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the motorcycle diaries

After four years, Patrick Martin returns on his 1974 BMW motorcycle to the U.S. battleground states of Ohio and Michigan to see if voters' attitudes and preferences have changed as, once again, two presidential candidates are locked in a surprisingly close race. First up, Ohio, because no Republican has ever won the presidency without winning Ohio – not in 160 years.

In 10 days motorcycling throughout Ohio, I visited countless communities, from Port Clinton in the Northwest, to Youngstown and Steubenville in the East, to Cincinnati in the southwest and a great deal in between. I interviewed scores of people in every region of the state and learned a great deal about this key political battleground.

As Ohio goes …

The state's makeup reflects many of the cultural and political trends of the United States as a whole. A great many Southerners, largely from Kentucky, made their way to Ohio and inhabit areas all across the south of the state.

Related: 'The only chance we're got': In Ohio, Donald Trump represents hope

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The northeast, including the Cleveland area, was largely settled by people from Connecticut and other Northeastern states, while the middle of the state was mostly settled by people from the Mid-Atlantic.

"More than any other state, Ohio's population became a microcosm of the whole country due to migration patterns in the early statehood period," historians Kevin Kern and Gregory Wilson wrote in Ohio: A History of the Buckeye State.

Marketing companies have long used Ohio to test new products.

… so goes Middle America

Political demographers Richard Scammon and Ben Wattenberg in 1970 even identified the Ohio individual they saw as the U.S. "Middle Voter."

This person was a metropolitan "middle-aged, middle-income, middle-educated Protestant in a family whose working members work more likely with hands than abstractly with head."

They described this person as "a 47-year-old housewife from the outskirts of Dayton, Ohio, whose husband is a machinist."

The Dayton Journal Herald found such a woman, Bette Lowrey of Fairborn, a Dayton suburb, and followed her voting intentions. Life magazine profiled her. "It's almost like being elected," Ms. Lowrey said. "I must remember, I'm speaking not only for myself."

Anybody but Hillary

Thirty kilometres south of Fairborn sits Warren County, an affluent, sprawling suburb that largely votes Republican. Democratic organizers detected a widespread aversion to the outspoken Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump in this area and reasoned that the Democrat, Hillary Clinton, could pick up a large number of votes from disaffected Republicans, particularly women.

They would appear to be wrong.

I found lots of women in Warren County who do not like the brash Mr. Trump; I found none who said they would vote for Ms. Clinton. The most anyone might do would be not to vote for either candidate.

These women do not like Ms. Clinton's urban values, her support for abortion, her support for her husband's loose morals. They would vote for anyone but her.

This became clear when I visited the Clinton campaign headquarters for Warren County on a late Saturday morning two weeks ago.

Not only were Ms. Clinton's name and picture not in evidence on the outside of the Main Street operation, absolutely no volunteers were inside the headquarters at a time when such people would usually be working the phones, picking up lawn signs to distribute in the area and otherwise helping the candidate of their choice.

There were only two lonely staff members and lots of empty tables and chairs for non-existent volunteers.

Historic wealth

With the rusting evidence of the great decline in Ohio's manufacturing industries, it is easy to forget the state's golden era in the second half of the 19th century. That was when men such as John D. Rockefeller lived in Cleveland, where he created the giant Standard Oil Company, which made him the richest man in the world.

The city still has some spectacular neighbourhoods with great mansions and sprawling parks from that time, the product of the boom in manufacturing and steel production brought on by the U.S. Civil War.

Much of the lands held by Mr. Rockefeller and other titans would eventually become part of Case Western Reserve University and some of the city's fine hospitals.

Choc-a-bloc with colleges

Ohio became the 17th state in 1803, and wasted no time establishing Ohio University in the picturesque south Ohio community of Athens. Ohio State, the best known of Ohio's postsecondary institutions, was founded in 1872 and has a student population of 65,000.

But staying mostly off the four-lane interstate highways, I rode through town after town and discovered countless small liberal arts colleges – some with enrolments of only 200 or 300 – each with its own religious or philosophical slant.

From Antioch College in Yellow Springs (est. 1850) to Zane State College in the South (est. 1969), the state has more than 200 institutions of higher learning.

Oberlin College in northern Ohio (est. 1833) was the first college in the United States to admit African Americans, beginning in 1835, and, in 1841, it was the first U.S. college or university to graduate women with bachelor's degrees in a coeducational program.

Aboard the Underground Railroad

Ohioans did more than pioneer the education of African Americans. Ohio entered the Union as a free state, and had a long border with two slave states – Kentucky and Virginia (now West Virginia), and many Ohioans, well before the Civil War, helped smuggle thousands of runaway slaves across the Ohio River and on to Ontario.

Between the Ohio River border and the ports of Lake Erie ran some 5,000 kilometres of trails used by the runaways. Hundreds of safe houses provided security while so-called "conductors" acted as guides along the way. They guarded the people against a sizable number of Ohioans who were not opposed to slavery and against the many U.S. marshals and bounty hunters who sought to return the people to their "owners."

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