An Election of Lesser Evils

In the heartland, voters sound dissatisfied with both Obama and Romney

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Katy Steinmetz for TIME

Auto workers listen to local candidates at a union hall in Heath, Ohio, during Joe Klein's annual road trip on Thursday, June 14, 2012.

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Most of Romney's supporters were less melodramatic, but they had one thing in common: their vote for Romney was primarily a vote against Obama. And more than a few who might vote for Romney have been spooked by the Republican Party's social extremism. "I'm the guy the Republicans should be most worried about," said Joe Messina, a geography professor at Michigan State University. "I'm a veteran. I'm a libertarian conservative. I'm not at all pleased with Obama. But I think the Republican position on science is indefensible. At this point, I just don't know who I'm going to vote for."

Even more troubling for Romney was the reaction of a small group of first responders in Brighton, a central Michigan town located between Detroit and Lansing. I'd met with these police officers, firefighters and emergency medical workers two years ago, and they'd been in despair. Most of them were Republicans. All of them had voted for Rick Snyder, a Romney-style businessman, for governor in 2010, and for a Republican state legislature. "Boy, was that a mistake," said Kevin Gentry, a deputy fire chief and an adjunct law professor at Michigan State. "We've got huge economic problems here and what do they do? They spend all their time on social issues." Others jumped in: the Republicans were trying to regulate abortion clinics out of business, trying to limit research on stem cells at the University of Michigan, fighting over a "no helmet" law for motorcycle riders, kicking a legislator who used the word vagina off the floor of the state legislature. "I think this is going to splash over onto Romney," Gentry said. "I can't vote for [him]. He's running on the same thing that Snyder did--he's a businessman, but he has a conservative social agenda. And we've seen what comes first when they get in office," although Romney never even mentioned social issues in DeWitt. "And his opposing the auto bailout was really stupid in Michigan."

The auto bailout is a big deal in this part of the country. It is that rarest of stories in these complicated times, a government program that actually worked. Ohio's Democratic Senator, Sherrod Brown, who is up for re-election this year, loves to sing the praises of the Chevy Cruze, which is made at Lordstown--where the factory, which was nearly idle three years ago, is now working triple shifts. "It's an Ohio car!" Brown said in his gravelly, unpretentious voice. "Assembled in Lordstown. The engine is made in Defiance. Transmission in Toledo. Steel in Toledo. Aluminum in Cleveland." He went all the way to the seat covers and sound system--all made in Ohio. (I wouldn't be surprised to see an "Ohio car" ad emanating from either the Brown or the Obama campaign in the weeks to come.)

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