British try to sway Ohio swing voters
Europeans seek voice in high-stakes election.
OBERLIN, OHIO, AND MADRID, SPAIN — As an undeclared voter living in the critical swing state of Ohio, James Chapman is accustomed to intense appeals from the presidential campaigns. But on Tuesday, the Springfield resident received a handwritten letter urging him to support John Kerry - from a stranger in England.
He's not alone. Last week The Guardian, a British newspaper, launched a campaign called Operation Clark County, which provides interested readers with the mailing addresses of undeclared voters in Clark County, Ohio - where President Bush lost in the 2000 election by 324 votes.
The novel effort is creating a stir. More than 14,000 of the paper's generally left-leaning readers have sent impassioned pleas. Many Americans - evidently disconcerted by their unsolicited British pen pals - have written back, in language not fit for a family newspaper.
This transatlantic correspondence embodies the differences between European and American politics. But it also underscores an almost desperate political energy on the part of Europeans who feel a growing alarm at the unilateral policies of the United States since Sept. 11.
Indeed, Europeans - and American expatriates on the Continent - have never watched a US presidential race with greater interest. And The Guardian's effort is but the latest bid to offer European spectators a chance to enter the American political fray.
In Spain, both Cynthia Dillon, director of that country's chapter of Republicans Abroad, and Juan Verde, chairman of its section of Americans Overseas for Kerry, agree that Europeans are paying far greater attention to these elections because so much is at stake.
Ms. Dillon, a jewelry designer who has lived in Spain for the last fifteen years, says that, for Europeans, these elections will determine nothing less than "civilization as we know it."
Mr. Verde, who was born in Spain, adds that, "These elections will determine the political tone for the next 20 years."
Menzies Campbell, a member of Parliament, wrote a letter to a Clark County voter that was published by The Guardian. "Your British friends are concerned that the rule of law has been abandoned in Guantánamo, and your willingness to adopt a right of preemption in security makes us nervous that the multilateralism that sustained American and Europe for so long is, if not being abandoned, at least being severely modified," he wrote in part.
His sentiment is shared across Europe.
Mary Paul Jesperson, Denmark's representative for the Kerry group, has observed the same development. "There's tremendous interest here - Danish TV showed 'Outfoxed' [a documentary critical of Fox News] last week, and they broadcast the debates for the first time too."
Henry Nickel, chair of the German chapter of Republicans Abroad, has noted a significant increase in the number of Germans who ask him to come speak about the American electoral system.
Not surprisingly, sentiment in Europe is running largely against President Bush.
An international poll released Friday showed that nearly two-thirds of Europeans oppose Bush.
Crispian Smith, board member of the Dutch branch of Democrats Abroad, says those findings may actually underestimate many Europeans' antipathy toward the President. "I haven't met one Dutch person who doesn't have a very strong opinion that George Bush has made a mess of things," Smith says.
Perhaps because of that opposition, The Guardian is not alone in its attempts to involve Europeans in the US election.
An Amsterdam-based website, Tell- anAmericantoVote.com, allows Europeans to send their American expatriate friends an e-mail with links to online registration forms. The site was originally designed, says founder Claire Taylor, with the Dutch in mind.
"They were highly motivated to help get out the American vote, but didn't have any outlet," says Taylor. "Now they can send e-mails saying, 'I can't vote, but you can.' It gives them a sense of having done something."
That was the idea behind The Guardian's campaign as well. "We realized that we were paying more attention to American politics than to our own," says assistant features editor Paul MacInnes, "and we wanted to give people a means of voicing their concerns."
Clearly, many of the paper's readers had concerns: as of Monday, more than 14,000 had requested an Ohio "pen pal" of their own.
MacInnes emphasizes that the paper doesn't see its campaign as meddling.
"We're not going to be affected by changes to Medicare or job creation schemes," he observes, "but we are the biggest partner in the coalition in Iraq, and we are the biggest trading partner with the States, and there is a lot of concern amongst our readership about the environment. We're just trying to offer another view-point."
But Mark Rozell, professor of public policy at George Mason University, says the effort may backfire. "Americans don't take too well to outside meddling in their electoral process," he says.
Rozell, who writes frequently about the electoral process, doubts the letter-writing campaign will help John Kerry. "It demonstrates their [The Guardian's] naïvete about how Americans view their own elections," he says.
American responses to The Guardian certainly appear to bear out Rozell's warning.
Although the newspaper has received some supportive emails from the US, it has also, in the words of MacInnes, gotten "a lot of bile."
One of the more printable responses begins, "Dear Limey $%*...." MacInnes admits that, "We've had a lot of 'Euroweenies' and bad dentistry jokes and 'We hauled you out of two world wars.' The Rush Limbaugh school of communication."
Back in Clark County, Linda Rosica, director of the local Board of Elections, says she too has received e-mails and phone calls from "appalled" citizens.
"They tell me, 'We don't care who their prime minister is; why do they care who our president is?'" But in a county where nearly 60,000 registered voters have not declared a party affiliation, most have paid little heed to the surge of mail from England.
Michelle Everhart, who is covering the story for the local Springfield News Sun, says, "There hasn't been much of an uproar."
James Chapman was hardly bothered by the unexpected correspondence. "He thought it was really well written, and got right to the point," says his wife, Tammy. "But he was going to vote for Kerry anyway."