Does their role as bellwethers of the American mood make them finely fascinating travel destinations? Why, of course it does
There is a certain much-repeated wisdom about presidential elections in the USA which says that – for all the width, height and size of this enormous and diverse nation – its most important vote comes down to what a handful of states think at the given hour.
Massachusetts, New York and California may be forever Democrat Blue, and Alabama, Mississippi and Kansas eternally Republican Red – but it is the boxes ticked in the likes of Ohio, Florida and Virginia which make all the difference where the identity of the man at the big desk in the White House (and to date, it has still only been a man) is concerned.
We are nearing the seismic day again (Tuesday November 3), and the “Swing States” will be as significant as ever in the race to be the 46th or 45th-continued “leader of the free world”. It is worth peering more closely at these undecided places – these corners of the country that sway from left to right according to the political breeze – beyond their status as totems to be won by Joe Biden or Donald Trump. Does their role as bellwethers of the American mood make them finely fascinating travel destinations? Why, of course it does.
Not in the next few Covid-cursed months, obviously. But if you fancy taking a proper look at the soul of the Stars and Stripes, you can make an inspection in all the following:
The gist: It seems remarkable to think of the Sunshine State as an essential cog in the US political wheel, but it has voted with the winner in the last six elections, and its 29 electoral college votes will go a long way to deciding the 2020 edition. Nonetheless, it remains a region where the beach is never far away – and the temperature is rarely chilly.
Must-see city: Miami. Its reputation as a party metropolis – incarnate in the clubs and bars of Ocean Drive and South Beach – is not undeserved. But there is more to the city than late nights and cocktails – whether that be the cafes and Latin-Caribbean ambience of Little Havana, or the daring contemporary works in its Perez Art Museum (pamm.org).
Must-visit attraction: Disney World? Well yes, possibly, depending on your age. But there is an equally thrilling Florida experience that you don’t have to queue for. The alligator-filled wetland enclave that is Everglades National Park (nps.gov/ever) is remarkable for many reasons – but one is that it lies less than an hour’s drive from Miami.
The gist: A state which traditionally straddles the divide between white- and blue-collar America – where huge cities like Philadelphia rub up against the “rust-belt” towns of the US’s declining steel industry – Pennsylvania was a sign of the times in 2016. Though narrow, its voting for Trump was the first time it had “gone red” since the 1988 election.
Must-see city: Philadelphia. Few cities are etched into the history of the USA as deeply as the grand dot on the map where the Declaration of Independence was pronounced – in what is now called Independence Hall – in 1776, and the Liberty Bell is held as a symbol of freedom. Both are preserved in Independence National Historical Park (nps.gov/inde).
Must-visit attraction: Though it figured little in his life beyond his childhood, Pittsburgh has become a devoted protector of Andy Warhol and his artistic legacy. Its giant museum in his honour (warhol.org) is the biggest in North America dedicated wholly to one artist.
The gist: Almost schizophrenic in the contrast between its urban areas (such as damaged but delightful Detroit) and its rural fringes (its Upper Peninsula, on the north side of Lake Michigan, is one of the USA’s least densely populated areas), Michigan also went red in 2016 after six straight elections of turning blue. Its 16 electoral college votes are crucial.
Must-see city: Mention of Detroit has long attracted concerned glances and intrigued expressions in equal measure, but “Motor City” is slowly stepping away from its image as a crime-ridden symbol of metropolitan decline. True, it will surely never reclaim the economic momentum which made it one of the poster children of the Roaring Twenties – a decade whose glory still lingers in the city in Art Deco marvels like the Guardian Building (guardianbuilding.com). But Detroit is engaging and fun – and, in its Motown Museum (motownmuseum.org), still cherishes the sweet soul music it gave to the world.
Must-visit attraction: Michigan claims the whole east “coast” of the Great Lake with which it shares a name, and makes the most of this inland sea in pretty waterside towns like South Haven and Traverse City. The Straits of Mackinac, where Lakes Michigan and Huron meet under an epic suspension bridge, are one of the true beauties of the Midwest.
