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Gary Younge
Politics gets personal

On these strips of Americana, which serve as both pit stops for the long-distance traveller and shopping centres for local people, you could be anywhere in the country. Only the weather suggests that you are in Akron rather than Anchorage or Arizona.

And so it was on Friday night as hundreds of thousands of people across the country turned up at their local cinema to buy a ticket for Michael Moore's film, Farenheit 9/11 on its opening night, either to find it was sold out or to emerge two hours later with tears in their eyes.

Linda Lejsovka, a 25-year-old supply teacher, walked away from the sold-out sign for the 10.30 screening saying she'd come back another day. Earlier, Suzanne Aylward came out of the 7.30 screening vowing "to get everybody I know" to see the film. Aylward was greeted by canvassers inviting her to a meeting to discuss the film and handing out John Kerry stickers and badges, which she declined.

Aylward, who voted Nader last time, is going to back Kerry in November with reservations. "People don't love Kerry because they're not sure what he stands for. But I'm going to vote for him because he's not Bush." One of the Kerry campaigners overheard and shouted: "That's not true. Look at his position papers. Listen to what he says."

Aylward shrugs dismissively and her friend, Bobbie Watson, takes over. "I'm going to politely ask the people I know and who I trust and who trust me, who usually vote Republican or who haven't made up their minds, to at least consider voting for Kerry this time," she says. "I think they'll at least listen to me because they know I'm an open-minded person."

Welcome to the tone and tenor of the personal interactions that are going to assert the strongest influence on the forthcoming presidential election. In debates with friends, family and neighbours, at times hectoring, at others beseeching, filled with venom and vigour on both sides, such a close race is going to be won one vote at a time.

If Howard Dean's emergence from nowhere to challenge the Democratic establishment was described as "insurgent" then we are about to see the ground war. The air war of television advertising, mail shots and telemarketing will certainly help. But the millions of dollars already spent by both sides have simply kept them at a stalemate.

Most voters have already made up their minds. Many of those who haven't are going to have be addressed personally. And it will be the lost art of old-style politicking, of door-to-door canvassing, mall leafleting and coffee-shop and bar-room conversations that will really make the difference.

With the nation polarised and so much at stake, the downward trend in active participation that has characterised American political culture for the past 30 years is set to be reversed. The percentage of Americans actively engaged in politics has been falling steadily and precipitously since the late 60s.

Indeed the only aspect of political participation that has increased substantially is donating money. From 1964 to 1996 spending on election campaigns rocketed from $35m to $700m - with a sharp increase in individual donations and new records being broken all the time. "Nationalisation and professionalisation have redefined the role of citizen activists as, increasingly, a writer of cheques and letters," wrote political scientists, Sidney Verba, Kay Schlozman and Henry Brady.

In this process, culture is both the galvaniser and the glue. Crudely speaking it gives people something to talk about - a common reference point around which to organise and mobilise. This is as true on the right as it is on the left.

Initial indications suggest Farenheit grossed more than the blockbusters playing on more screens and earned more in one weekend than Moore's Oscar-winning Bowling for Columbine - until now the highest-grossing documentary ever - did in the entire time it was running. But its opening was greeted with as much excitement on the left as the Mel Gibson's The Passion was by the evangelists who form Bush's most reliable base.

The latest edition in the Left Behind series, a modern-day rendition of the Book of Revelation in which the antichrist is the head of the United Nations, was in reprint before it had even launched. The authors, one of whom was a co-founder of the rightwing Moral Majority, have sold more books than John Grisham. Meanwhile more than 20,000 people volunteered for a Left Behind "street team," promising to disseminate messages about the books to their family, friends and neighbours.

Those who refer to such gatherings as simply preaching to the choir miss the point. With few people poised to change their mind, this election will largely be about who can assemble the biggest choir. The undecideds are not just those choosing between Kerry and Bush but the soft supporters in both camps who must be hardened up.

Nowhere is this truer than Ohio, the ultimate swing state. On the day that Moore's film opened, Kerry was in Akron for his eighth trip to the state since he secured the nomination. George Bush, who won Ohio narrowly last time, has been there almost 20 times in the past four years and Vice-President Cheney is on his way this week. According to the most recent poll Kerry is ahead by 49% to 43% - free from the margin of error, but only just.

Lejsovka describes Akron, home to 217,000, as a town where "the school system sucks really badly" and she knows "tonnes of people who are losing their jobs". Last month, thanks to the decimation of the town's manufacturing base, they finally ditched its motto "Akron, the rubber capital of the world". On Thursday, while the town's nurses were striking for better wages and healthcare costs so they could afford to get sick in the very hospitals they work in, hundreds of hopefuls turned up at a job fair for the promise of 60 vacancies.

Debbie Holmes, 44, who last month lost the second job she'd had in a year was one of them. She was looking for a "job I can stay in until I retire", she told the Akron Beacon Journal. Lejsovka says she will definitely vote but not for Bush and is otherwise is unsure. "Kerry seems a little wishy-washy to me."

Winning over the likes of Lejsovka and Holmes will take persuasion rather than position papers. This will make the election far more volatile and predictions as to its outcome far less reliable. Over the past 30 years, American politics has been increasingly left to the professions. This time its personal.

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