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Gary Younge
Small town in a swing-state election

During the last presidential election, I spent a month driving from John Kerry's home in Boston to George Bush's childhood home in Midland, Texas, stopping en route to report from the swing states. It was a fascinating, beautiful journey that brought me in contact with a broad range of Americana.

I returned the day after the election to my home in Brooklyn, New York, where crestfallen friends and neighbours struggled to comprehend Bush's narrow victory. They questioned me as though I was an anthropologist who had been roaming around the hinterland questioning the natives. "What were they thinking?" "How could they do this?" "What is wrong with them?"

These questions seemed to refer to a foreign country with which they were not only unfamiliar, but which in many ways seemed to frighten them.

So this time round, rather than drop in on middle America, I decided to stick around in a town of the kind where the 2008 campaign would be decided. For the next few weeks I'll be in Roanoke, Virginia, a former railway town of almost 100,000 people that nestles in a valley between the Blue Ridge mountains and the Appalachians. I'll be trying to get a sense of how the issues here relate to what is going on nationally and vice-versa.

Why Roanoke? It's a relatively small town in a swing state with a sizeable African-American population. The poverty is slightly higher and the wages slightly lower than the US average.

As the largest town in the state for more than 100 miles in any direction, it is big enough to have its own airport. But it is small enough that a large proportion of the people flying seem to know each other and the staff quite well. The people seem friendly and a little eccentric. I hope those impressions hold. It'll be a long few weeks if they don't.

• Gary Younge's dispatches and videos: guardian.co.uk/youngeamerica

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