CLEVELAND—About 90 miles from the Quicken Loans Arena here, two Ohio communities are celebrating an annual tradition this week: the county fair.
Residents and vacationers in Lake Erie gathered at the Ottawa County Fair Grounds in Oak Harbor. Further south, but about the same distance from Cleveland, a similar scene played out in the rural city of Bucyrus at the Crawford County Fair.
While the city of Cleveland played host to the Republican National Convention this week, life continued uninterrupted in other parts of the state. And that was certainly true at county fairs, a staple of American life beginning in June and running through October.
Reporters from The Daily Signal visited the fairs in the two counties—one voted for Barack Obama in both 2008 and 2012, the other supported Republicans for president—to get a better perspective on what Ohioans think about the current state of politics. Our story begins in Oak Harbor.
Dismayed With Country’s Direction
Home to more than 40,800 people, Ottawa County spans 585 square miles and sits on the banks of the Portage River. The annual fair, which started in 1964, is one of the youngest in the state.
On this hot Wednesday in July, fairgoers snacked on ice cream, funnel cakes, and cotton candy while moving through the rides, games, and other attractions. Young children spun around on a carousel and rode a Ferris wheel, while parents were drawn to game stands challenging them to test their skills to win stuffed Minions and Nemos—from the movies “Despicable Me” and “Finding Nemo,” respectively—for their kids.
This was dubbed Senior Day at the fair, but the grounds were filled with teenagers on summer break and preteens showing aspiring prize-winning steer.
Ottawa County residents voted for Obama in the past two elections, reflecting the statewide results in this battleground state.
In 2012, the incumbent president won 51 percent of the vote, compared to Republican nominee Mitt Romney’s 47 percent. In 2008, Obama beat John McCain 52 percent to 46 percent.
But despite their support for Obama, some Ottawa County residents have become dismayed over the direction of the country, and they blame not only the White House but many elected officials in Washington.
“I’m ready for a change. That’s the bottom line,” Bill Sinkhorn, 64, told The Daily Signal. “I’m tired of getting lied to. That’s how I feel about everything. It’s like, how stupid do they think we are? People’s word means absolutely nothing anymore.”
Sinkhorn and his wife live in Florida, but spend summers on Kelleys Island in neighboring Erie County, where she is originally from. From their front porch, the couple has a direct line of sight across Lake Erie to the roller coasters at Cedar Point.
“I’m ready for a change. That’s the bottom line,” says Bill Sinkhorn, a registered Democrat.
A registered Democrat, Sinkhorn says he voted for Obama in the Florida primary in 2008, but decided not to vote for him in the 2008 and 2012 general elections.
Over the years, Sinkhorn has grown troubled by what’s in store for future generations and worries that people have become conditioned to having things handed to them.
“Our next generation needs to move forward and have a positive outlook,” he said. “We have so many things forced on us, like restrictions on medical care, and we need to encourage people to want to work. There’s no incentive to work, and it’s very sad.”
‘Get Government Out of Our Lives’
Obama has never been popular with voters in Crawford County, unlike their northern neighbors in Ottawa County. He lost by overwhelming margins in the 2008 and 2012 elections. And it’s safe to say that the longer the president has held office, the more unpopular he’s become in this rural, agricultural community.
At the annual Crawford County Fair—the 159th—attendees joined a free-throw contest and watched a goat show and harness races as their kids enjoyed an assortment of rides and games. Fried foods and a host of food trucks decorated the fairgrounds.
Several county residents at the fair said they’re gladly looking forward to the end of Obama’s eight years as president. Some, like Tim Allamon, 59, of Bucyrus, Ohio, have witnessed the impact of the Obama economy firsthand.
Allamon once worked for a now-shuttered General Motors plant in nearby Mansfield, which at its peak employed 3,500 people. The plant closed in 2010. Allamon said it’s an up-close example of the economic turmoil in Ohio.
“If you pay a man to sit at home, he’ll learn to sit at home,” Allamon said of the drop in labor force participation and expansion of unemployment benefits under Obama.
“It’s a shame to watch our country burn before our eyes,” says Tim Allamon, a conservative from Bucyrus, Ohio.
On this sunny afternoon, Allamon and his wife Nancy, 64, were relaxing near a stand offering homemade ice cream but restless about the state of the country and Ohio in particular.
Allamon says he was a Democrat until he started listening to Rush Limbaugh on his car radio.
He introduced himself without hesitation: “I’m a right-winger, politically incorrect, and proud if it.”
Today, he said, he is disillusioned with both Democrat and Republican politicians, most notably Obama but also Gov. John Kasich, a Republican whom he says moved from the political center to the left.
“It’s a shame to watch our country burn before our eyes,” Allamon said.
When he was working for GM and serving alongside members of the United Auto Workers union, Allamon said, he brought copies of Heritage Foundation research reports to meetings to educate co-workers about policy debates playing out in Washington.
Nancy Allamon said the couple literally can’t afford to get sick. After the passage of Obamacare, their health insurance deductible spiked to $5,000—money they don’t have. They also saw their monthly insurance payments rise.
