During the last presidential election I drove from John Kerry's home in Boston to Bush's childhood home in Midland, Texas over a month, 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, from an evangelical family in rural Pennsylvania who had lost their son in the Iraq war to a drag queen in small town Missouri who had campaigned against the ban on gay marriage.
I returned the day after the election to my home in Brooklyn 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?"
Their questions seemed to refer to a foreign country with which they were not only unfamiliar, but which in many ways seemed to frighten them. Over the next few days conservative commentators crowed about the coastal elites who were out of touch in mainstream America, painting the result as payback for their condescension.
But for all their manipulative claims of victimhood (most of these commentators were themselves coastal elitists) they did seem to have a point. For all the ways in which New York, Los Angeles or San Fransisco are cosmopolitan, the political conversations that take place there are far less diverse and varied than elsewhere in the country. They refer to the rest of the country as the fly-over states - the inconvenient electoral truth in between New York and Los Angeles - deriding them for their obsession with guns, god and gays.
In my neighbourhood posters of Obama hang in estate agents, Laundromats, restaurants and corner stores, not to mention on T-shirts. I have yet to see a McCain sign or a bumper sticker anywhere. Were it not for the media you wouldn't even know he was standing. And like just about every other foreign newspaper here, all Guardian correspondents are based on the coasts, reporting on a political climate which we endeavour to understand from afar.
So rather than drive through the country and drop in on middle America this time I thought I would stick around in a town where the campaign would be decided rather than just discussed and let the election came to me. So for the next few weeks I'll be in Roanoke, Virginia a former railroad town of just under 100,000 that nestles in a valley between the Blue Ridge Mountains and the Appalachians. I'll be talking to everyone I can about almost anything they want to talk about - trying to get a sense of how the issues here relate to what is going on nationally and vice versa.
Why Roanoke? Well I was looking for a relatively small town in a swing state which, given the historic nature of Barack Obama's candidacy, has a sizeable African-American population. Preferably it would be a place where the vote between Bush and Kerry were close and where both Obama and John McCain had struggled in the primaries. A town, in other words, where both sides had work to do if they were to shore up their base, and there was everything to play for.
There were a few other candidates in Ohio, Florida and Missouri. But, as a state which has not been seriously contested for more than 40 years, Virginia tells us something specifically interesting about this election in a way the others do not. If John McCain is to win the state he must make rally his support in this south-west region to compensate for his losses elsewhere.
In some ways Roanoke could be anywhere. The poverty is slightly higher and the wages slightly lower than the national average. It voted narrowly for John Kerry in 2004 and Barack Obama in the priamaries and roundly rejected John McCain in favour of the conservative governor-cum-preacher, Mike Huckabee. In the local newspaper's poll about who won the Friday's debate, Obama won 58% to McCain's 31% - roughly in keeping with national polls. On Friday the credit crunch hit home when the local insurance agency, Shenandoah Life had its ratings downgraded because of its exposure to Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae.
But its mixture of the Southern and the Appalachian also makes it quite distinct. This is bluegrass country. The owner of the guitar store, the Fret Mill Music Company, says the economic slowdown has not yet started biting because everybody in the area has a guitar - it sounded almost compulsory. 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 its small enough that a large portion of the people catching planes seem to know each other and the security guards 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.
· Contact Gary Younge at [email protected]