Rupert Cornwell: Out of America

If a family gathering of mainly rock-solid Republicans in conservative Nebraska is anything to go by, McCain doesn't have a hope
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Barack Obama will win the forthcoming presidential election. I can report this with some confidence on the basis of my latest foray into the American heartland – both real and metaphorical.

The metaphorical heartland was my American wife's recent family reunion. It takes place every two years. The participants couldn't be a more typical cross-section of heartland America. Some 75 people showed up this year, about par for the course. If you don't count a paediatric endocrinologist from Colombia – apart from me, the only foreigner present – who married into the family a couple of years ago, they were all white. Some were from Democratic California, others from staunchly Republican Texas, others from swing states.

There were business consultants, teachers, doctors, nurses, journalists, a garden designer and a one-time Republican member of the Arkansas state legislature. Also present were a couple of former military people, one now a Fedex pilot, the other a plant manager for a large industrial company, as well as an army soldier of 24, home on leave from Iraq. It was a snapshot of a conservative America – the one that doesn't end up in the newspapers.

The venue couldn't have been more fitting, either. Is there anywhere more heartland than Nebraska City? The place boasts slightly more than 7,000 inhabitants, 96 per cent of whom are white, with a median family income of $43,000 (£22,000), slightly below the national average. It sits on the western bank of America's longest river, the Missouri, but its true claim to fame would be as the "tree capital"of America. And the family gathered at a lodge that was relentlessly tree-themed.

In this fitting setting, the reunion held its presidential poll, as in every election year, and as usual just before the family raffle and the family talent show.

One vote went to Mike Huckabee, the engaging Christian conservative and former Arkansas governor who sought the Republican nomination earlier this year. Another went to Ralph Nader, and a third to T Boone Pickens, the Texas oilman and former corporate raider who's all over the news, thanks to his plan to turn the Great Plains into a monster wind farm. John McCain, the presumptive Republican nominee, received a solid 30 votes. But the surprise winner was the Democrat, Barack Obama, with 35 votes.

I say "surprise winner" because the two main candidates are running evenly in the national polls. Given the slight overall Republican tilt of the family, I'd have expected McCain to emerge ahead. In both 2000 and 2004, George Bush won the reunion vote comfortably, but only squeaked through in the real elections.

But the result is significant, for two reasons. First, ours was not an opinion poll, but a genuine secret ballot. Thus there should be no "Bradley Effect" – the distortion whereby black candidates fare better in polls beforehand than on election day itself, ascribed by experts to people's reluctance to admit to a pollster they will vote against a black candidate, when they privately plan to do precisely that.

Second, the the reunion vote has been a pretty good indicator. Veterans say it has a 100 per cent forecasting record, though I have my doubts about 1992. I really can't imagine this unflashy, salt-of-the-earth group going for a Governor Bill Clinton, then burdened with tales of bimbo eruptions and Vietnam draft-dodging – not quite the hallmarks of God-fearing, quiet-living heartland America. But they got Clinton 1996 right, and both Bush victories. Who's to say that Obama won't make it a treble?

Obama has had his troubles of late. Given how everything's running against the Republicans – the dire economy and $4-a-gallon petrol, the unpopularity of President Bush, the latest corruption charges against an eminent Republican Senator, the clamour for change – you can't help feeling he should be farther ahead of McCain than is he is.

One reason, perhaps, is that famous Obama cool. Cool unflappability is one thing. The supercilious arrogance he is apt on occasion to display is quite another. Maybe that's why a couple of polls on Friday put his lead at just 2 and 1 per cent respectively, statistical dead heats. Seen from Nebraska City, moreover, he's an exotic and unfamiliar creature, from horizons undreamt of by most of the local citizenry. If McCain's ads last week – placing Obama on a pedestal of vacuous celebrity alongside Britney Spears and Paris Hilton – make an impact, it will be in places like this.

The members of my wife's family, however, seemed pretty unfazed. Casual comments were revealing. "Finally we'd have a President who spoke the language," one relative told me, as unimpressed by McCain's mumbling as by Bush's daily slaughter of the tongue.

Another was particularly taken with Obama's appearance in Amman, Jordan, during his recent trip to the Middle East, saying: "He may be inexperienced, but he really looks as if he can handle the job." And other Obama voters at the reunion were a normally diehard Republican and his family – a sign, perhaps, of how conservatives still find McCain the maverick so hard to warm to.

These, of course, are early days, as the pundits never cease to remind us. Not until the conventions at the end of the month, and the Labour Day start of the general election campaign proper, will people start to pay attention, they say. Personally, in this year when the candidates offer so stark a choice, and the stakes are so high, I'm not so sure. So don't write off our family vote in Nebraska City.

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