“We need to get the government out of our lives,” she said.
In addition to Obamacare, gun rights, and jobs, Nancy Allamon told The Daily Signal, she is particularly motivated by the current vacancy on the Supreme Court—and the potential for more under the next president. She thought Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s recent political comments crossed the line.
Added Roger Haas, 70, of Bucyrus: “They ought to put a mandatory retirement age on Supreme Court justices—or at least a retirement age for liberals.”
Haas said he also is outraged at the cronyism and corruption that’s become so pervasive in Washington.
“The lobbyists in Washington are out of control,” Haas said. “That’s how people make money—they try to sway the representatives and senators, then pad their palms on top of it.”
Haas’ young cousin, Wes Goodman, moved back to Ohio last year to launch a campaign for the state House of Representatives.
Goodman gave up an influential job in Washington, D.C., to bring his family to the area where he grew up. After winning the GOP primary, he is unopposed in the general election.
Goodman already had visited the Crawford County Fair three times this week. Walking around in a blue button-down shirt, jeans, and cowboy boots, he said county fairs have a special place in Ohio’s cultural fabric, particularly in rural places such as Crawford County, where farming and livestock are so important.
‘A Lousy Job’
Travel west of Cleveland, down Interstate 90 and State Route 2 to Oak Harbor, past the signs for the Lake Erie Circle Tour, and down the road running parallel to the railroad tracks that mark the town’s northern border.
In this place, a visitor finds the rhetoric that has brought Republican delegates to their feet for nominee Donald Trump also has captured the attention of Ottawa County residents.
Here, like so many inside the convention hall, Obama’s past supporters are worried about illegal immigrants and fear the government is spending taxpayer dollars on benefits for those crossing the southern border into the United States.
Marjorie Couts said she has voted for Democrats in nearly every primary and general election throughout her lifetime.
In her 82 years, she strayed from the party line just once, when she voted for Republican Dwight D. Eisenhower for president.
Couts said each and every one of her five children also is registered Democrat but decided to switch parties this election year.
A resident of Oak Harbor, Couts supported Obama in both 2008 and 2012, calling him the “best candidate at the time.” But in reflecting on the past seven years under Obama’s leadership, Couts said the president was “pretty weak” on every issue, especially immigration.
“He’s just so weak on immigrants coming in,” she told The Daily Signal. “I want them all to be checked before they come in. I’m not saying they can’t [come in], but I want them checked. There’s just too much going on.”
Although she is retired, Couts said, she worries about how the economy will affect her grandchild and great-grandchildren, especially since she has watched factories close and manufacturing jobs dwindle.
“He’s just so weak on immigrants coming in,” says Marjorie Couts, a Democrat who voted for Obama.
But she isn’t pointing fingers only at Obama.
“And those people in office right now,” Couts said, “I think they did a lousy job.”
Andrew Demshok, 53, said he also worries about the flood of illegal immigrants coming into the country.
Sitting on a bench with his wife outside a barn filled with prize-winning rabbits, turkeys, and ducks, Demshok said he supported Obama in 2008 and 2012, but begrudgingly admits it now.
His wife, she says proudly, cast her votes for Republicans.
Looking back, Demshok said he’s disappointed with the president’s action on illegal immigration.
“He’s had no backbone on that,” Demshok said, adding:
My grandparents came directly from Czechoslovakia, and they went about it right, through Ellis Island, the whole nine yards, and they spoke no English. They learned English, they went through it all.
Demshok was born and raised in Oak Harbor, although he and his wife currently live in Fredericksburg, Texas.
He said he wants to see thorough background checks for those coming into the country and rejects the president’s efforts to shield the illegal immigrant parents of U.S. citizens from deportation.
“Just because you have a child in America doesn’t mean you should be automatically admitted,” he said.
Though Demshok says he thinks immigration is the most disappointing aspect of the past seven years, he now is concerned most about new gun control efforts.
He owns shotguns, rifles, and pistols, and said Democrats in Congress are misguided in trying to make it harder for law-abiding citizens to buy guys.
“Guns aren’t the problem,” he said. “If you look back over history, Cain was killed with a rock. Do you outlaw all rocks?”
‘The Truth Will Win Out’
Although several fairgoers in Crawford County expressed dissatisfaction with the direction of the country, they said they are hopeful it’s not too late to turn things around.
For Jim Erwin, that process began even before Obama took office. He is the leader of a local tea party organization called From Citizen to Patriot, which predates most similar grassroots groups.
Worried about what he saw as the threat Obama posed to American values, Erwin began organizing in 2007. A group of 20 citizens now meets monthly at a local Pizza Hut.
“It’s not about us. But our kids and our grandkids are going to be here, and I’ve been taught my whole life you leave things better than you found them,” Erwin, 69, told The Daily Signal as he greeted visitors to a white barn where his organization had a booth.
