Voters line up to cast early ballots at the Hamilton County Board of Elections… (Al Behrman, Associated…)
CINCINNATI — It would be unfair to suggest that the fates of President Obama and Mitt Romney rest on the shoulders of two devoted partisans from opposite sides of Cincinnati. But Tim Burke and Alex Triantafilou know that after polls close Tuesday, one of them may be called a hero and the other, well, the opposite of that.
"There will be people in the party who will seek to blame," Triantafilou said. "Absolutely."
He would know. Triantafilou, 42, is chairman of the Hamilton County Republican Party. Burke, 64, is chairman of the Hamilton County Democratic Party. Both are also members of the county's Board of Elections, which oversees voting — and voting disputes.
Burke and Triantafilou are charged with helping oversee a small but crucial corner of the American electoral map.
Hamilton County, which includes multiracial Cincinnati and its mostly white suburbs, was once reliable Republican turf. But in 2008, the county broke big for Barack Obama. This year, Republicans know that if they win back enough disaffected white voters, they can win back Hamilton County. If they win back Hamilton, they believe, they can win back Ohio. And if they win Ohio, they will have paved, with the state's 18 electoral votes, crucial steps to the White House for Romney. Democrats know this too.
With so much at stake, it's clear that one of them is going to be very unhappy Wednesday morning.
"I'm trying not to think about it," Triantafilou said.
"No matter what the outcome," Burke said, "it will be busy for a while. If it's excruciatingly close, it will be particularly busy."
The pair are cordial, usually, but not what you would call friends.
"I like Tim," Triantafilou said. "Despite his head being in the wrong place ideologically."
Occasionally their rivalry gets intense, as when the Board of Elections waged a partisan 18-month war over Republican attempts to disqualify some ballots in a 2010 juvenile court judicial race.
Sometimes it's mildly antagonistic: Last week, in a Hamilton County GOP email about the sheriff's race, the party accused Burke of trying to "steal" that 2010 judicial election for the Democratic candidate, who prevailed over the Republican when the challenged votes were finally counted.
Burke shot back an email to Triantafilou suggesting that if the GOP really believed that, "then file a complaint with the prosecutor."
And sometimes it's convivial, as when the loser of a bet on the outcome of their crosstown rival college sports teams — Xavier University for Burke and the University of Cincinnati for Triantafilou — pledges to wear the other team's tie.
But mostly, the two lawyers operate in their own spheres. They were out and about Saturday in Hamilton County, neither seeming on the verge of a nervous breakdown over the close presidential election.
Triantafilou, in jeans and a red fleece pullover, was still basking in the afterglow of having ridden to and from a big Romney rally the night before on the Romney surrogates' bus. He'd rubbed elbows with Sen. John McCain of Arizona and former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania.
"It's a nice treat," he said.
Burke said no such perks come from the Obama folks. "It used to happen with the Clinton operation. Obama just operates a different way. I've gotten over it," he said.
Burke, in khakis, a jacket and plaid shirt, had started his day at his downtown law office, a restored 19th-century brick building. A "fraternal law" specialist, he operates an anti-hazing hotline out of his office, sponsored by 33 fraternities and sororities. He's run the county Democratic Party for 19 years.
Burke hopped in his black Jeep and drove less than a mile to the Board of Elections, the only venue in Hamilton County where early voting can take place.
Along the way, he took a call from a colleague trying to get supporters tickets for Obama's rally on Sunday with Stevie Wonder at the University of Cincinnati, and another from a party official trying to connect with a White House advance man for the event. He didn't think he'd be able to make it to the rally though.
"I'm not going to influence anybody at the Obama event," he said. "That's the president's job."
At the elections board, a brick building bordering on decrepit, a line snaked around the block despite the cold and drizzle. Just inside the door, paramedics tended to a young woman who had passed out. "Four years ago, we had a woman whose water broke standing in line," Burke said. "She insisted on voting before she allowed herself to be taken to the hospital."
First-time voter Kedrin Herron, 21, got so cold during his 90-minute wait, he sent his cousin for hot chocolate. "I would wait all day," said handbag maker Tanya Ballew, 54, who had pulled her hood up for warmth. "This is important."
Though nearly 70% of Hamilton County is white, most voters in line were African American. That heartened Burke, as most black voters are Democrats. "Part of it, bluntly, is who is willing to come downtown," Burke said.