.”
Many people in Romney’s audience also undoubtedly value tolerance, and there was surely no shortage of Obama supporters who venerate the flag, God, and even the Boy Scouts. But the rallies nonetheless encapsulated contrasting visions of America: one that pursues national renewal through panoramic change, the other that seeks it by upholding traditional arrangements and convictions. As the two rivals hurtle toward the finish, in many ways, Obama is rallying a coalition of transformation and Romney a coalition of restoration.
For the third time in the past four presidential elections, these divergent coalitions might prove almost identical in size. That means the outcome will likely alienate almost exactly half of us. (Emotions will spike further if the Electoral College winner loses the popular vote.) Theodore Roosevelt once said that as Americans, “our common interests are as broad as the continent.” Yet Election Day may highlight more vividly our mountainous, and increasingly impenetrable, differences. The contrast between Cleveland and Canton last week reminds us how far the winner will need to stretch after this grueling campaign to govern as anything more than the president of half of America.
This column appeared in print as “Barely One Nation.”
This article appears in the Nov. 3, 2012, edition of National Journal.