That’s why From Citizen to Patriot is dedicated to transforming the citizens of Crawford County into American patriots, as its name suggests. It seeks to accomplish this mission with a mix of education and activism. Erwin said:
We’re about the truth and the Constitution. I don’t consider those political. We want people to find the truth. And I believe the truth will win out.
From Citizen to Patriot has delivered copies of the U.S. Constitution to 5,000 homes in Crawford County. Its goal is 13,000 more. Schools are also a prime target, especially with many devoting less time to teaching the nation’s founding documents.
“Inch by inch, liberals, progressives, socialists, communists—whatever you want to call them—have taken our rights away from us. They’ve taken common sense away from us,” Erwin said. “The Constitution used to be taught in schools. Now, not so much. It’s a daunting challenge.”
“I’ve been taught my whole life you leave things better than you found them,” says Jim Erwin, a Crawford County tea party leader.
Local volunteers from the group joined Erwin at the fair. Carol Rothhaar, 73, and Keith Laughbaum, 75, both told The Daily Signal they’re motivated by a few issues, including a skyrocketing national debt, the recent spike in terrorism, and their opposition to Common Core education standards.
A mix of homemade signs decorated their booth, among them “Wake up America!” and “What are you doing for your One Nation Under God?” A Dinesh D’Souza anti-Obama movie played on a nearby TV and the table was lined with copies of the Constitution.
So Much at Stake
Gary Bishop, 73, is the father of seven children. Five have different mothers, two have the same mother, and Bishop didn’t marry any of the women.
Bishop might not seem like the person you’d expect to find at the Crawford County Right to Life booth—that is, until he explained that all seven of his kids, who range in age from 16 to 42, are adopted. In addition to his own seven, he estimates he’s had another 50 foster kids in his home.
As secretary of the local pro-life group, Bishop wants pregnant women to know about alternatives to abortion. The organization raises money for Voice of Hope, a crisis pregnancy center in Bucyrus that Bishop proudly promoted on a neon green T-shirt.
“We want the laws changed and we want the right Supreme Court justices, but we want these young people to realize abortion is not the choice. There is no choice when it comes to life,” he said.
Few things in Bishop’s life, he says, had as profound an impact as the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision legalizing abortion. He adopted his first daughter shortly after that Supreme Court ruling and became active in the pro-life movement:
I was a Democrat until Roe v. Wade happened. I would never support any party that supports abortion. Our country started going downhill with Roe v. Wade. … Nobody embraced abortion until then. You never heard about abortion. It was quiet; you didn’t broadcast that it was your right.
Children stopped by Bishop’s booth to see the models of babies at different stages inside a mother’s womb. He’ll occasionally see women so moved by the display that they’ll share their own personal trauma with abortion.
“We have to hope that even the people who say abortion is OK will consider adoption,” Bishop said. “Even if it’s just one or two, we’ve saved a life.”
The Supreme Court’s recent decision striking down a Texas law requiring health and safety standards at abortion clinics weighed heavily on him, Bishop said. Two other volunteers, Dick and Dolly Hatfield, said the future of the court is the most important issue on their minds.
“That’s No. 1,” said Dick Hatfield, 83. “The next president might get three or four nominations.”
And they definitely don’t want to see Obama’s current nominee, Merrick Garland, confirmed to a seat on the Supreme Court.
“We know if Obama picked him, we can’t trust him,” said Dolly Hatfield, 82.
The Hatfields have been married 63 years. They have 11 children, 32 grandchildren, and 22 great-grandchildren.
As they shared their story, Nancy Ryan, 69, of Mansfield, stopped to show her support for the pro-life cause. She was working at the Child Evangelism Fellowship’s nearby tent with Dale Baer, 55, a local missionary director for the group, and Adam Caldwell, 17, a volunteer from Richland.
As they painted faces, they also preached the gospel. The volunteer said they had reached 184 young people so far at this fair and would continue at other fairs throughout the summer.
Politically, Crawford and Ottawa counties differed in the past on their choice of presidential candidates. But at times, the issues important to voters of both are very much the same.
Back at the Ottawa County Fair, Amber Crutchfield, 31, and her husband were customers at a booth serving fried fare—fried pickles, fried cheese, and fried veggies—and waited for their batch of fried onions.
A first-timer to the annual fair, Crutchfield stood beside a baby stroller holding her young son and said she worried about what seems to be an increasing number of Americans being punished for their faith.
“The country has stifled freedoms, and they’re getting taken away slowly, along with our morals,” she said.
“Abortion needs to be completely done away with,” says Amber Crutchfield of Fremont, Ohio.
But the issue of the most importance, the young mother said, is abortion.
“It’s important that unborn children have rights,” she said. “Abortion needs to be completely done away with.”
Crutchfield said it’s rare to see people speak out in defense of the unborn, and it’s a trend that she would like to see reversed.
She and her husband live in nearby Fremont, 14 miles south of Oak Harbor.
The Crutchfields, like so many other fairgoers, were far removed from the events taking place in Cleveland, where more than 2,400 delegates gathered to see Donald Trump formally accept the Republican nomination for president Thursday night.
But the current state of politics was never far from their minds.