AP Special Correspondent
SUNBURY — This is what it’s like to be an Ohioan in the maddening final days of Campaign 2012:
A cacophony of screeching voices spew attack ads from television and radio, hurling words like “FALSE! DECEIVING! DISHONEST!,” disrupting regular programs for up to 15 minutes at a time. Mountains of political fliers — glossy sophisticated sheets with invective stamped all over them — spill from mailboxes. Answering machines are jammed with messages from candidates or their surrogates, annoying some people so much they have turned off their phones until after the election.
Add to that the massive traffic snarls every time a presidential candidate comes to town — which lately has been every other day — and it’s hard not to feel sympathy for the beleaguered Buckeye voter.
“All this attention doesn’t make us feel special,” bellowed Greg Schreiber, a 61-year-old retired electrician who meets his fellow electrician buddies at the Sunbury Grill for breakfast once a week. “It makes us mad.”
There’s a television screen blinking in the back of the eatery. But these days, owner Sarah Arrowsmith keeps it on mute. The relentless onslaught of political ads, she says, are driving her customers — most of them older, drawn by both the homey atmosphere and the 10 percent senior discount — crazy.
“One more negative ad and the fists will be flying,” Arrowsmith said. “Or at least the dentures.”
Sipping coffee at the counter, Hank Wessel chuckled at the irony of it all.
“Most of the time we are considered fly-over country full of country bumpkins who cling to our God and our guns,” said the 68-year-old retired physician, wearing a baseball cap stamped “NOPE.” ”And then every four years we are America’s hard-working heartland when everyone is courting our vote.”
Even in an era of media saturation, where it can be hard for anybody to get away from any message for even a few hours, Ohio is a very intense place to be right now. The people whose job it is to get messages to you, the voters, are at fever pitch in the days leading up to the election, and nowhere more so than in a state that prides itself on being pivotal to figuring out who will be the next leader of the United States.
With its 18 electoral votes, Ohio is considered “the battleground of battleground states,” as Republican vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan recently called it, which is why both parties are devoting such huge amounts of money, time and energy here. While Florida and Virginia are also critical (and are also being bombarded with media advertisements) no Republican has been elected president without carrying Ohio. John F. Kennedy in 1960 was the last Democrat to win without Ohio.
The presidential campaign has already passed the $2 billion mark in fundraising, putting it on track to be the most expensive ever. Material collected by ad trackers showed the two candidates and their support groups have spent or reserved nearly $950 million so far on television commercials.
And much of that money is being poured into Ohio.
“Ohioans are used to very intensive campaigning, but this is a level of sophistication and targeting like nothing we have ever seen,” said John Green, who teaches a course in political campaigning at the University of Akron. He attributed it to the vast amounts of money being spent by super PACs, as well as the tightness of the race. At this point, he said, it’s all about getting out the vote rather than converting new voters. And, though the saturation might be maddening for many, “it’s still pretty exciting if the president or the Republican nominee comes to your little town”
Not everyone feels that way.
“It seems like Obama is on my cellphone every week,” says Michael Blaha, a 19-year-old public affairs student at Ohio State University in Columbus as he munched on chicken wings in the student union bar. His friend, 21-year-old biology student Nicole Bishop, called the candidate campus rallies “annoying” (Obama has visited several times) and she complained bitterly about how the political ads were disrupting her time on YouTube and Pandora, the Internet radio site. She’s too frustrated to vote, she said.
Outside, on a grassy area called The Oval where both parties have pitched tents and volunteers are offering rides to voting stations, there was a very different reaction from politically active students.
“Most people don’t get to see the president in their backyard,” said Adeeba Ali, a senior studying early childhood education and clutching a “Gotta Vote” sign. “It’s exciting to think that my vote is so significant.”
But she seems decidedly in the minority.
Even those whose job it is to get out the vote are reaching breaking point.
“I’m sick of all the calls, too,” said an exhausted looking Julie Smythe at Republican headquarters in Columbus last week as she handed out stickers and lawn signs to the steady trickle of supporters filing through the door. The 57-year-old receptionist said she’s even had people from her own party threaten her. “They say, ‘If I get one more piece of paper or one more call, I am going to sue,’” she said with a sigh.” Or “‘I’m not going to vote.’”
Smythe has also seen a steady stream of supporters from elsewhere show up eager for the excarticleent of helping out in a battleground state. “They are just astonished at what we Ohioans go through,” she said.
They are equally astonished by the negativity of the ads, which many Ohioans say has reached a new low this election, mainly because of the ability of anonymous groups to fund them. Among the groups pumping millions of dollars into the state: American Crossroads, a Republican-leaning super PAC with ties to President George W. Bush’s political counselor Karl Rove; Restore Our Future, founded by former Romney aides; and Priorities USA Action, a pro-Obama group.
“It’s disgusting. You can’t even relax and watch YouTube without these voices, these entities, yelling at you and we don’t even know who they are,” said Krista Brown, of Circleville, a small town about 30 miles south of Columbus, famous for its annual pumpkin festival. The 20-year-old waitress said the negativity had cost both parties her vote.
“I’m just out of high school where we were taught not to say unkind things, to be civil,” she said. “I feel like they are bullying us and each other.”
At Carl’s Townhouse in Chillicothe, Phyllis Barnhart also lamented all the money being raised “just to stab each other in the back.” The 75-year-old retired waitress and her 82-year-old husband, Clarence, who are both on Social Security, sit at the same table every day and spend exactly $13.29 for their 1 p.m. feast of soup and double cheeseburger — their only meal of the day. Then they return to their apartment in a senior housing complex to watch their favorite soaps. While they love the food at Carl’s, they simply can’t afford to occasionally treat themselves to somewhere more expensive.
“We get paid once a month and we have to make every penny count,” she said. “The candidates, they just don’t understand folks like us.”
She is also baffled by — and a bit suspicious of — early voting, which Ohio allows. In fact, many voters say they are voting early for one reason only: to get the attack ads to stop. It only makes them madder when the ads keep coming.
For some, the election season onslaught is a boon — television and radio stations, printing companies, even the harried postal carrier weighed down by more than 10 times the normal volume of mail.
“All mail is good mail,” Rob Arnold, of Ashville, chanted cheerfully over the phone as he took a break from his job in Columbus, where he is thrilled by the overtime he is earning sorting political fliers. He and his colleagues even have fun sharing the more outrageous ones: He described a fantasy-land picture of the president standing in an otherworldly ocean with pink flamingos and a smiling moon in the background.
“It’s hilarious,” he said, laughing. “But why on earth would it sway anyone’s vote?”
(One of the regulars at the Sunbury Grill, Larry Lambert, said he got so disgusted by the “propaganda” being stuffed into his mailbox that he tried to make a deal with the local postmaster: $100 to be spared all political fliers. He was unsuccessful.)
Humor is also how barber Tommy Checkler deals with election madness in his self-described “man cave” in Worthington, an upscale suburb of Columbus. Surrounded by football and hunting memorabilia, Checkler, 52, owner of The Old Village Barber Shop, mocks the television as he finishes a $16 buzz cut on customer Tim Potts.
“I’m Obama and I approve this message,” he says in an exaggerated, whiney voice. “I’m Romney and I approve this message.”
He spins Watts around on the chair.
“I’m Tommy the Barber,” he says solemnly, “and I approve this haircut.”