COLUMBUS, Ohio - Some people climb Mount Everest or raft the Colorado River. Dorothy Button has chosen a different sort of adventure destination: Ohio amid a U.S. presidential election.
Visiting the farms, churches and union halls of the Midwest might not seem exotic to Americans, but Button is among a small band of international travellers who spent thousands of dollars, crossed oceans and braved superstorm Sandy to get here.
The 70-year-old former wife to the late Australian senator John Button is positively giddy about her trip to the much-talked-about bellwether state in the contest between Democratic President Barack Obama and Republican Mitt Romney.
The trip was organized by Political Tours, which specializes in current affairs travel.
"I just Googled in 'political tours' or something like this, and up came Political Tours. I went, 'Oh my god, this is real,'" she said. "I thought that's exactly what I want to do. Because I wanted to come over here to understand how you actually get people to go to the polls, because we have compulsory voting in Australia, and I'm curious to see the ballot papers, what's on the ballot papers, and to see people go to the voting booths."
Her group is on an eight-day itinerary visiting union leaders, ministers, farmers, teachers and activists across the state.
Their tour also works in a lecture by University of Akron political scientist John Green; visits with the state Democratic and Republican chairmen; a chat with journalists in the newsroom of the state's largest paper, The Plain Dealer of Cleveland; and a one-on-one with a political pollster.
Their tour leader, former New York Times foreign correspondent Nicholas Wood, created Political Tours to give avid current affairs followers a front row seat to locations around the world. He has conceived tours about Greece and the euro; Libya after the revolution; the banking crisis in the United Kingdom; and North Korea after the death of Kim Jung Il.
"The subjects we look at are very diverse, but the key thing is we try to give people firsthand access to the leading issues in current affairs," he said.
Ohio travellers like Button are using their trip to get inside the heads of the sought-after Ohio voter, who has been portrayed as all-important this election cycle. Ohio is among a handful of swing states — joining Florida, Wisconsin, Virginia and Colorado — where Obama and Romney are fighting it out most intensely for electoral votes.
Under the U.S. system, the nationwide popular vote does not determine who wins the presidency. Romney and Obama are actually competing state-by-state for at least 270 electoral votes, which are apportioned to states based on a mix of population and representation in Congress.
"For outsiders, this state has tremendous importance," Wood said. "What voters decide on here has an impact on the rest of the world, whether it's Romney or Obama. In terms of foreign policy and how they interact with the rest of the world, there are significant differences between the two of them. Obviously, as outsiders we're interested in all of that."
Button said that in Australia — where compulsory voting means you must show up or be sought out by the government — Election Day is a big party. She wonders if that will be the case in America.
"Our day is on a Saturday and we turn up and it's a bit festive. People like it. It's nice," she said. "People say, 'Oh, I love Election Day!' because we may have a sausage sizzle, and children turn up, and it's fun."
Button concedes that perhaps the $5,000 she's spent to immerse herself in a Midwestern state's politics might seem "a bit strange" to some — including members of her family back home.
"It's not for everybody, but a lot of people of my generation who have been through the social revolution from the 1960s right through to now, we're all getting older but I still think it's quite possible to take interest in that sort of travel," Button said. "The world is changing right before our very eyes."
- Politics & Government