Swing state voters wary and restive

Their party conventions behind them and a two-month sprint for the White House begun, President Obama and Mitt Romney are lavishing attention on a pool of voters in bellwether regions scattered across the nation.

For both candidates, Virginia, Ohio and Nevada play leading roles in any scenario for building an electoral college victory.

In recent days, Times reporters sampled the voter mood in those key states and found some headed one way, some another -- and many both undecided and irked as they contemplated the befuddling question of whom to trust with their country.


Chesapeake, Va.

All that money -- for the conventions, the ads, the endless calls to voters’ homes -- hasn’t worked on George Butt. The candidates are running neck and neck in this state, which went to Obama by nearly 6 points in 2008, because of people like Butt.

“They haven’t convinced me yet,” said Butt, 52, a small-business owner. Each week, he said, something pushes him in one direction or another: There was Romney’s awkward exchange with a gay veteran that gave Butt doubts about the Republican nominee -- but then again there was that ad touting Romney’s business experience, which seemed convincing.


“That’s why I’m undecided -- I don’t know who to believe,” added Bruce Kingery, 58, a truck driver who says he, like Butt, wants more information. Kingery, at home on disability after back surgery, has seen his share of television commercials trumpeting each candidate, and he says he can’t help but be swayed by them.

Kingery voted for John McCain in 2008 but feels uncomfortable with what he calls Romney’s elitism -- for example, his comment that students should borrow money from their parents to start a small business. He wishes the campaigns would take all the money they’re spending trying to convince him how to vote and apply it to the deficit.

This city went for Obama by 1 percentage point in 2008, but at the same time it chose a Democratic Senate candidate and a Republican House candidate, both by overwhelming margins, lending some credence to many voters’ claims here that they don’t vote by party. The precinct near where Kingery and Butt were shopping on a Friday afternoon was even closer in 2008 -- it preferred McCain to Obama by 5 votes.

Chesapeake is just a few miles from the retired battleship Wisconsin, where Romney unveiled Rep. Paul D. Ryan of Wisconsin as his running mate, and Romney stopped by an adjacent city, Virginia Beach, on Saturday before heading to Richmond for another campaign stop. Obama visited the area in July.

“I’m still listening and trying to figure it out,” said Lorraine Baccus, 32, a single mother who said she couldn’t watch the conventions because she works night shifts at a 7-Eleven. “Both people are saying that they’re going to do something. But how do we know if they’re going to come forward?”

One voter may have been swayed last week, but not by Obama or Romney. Flipping through TV channels Wednesday night in search of football, retired salesman Buddy Carawan, 66, saw Bill Clinton on the screen delivering his convention speech. Carawan had been leaning toward Romney, he said, but the former president made a convincing case to reelect Obama.

“I was wavering on Obama because of the economy, but I watched Clinton’s speech and he convinced me to give it another shot,” Carawan said.

“But maybe that’s just because I tend to root for the underdog.”

-- Alana Semuels


Mentor, Ohio

Amy Geszler, an accountant taking a coffee break in this suburb of Cleveland, is so fed up with the campaign and with politics in general that she is inclined to vote in November against every incumbent from Obama on down.

“I’m sick of government,” said Geszler, who voted for Bill Clinton and George W. Bush but sat out the 2008 election. “I’m sick of the lack of cooperation. I’m sick of all of it, and it’s at the expense of the American people.”

Geszler, 50, worries about the stalled economy. But she did not watch a minute of the national party conventions, and she can’t stand watching the ferocious attack ads that Obama and Romney have been airing in Ohio for months.

As a swing voter in a swing county of a swing state, Geszler is a prime target of those ads. Yet with the election less than two months away, she -- like many of her Lake County neighbors -- sees little appeal in either candidate.

“I might not vote for the first time since I was 18,” said Ryan Stakich, 36, a corrections officer buying food for his three boxers at a Mentor pet shop.

Illegal immigration, Stakich said, seems to be rising in Lake County, but Obama “wants to make all these people legal, just because they’re here.”

As for Romney, he said, “I’m not a millionaire, and I don’t know anyone that is. So how is anything he’s going to do help anyone I know?”