The gist: A true swing state in that its presidential choice has been an even split over the last three elections, Virginia is a reliable holiday destination for domestic tourists who want to hit the beach on the east side of the US. However, the early history of the country – so visible in ex-colonial sites close to the ocean – make it popular with overseas visitors.
Must-see city: Norfolk. Poised at the entrance to Chesapeake Bay, this pocket of 250,000 souls is an America in microcosm. Home to a large military base (Norfolk Naval Station), it brims with some of the hard-muscled defiance of a super-power on guard – and shows off plenty of former hardware at the Nauticus museum (nauticus.org), where Second World War battleship the USS Wisconsin slumbers in retirement. But it has an arty side too – apparent at the Chrysler Museum of Art (chrysler.org), where works by Edward Hopper, Jackson Pollock and Warhol go into bat for a rather more cerebral United States.
Must-visit attraction: Colonial Williamsburg (colonialwilliamsburg.org). There is something a little amateur-dramatic about this “living history museum” at the core of the town of the same name, where costumed actors hark back to the 18th century, speaking brightly of revolution. But there is an infectious joy to the performances, and the buildings which frame the narrative – churches, shops, courthouses – are relics of the era.
The gist: The most swinging of swing states (with another 3/3 tie over recent elections) – an indecision that makes Ohio the focus of campaigning and canvassing to a far greater extent than its 18 electoral college votes would merit were it a solid Blue or Red. Its political pendulum can partly be explained by the dichotomy between its big cities (the three Cs – Columbus, Cincinnati, Cleveland) and a hinterland that can be defiantly rustic.
Must-see city: Cincinnati. Pinned to the southern edge of the state, on the banks of the Ohio, this fabulous medium-sized city has long been a magnet for outsiders. Its National Underground Railroad Freedom Center (freedomcenter.org) salutes its history as a light in the darkness for escaped slaves fleeing the South (Kentucky is directly over the water) – while the craft breweries of its resurgent Over-The-Rhine district raise a glass to the German migrants who came west in the 19th century, bringing a love of beer with them.
Must-visit attraction: The top edge of Ohio, where it rubs against Lake Erie, issues a siren call to thrill-seekers in a range of theme parks. Cedar Point (cedarpoint.com) is perhaps the most feted, standing tall on a mini-peninsula which juts into the lake near Sandusky. It calls itself the “Rollercoaster Capital of the World”, and backs up this boast in rides with names like “Maverick”, “Pipe Scream”, “Raptor” – and “Steel Vengeance”.
The gist: Illinois’s little brother hugs the west edge of Lake Michigan – to the point that you can almost see the lights of Chicago reflected in its waterfront. It might baulk at being called a “swing state” – it has been staunchly Democrat for much of the last three decades. However, it gave a thumbs-up to Trump in 2016, in what was one of the biggest shocks of the contest. Wisconsin hadn’t gone red since voting for Ronald Reagan in 1984.
Must-see city: Milwaukee. Oil and paint mingle in this strangely underrated city on the shoreline. The Harley-Davidson Museum (harley-davidson.com/museum.html) is a vast celebration of the motorbike brand that was born in Milwaukee in 1903, holding “hogs” from every year of production. But wipe the grease from your hands before you visit the Milwaukee Art Museum (mam.org) – a temple of creativity whose main building was crafted by Santiago Calatrava in 2001. As with most of the Spanish architect’s designs, it is a vision in skeletal white – though, rather unusually, it comes with retractable “wings”.
Must-visit attraction: You do not to be a feverish devotee of Stateside sports to enjoy a tour of Lambeau Field in Green Bay. The 81,000-capacity home of the Packers – the city’s iconic American football team – is open for tours (packershofandtours.com). If the sheer size of the stadium does not impress you, the smorgasbord of gleaming trinkets in the club’s Hall of Fame – including four Super Bowl trophies – will surely catch your eye.
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World news – GB – The soul of the Stars and Stripes: A travel guide to America’s swing states