CINCINNATI, OHIO — Feel pretty confident that Barack Obama is going to be your next president? Then you’d better have a conversation with Melissa Browman.
I encountered this 29-year-old white woman on the steps of her home in the North College Hill neighborhood late afternoon on Saturday, hours after I landed in the Queen City of the West to better reflect the name of this column, to literally politicrash on our very democracy in the last throes of this two-year campaign.
I quickly hooked up with a hearty band of Obama supporters working a blue-collar area on the north side of town and it didn’t take long before we ran into Browman, who was sitting on her front steps looking very much the undecided voter.
Browman had been listed in the campaign workers’ documentation as a “persuade,” someone who is leaning McCain, but could be encouraged into voting for Obama.
As we say in Brooklyn, good luck with that.
Indeed, in the part of the country that GOP vice-presidential nominee Sarah Palin doesn’t think is “real America,” people like Browman will rush to the polls to cast their vote for Obama, whose tax policies would indeed favor hard-working nurses like her.
But Cincinnati is arguably America’s most conservative cosmopolitan urban area — and for some reason, Browman’s tiny brick house on a street with no trees, in a neighborhood where the public schools are so bad that she scrapes every penny she has to send her kid to private school, is surrounded by other right-leaning voters.
The volunteer started asking Browman questions about her current thinking.
“I’m leaning towards Obama,” she started, giving the volunteer a cause for optimism. “It all goes down to this: I think the country is going in the wrong direction. That’s the bottom line. That’s how I vote.”
You didn’t need to be Sigmund Freud to know that there was a “but” coming.
“But I don’t know,” she said.
The volunteer gently asked if there were some questions he could answer about Obama that would set her mind at ease.
The broad-ranging conversation stuck to the bread-and-butter issues that campaign workers have been told to emphasize: Obama would be better on taxes, better on education, better on balancing the budget, better on managing The Bailout, better on job growth for a state that has lost more non-farm positions over the last seven years than it has since any seven-year period since the Great Depression.
Indeed, Browman voted for John Kerry for all those reasons.
“So, ma’am, if you thought the country was going in the wrong direction in 2004, you can’t really think it’s going in a better direction now, can you?” the volunteer said.
“No, but it’s just that …”
And suddenly, race was on the table.
“…It’s just that I can’t get my head around the fact that most black people are voting for him simply because he’s black.”
The volunteer, who is white, pointed out that black voters tend to prefer Democrats anyway and, of course, many are attracted to the historic nature of this “transformational” figure, but immediately brought it back to meat-and-potatoes issues: taxes, schools, the economy.
But Browman still had that impossible-not-to-notice hint of racial resentment.
“I’ll give you an example,” she said. “My son goes to private school and I would say there’s probably 10 black kids in the whole school. The other day, he comes home and he says, ‘Mom, we’re voting for Obama, right, because he’d be the first black president.’ Now I mean, where does he GET that?”
The volunteer, well trained not to play into racial fears by trying to argue against them, suggested merely that kids are always eager to be part of something that’s “the first” — like the first new video game for their Xbox 360. And perhaps the child was merely responding to what he learns from his civics class: that the Obama campaign would truly be “transformational” (yes, that word again).
And then the volunteer headed right back to Browman’s comfort zone: the direction of the country. He could have stayed there for hours, trying to persuade the resolutely undecided Browman, but he had to finish his route through the neighborhood, which included 10 more stops before he could eat a long-overdue dinner.
He reminded Browman that she voted for Kerry last time and that she has been disappointed by the last four years.
“Please let’s not focus on other people’s motivations for supporting Obama, let’s keep in mind why you support Obama: for all the issues we’ve been talking about.”
The conversation ended politely, but the deal wasn’t closed.
“Did I get her? I don’t know,” the volunteer said. “I don’t think there was one single thing I could have said that would’ve convinced me that she will definitely vote for Obama on Tuesday. Maybe she will, maybe she won’t.”
This state is filled with Melissa Browmans. If every Kerry voter isn’t pulling the lever for Obama — I mean, that should be automatic, right? — the senator from Illinois has a big problem in Ohio.