The crowd gathered at the Hillary Clinton rally held its breath as the diminutive figure on stage started to cough.
As the presidential nominee spoke yesterday at the historic music hall at Cleveland, Ohio, news broke that the bombshell dropped by the FBI a little over week ago had proved to be a fizzer. There was not going to be any re-opening of the investigation into Clinton’s use of a private email server.
The news flickered across smartphone screens across the rally but the faithful knew that damage had been done. Momentum had been lost. Perhaps not enough to erode Clinton’s lead in the all-important swing states, but there was no room for a new crisis in the last couple of days of the campaign, including renewed questions about the candidate's health. So they were listening more carefully to the cough - which came once, then again - than they were to her words. But then, when it didn’t come a third time, they waved their posters and cheered her on as she took on her opponent, point by point.
‘I know there is frustration and anger but anger is not a plan…We will grow America from the middle out. Not from the top down.’
Unlike Trump, Clinton spoke about the cost of policy and repeated her pledge not to increase the national debt. She spoke not of all of foreign policy. This was a speech aimed at convincing the audience to help convince others to get out and vote for a ‘better, fairer America’ and to ‘prove once and for all that love trumps hate’.
Eight years ago Barack Obama also chose to appear in Cleveland on the Sunday before the election. Ohio always figures prominently in electoral college maths. No Republican has won the White House without it and no Democrat since John F Kennedy in 1960. But its demographics have changed. Now, as Cleveland City Councilwoman Phyllis Cleveland describes it (and yes, that is her name), the state is ‘all red with one big blue spot and that’s Cleveland’.
For Clinton to win Ohio, people have to turn out to vote in ‘the big blue spot’ in large numbers, which means a high turnout of African-American voters.
‘I can’t imagine how any rational person could vote for Trump,’ said Councilwoman Cleveland. ‘But one problem is this election comes after the historic and exciting term of Barack Obama. Younger voters think all candidates are charismatic. They are expecting movie stars. And they have grown up hearing bad things about Hillary Clinton.’
The prevailing wisdom is that unless the Democrats win Cleveland’s Cuyahoga County, with more than 100,000 votes, the party won’t be able to win the state. Cleveland’s Democrats are still hoping but many, quietly, don’t think they are going to get there.
Those lining up behind either Trump or Clinton in this city are so polarised they are careful to avoid situations in which they might have to talk politics with someone who is voting the other way. One man at the Clinton rally didn’t want to tell me his name because his boss voted Republican and it was safer to stay anonymous.
A few hours earlier, at the New Spirit Revival Center in Cleveland Heights, Pastors Darrell and Belinda Scott were advising their predominately African-American congregation to pray before they vote and then vote with a new America in mind.
‘I can’t tell how you vote,’ Belinda Scott said during the charismatic Sunday service. ‘But let God use you. Because God is about to do some wondrous things in our nation. Something is going to be birthed in this nation and we want God’s hand on it.’
After the service Pastor Darrell Scott, who spoke in support of Donald Trump at the Republican National Convention back in July, said Trump’s message was more appealing to African Americans. ‘A lot of them are going to vote for Trump but they don’t want anyone to know because they don’t want the backlash.’
Sharyna Cloud, an African American who works with young people of Cleveland to help steer them through school and away from gangs and crime, said she admired Trump as a businessman.
'I’d love to go into business with him. But I don’t think he’s qualified to run the free world. In fact I don’t think he’s even qualified to run an office of the free world.'
And then there is the blurring of lines that shouldn’t be blurred. Over the weekend Jenny Spencer, a volunteer on the Hillary Clinton campaign, was canvassing in Cleveland when a police patrol car came down the street with a chant of ‘Trump, Trump, Trump’ ringing out through its loudspeaker. ‘That’s just plain wrong,’ she said. The Fraternal Order of Police, the largest police union in the country has endorsed Trump. But both sides would probably be surprised to hear that support extended to campaigning from a patrol car. Or maybe not.
Soon the work of Jenny Spencer and the hundreds of others involved in Hillary Clinton’s impressive ground game in this state will have done all they can. If Clinton wins the election but doesn’t win Ohio, electoral college lore will be rewritten. One common feature is that the volunteers’ plans for election night are unformed, unclear; it’s as if they haven’t let themselves think that far ahead.
Pastor Darrell Scott has, though. He’s confident of victory in the state and the nation. ‘I’m going to be with Donald Trump in New York. We have an amazing victory party planned’.
Photo courtesy of Liz Dorn, East-West Center.