By Susan Q. Stranahan

In 1996, long before the Clinton-Dole race for the White House shifted into full throttle, New York Times reporter Michael Winerip decided he would cover the campaign at “the pavement level of American politics.” He gathered voting data from previous elections, researched demographics, solicited advice, and then hit the road, looking for a suitable place to best capture what was on the minds of American voters. He wound up in Canton, Ohio.

This wasn’t going to be a parachute jump into the heartland. Winerip moved his family to Canton, rented a house, enrolled his kids in the local schools and even coached a soccer team. Over the course of the next year, Winerip filed dozens of stories in a series called An American Place. He gathered his insights — and his stories — about the gritty, eastern Ohio city in conversations with his barber, his mechanic, other soccer dads, and moms at the Y. “People talked to you from the heart,” said Winerip in a phone conversation a few days ago. “All this stuff builds up in you and helps direct you when you write your stories.”

Winerip’s tenure in Canton, and the favorable impression he made on local residents, who read his Times stories about their lives and thoughts in the local paper, the Repository, was recalled the other day by Repository editor David C. Kaminski in another context — Election 2004.

“We call it the Winerip effect,” said Kaminski. Canton and surrounding Stark County, it seems, have become the place from which to report the election of 2004, courtesy of the Times reporter’s legwork eight years ago. Not just the U.S. press, but reporters from Japan, France, and most recently the Netherlands. (Kaminski is still trying to find somebody to translate the Japanese article.)

There’s one major difference this time, however, and it shows up in much of the out-of-town reporting coming from the old, industrial city. “No one has made a similar effort [to get to know the people and the issues], though scores of reporters have put Canton on their to-do list, or have had it put there by assignment editors,” observes Kaminski. “We don’t take these efforts very seriously. We don’t think the results have been particularly insightful.”

And, sometimes (although Kaminski hates to say it), they have been wrong.

For reporters, the appeal of filing a story from Canton is simple: The town’s a bellwether.

Last Tuesday, readers of the St. Petersburg Times were the most recent to be introduced to the curious aura of Canton and Stark County. According to the paper’s political editor Adam C. Smith, they hold the key to the 2004 election. “If history is any indication,” Smith wrote, “the winner of the Kerry vs. Bush debate in Stark County, Ohio, will be the next president. This is the bellwether county in the bellwether state.”

As Stark County votes, so does Ohio, and Ohio has successfully picked the winning presidential candidate in every election but two since 1900. (Harry Truman and John F. Kennedy won even though they failed to carry the state.) George Bush beat Al Gore by less than two percentage points in Ohio four years ago, the same margin recorded among Stark County voters that year. Spend an hour or two talking to the homemakers, storeowners, teachers, out-of-work machinists and you’ve pretty much got a line on what most Americans are thinking. All manageable in 50 inches or a two-minute segment for the evening news. And you’re back in your own bed the next night.

This time around, according to a new Mason-Dixon poll (registration required), commissioned by the Canton Repository, Bush has a one-point lead over John Kerry (42 percent to 41 percent) among likely voters, with Ralph Nader polling at 3 percent and 14 percent of voters undecided. “It looks like a train wreck in November,” said Kaminski in a phone interview.

And just who has dropped in to write up the impending showdown? A quick LexisNexis search using the terms bellwether and Canton produces more than 50 stories over the last six months, in outlets including the New York Times, Washington Post, Chicago Tribune, USA Today, and the Associated Press. Like dowsers with their divining rods, the nation’s political writers have flocked to the eastern Ohio city hoping to hit paydirt. Or, at least, a story.

Susan Q. Stranahan wrote for CJR.