Lake County, just east of Cleveland, stretches 31 miles along the shore of Lake Erie. It was largely rural before World War II, but its population, now 230,000, exploded in the 1950s and ‘60s. It is 95% white, and much of its workforce is rooted in the region’s battered manufacturing sector.

Lake County’s closely divided politics mirror Ohio’s as a whole, which makes independents like George Giannakos of Kirtland the object of much attention. Giannakos, 63, a former financial manager who lost his job in a corporate downsizing, voted for McCain in 2008 but now leans toward Obama.

Obama is too liberal on spending, debt and healthcare, he said, but Romney would favor wealthy Americans. “He has no clue what the real world is like,” Giannakos said of the GOP nominee. “He’s lived in a bubble.”

Ann Fiorta, 38, a nurse on a visit to Mentor’s public library, also said that Romney was out of touch with the middle class and too antigovernment, but she is leaning toward supporting him nonetheless. Fiorta said Obama seemed arrogant and Romney’s conservative moral values reflected her own.

But what she really hates, Fiorta said, is the nonstop advertising aimed at persuading people like her.

“It’s all distorted,” she said. “It’s just not true.”

-- Michael Finnegan


Henderson, Nev.

A thin film of clouds took the edge off the desert heat as Aron Simmerman and his wife sat on a wooden bench at an outdoor shopping mall, waiting for their daughter to finish a swimming lesson.

Simmerman, a high school teacher in this Las Vegas suburb, voted for Obama in 2008 and Bush before that. Now, despite having closely watched both the Republican and Democratic conventions, he remains undecided.

The problem, he said, was that he still didn’t know what Mitt Romney would do as president.

“I have no idea what I’d be voting for,” he said. “I get that he doesn’t like President Obama ... but I have no idea what his plans are.”

Others in this sharply divided community -- which Obama won narrowly in 2008 -- said that neither Romney nor Obama did nearly enough at the conventions to explain their plans for pulling the United States out of the economic doldrums.

That isn’t stopping most people from making up their minds, though, despite what they perceive as a substance-thin campaign.

“I don’t think we got a lot of specifics,” said Bill Evans, resting at an outdoor table after an 8-mile bike ride with his wife and son. Voters already know Obama’s plans for tackling the economy, he said -- the president’s a known quantity. As for Romney, Evans said it was more important for him to introduce himself to the American people. The upcoming debates will be the time for specifics.

For Evans -- as for his wife, Rebecca -- the choice is clear. They believe that Romney would bring his business sense to the critical task of job creation. As for Obama, “He’s a great guy, and he’s got a wonderful family,” Evans said. “But he’s had four years and things are worse.”

Not far away, Ed and Shelley Jazwinski sat in a small outdoor park waiting for a free movie screening.

The Jazwinskis moved from New York to Nevada in April in search of work. But with Nevada’s unemployment rate at 12%, the highest in the nation, it hasn’t been easy. After months of waiting tables and tending bar, Shelley got a job in sales at a department store. Ed, licensed as a bus driver, is still looking.

Still, the Jazwinskis don’t blame Obama for their travails, and they don’t trust Romney to help them. “He doesn’t care much about the middle class,” Ed, 40, said of Romney. “I’d like someone who will address issues important to me, not to someone making $2 million a year.” Their votes will go to Obama.

Maybe the clearest -- and perhaps most depressing -- view came from two 74-year-old men, friends for decades, chatting over coffee outside a Whole Foods market. Giving off the sheen of aging Rat Packers, neither would give his name -- apparently, what was said in Henderson was going to stay in Henderson.

One said Romney had given him no clue about what he’d do as president, but he’ll vote for him anyway. “I’ve had it with Mr. Obama,” he said.

The second had a stock answer to every question: “I’m a hard-core Democrat, and I hate Republicans.” He’s voting for Obama.

“The bottom line,” he added, “is you’re talking to two guys who will cancel each other’s votes out. If I could trust him” -- a derisive glance at his friend -- “I’d say, ‘You stay home and I’ll stay home.’ But I can’t trust him.”

There it was, the campaign season in a nutshell.

-- Mitchell Landsberg