Akron Beacon Journal: International, political reporters find rare civility in Ohio

December 24, 2020

This article originally appeared in the Akron Beacon Journal on March 13, 2016. Other coverage can be found in the Ashland Times Gazette and the Richland Source.

By Doug Livingston

International journalists from 16 countries toured Ohio’s farms, statehouse and universities last week ahead of the presidential primary. The group of 22 correspondents scoured America’s heartland to understand the more moderate Midwest voter and, perhaps, to unmask the allure of right-wing populist Donald Trump.

In the three-day media blitz — coordinated by the U.S. State Department — journalists talked with farmers, students, Democratic and Republican party leaders, Republican National Convention planners, elected officials, Supreme Court judges and political professors.

But they continually struck out in their search for one political rarity: a Trump supporter in the wild.

Trump’ fans come out big for his events or primary contests. But while the biggest chunk of the Republican primary voters has supported him so far, the international journalists learned this week that Ohioans — who behave more like the moderate electorate in general elections — outnumber the front-runner’s more flinty fans.

“The consensus is almost anybody but him,” Madeleine Emholtz, a Floridian student at Ashland University, told the international press pool Thursday during a stop hosted by the college’s Ashbrook Center. She and five other students were part of a panel that engaged the international visitors.

“He’s a horrible human being,” added Sophia Leddy, a sophomore who, like Emholtz, supports Florida Sen. Marco Rubio but would consider voting for a Democrat if Trump wins the Republican nomination.

“We all seem to feel the same way about Trump but many others don’t. Help us understand why,” Italian reporter Andrew Visconti asked of the students.

Global concern

One-by-one, the international correspondents voiced concern over the rhetoric and direction Trump is taking the most powerful nation in the world.

They noted that President Barack Obama is still regarded highly in their home countries, but they worried about the future of American exceptionalism.

“America is still our umbrella, our shield,” Swiss reporter Peter Winkler said. “We are aware and we are worried … [Trump’s] temper compares to a 5-year-old sometimes. What, is he going to nuke Finland if he wakes up some day and finds that someone messed with his vodka business?”

With a Syrian refugee crisis, Trump’s more extremist statements include banning Muslim travelers and killing the families of terrorists. What makes him popular with working class voters, including some Democrats, is his call to renegotiate free trade agreements that promise to reverse trade deficits with China, Japan and Mexico.

Such international issues concern European readers. But more intriguing, noted Winkler, is how a right-wing populist, which Europe has no shortage of, has done so well in an American political system where establishment candidates tend to prevail.

“He is not the first populist with the loudest voice in the room and who is bullying his way to prominence. We have our own breed of politicians in Europe,” Winkler said.

He and others pointed to Silvio Berlusconi, a media tycoon who ruled Italy as prime minister.

“Silvio Berlusconi was an entertainer,” Visconti explained. “Silvio Berlusconi was in real estate. Silvio Berlusconi was a billionaire. Silvio Berlusconi was an embarrassment.”

“We know that Americans can be pretty rough and tough because they have been around the world being rough and tough,” Winkler said. “So muscle is not what we are surprised about. What we are surprised about is that Americans let a guy get away [with saying] he’s awesome, everything he’s going to do is awesome and once he’s in office he will tell us how everything is going to be awesome.”

Moderate Ohio

The reporters found a sensibility in Ohio that, unlike more polarized electorates in other states, better reflects the moderation of general election voters.

Trump is leading in upcoming do-or-die contests in the home states of Ohio Gov. John Kasich and Rubio of Florida. But while Florida’s winner will earn 50 percent more delegates, the international journalists find their time better spent in Ohio.

“The Midwest and specifically Ohio can be representative of the feelings of the rest of the country,” said Visconti, who joined the other correspondents in recognizing that the rancor in Republican debates or regurgitated by national news networks does not reflect the amicable spirit of Ohio, or the nation.

“Anybody who sees the debates, they should come here and talk to you,” Italian reporter Anna Guaita said to the six passionate Ashland University students who are split on political views and candidates, but nonetheless answered the journalists questions and engaged one another with respect.