Stretching from Cleveland to Cincinnati, Interstate 71 cuts diagonally across Ohio, passing through cities, suburbs and farmland--all competitive regions in the state's Republican presidential primary. "Interstate 71 is like taking a tour of the United States," said John C. Green, a political scientist at the University of Akron who co-wrote a study on how Ohio's diverse regions behave during elections. "It's symbolic because whoever can win those areas can probably win the country."
We drove I-71 last week, some 250 miles from north to south, meeting with Republican voters in their homes, schools and churches to find out whom they're casting their ballots for.
Ebony Grantonz is the vice chairman of the Republican Party of Cuyahoga County, and the only Republican besides her husband--the minister--at Mount Moriah African Methodist Episcopal Church in Cleveland. "I'm not excited about any of them," she told us of the Republican candidates, while expressing suspicions about the religions of Barack Obama and Mitt Romney.
"Rick Santorum would be the guy, as far as God and faith," Grantonz said. "But he's not on my ballot."
About 70 miles to the southwest in Ashland, Judy Echelberger said she has made big cuts in her personal life since the customers to her pet-grooming business in her central Ohio town, once a manufacturing hub, started to dwindle. Echelberger, a Santorum voter, is pessimistic about the chances of the Republican nominee to defeat President Barack Obama. She listens to talk radio all day to stay up on the news.
"I don't buy things like I used to," she said. "Don't go anywhere. Just kind of watch my pennies."
At the office of the College Republicans on the campus of Ohio State University, about 80 miles to the south in Columbus, four students debated the merits of Romney, Santorum and Newt Gingrich. "I have yet to meet a very enthusiastic Romney supporter," said Sam Zuidema, the lone Gingrich voter in the group.
One of the Romney voters, Lucas Denney, the group's vice chairman, suggested that Romney's moderation was part of his appeal: "He's a good choice for, I think, our country right now. We are not a super-liberal country. We are not a super-conservative country."
Zuidema added: "I hope that the Republican Party learned their lesson from 2008, that the youth vote matters and that's kind of what needs to be targeted. I just know from our standpoint, being in college, I get the idea that I think there's a little more libertarianism, especially when it comes to social issues."
Drew Stroemple, the group's chairman and a Romney supporter, interjected, "I wouldn't include myself in that group so much, but I know a lot of people that feel that way."
The divide over social issues like abortion and gay marriage is, Denney said, "the biggest difference between my grandfather's generation and our generation."
More than 100 miles to the southwest, George Brunemann, the co-founder of the Southwest Cincinnati Tea Party, called the current crop of Republican candidates "a mixed bag."
"I am perplexed by the fact that Republicans continue to say that 'I don't like Romney but I'm voting for him because he's the only guy that can win," Brunemann said.
"I think he's the one guy who cannot beat Obama," he went on to say." It's going to be very difficult to vote for Romney if he's the final candidate. I cannot get past his expansion of health care in Massachusetts. So I already voted for Newt."
Miki Meek is a freelance reporter who has produced stories for The New York Times and This American Life. Bob Sacha is a multimedia producer, documentary filmmaker, photojournalist, editor and teacher.
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