ATHENS, Ohio — Compared to this battleground state’s major cities, voters in Southeast Ohio haven’t seen much of the presidential contenders in person so far this campaign season.
But that is changing today. Mitt Romney’s bus tour is making three stops in Appalachian Ohio — a mostly rural region that some top political thinkers from the area say has often been overlooked by politicians.
The presumptive Republican nominee is scheduled to visit American Energy Corp. in Beallsville and a Zanesville ice cream shop before an evening rally in Chillicothe.
For candidates on presidential tickets, a bus trip through Southeast Ohio is “a wise thing,” said John Haseley, who was chief of staff for the state’s Democratic former governor, Ted Strickland, and grew up in Athens.
Pete Couladis, chairman of the Athens County Republican Party’s executive committee, agrees. He said he’d been suggesting Romney do a bus tour here.
“Rural areas respond to that,” he said. “They like to see someone of that caliber.”
While Obama won Ohio in the 2008 presidential election, he did so largely on the support in and around its major cities. He even won historically Republican Hamilton County, home to Cincinnati, with more than 52 percent of the county’s votes. Meanwhile, most of Southeast Ohio’s counties supported John McCain.
Columbus, Cleveland, Cincinnati and Toledo often draw the most attention from political candidates, but most of Ohio’s residents don’t live in the state’s biggest cities, says David Wilhelm, who grew up in Athens. Wilhelm managed Bill Clinton’s 1992 presidential campaign and later chaired the Democratic National Committee.
Indeed, Ohio’s 50 biggest cities account for little more than 4 million of the state’s 11.5 million residents, according to the latest Census figures. The USDA’s Economic Research Service classifies about 19.4 percent of Ohio’s residents as rural.
But if voter turnout in the Buckeye State’s urban areas isn’t as dramatic this fall as it was in 2008, that could leave the door open for rural areas to have a bigger say in the state’s victor.
While the latest polls show Obama leading Romney by a few points in Ohio, Romney might be able to tip the balance of the hotly contested state to his favor if he can woo a base of rural voters and motivate them to vote.
In the past five presidential contests, some Southeast Ohio counties have demonstrated more willingness than other parts of this battleground state to back both Democratic and Republican candidates. The maps at left show how many times in the elections since 1992 that Ohio counties have been won by Democratic and Republican candidates. (The darker colors represent a higher instance of the party winning the county’s votes.)
Southeast Ohio’s voter tally is smaller and more dispersed than the rest of the state’s, but the region has proven that it can be critical in a close election. In 1976, a strong showing in Southeast Ohio helped Democrat Jimmy Carter clinch the state by just 11,116 votes. Another Southerner, Bill Clinton, also fared well here in 1992 and again in 1996.
But the region has proven problematic political territory for President Obama, who lost every county in the region to Hillary Clinton in the state’s 2008 Democratic primary. He then lost most Southeast Ohio counties to John McCain in the general election.
Athens, a Campus and Careers county that is home to Ohio University, has gone blue in the last five presidential elections, but all of the less-populous surrounding counties, which Patchwork Nation categorizes as Service Worker Centers, mirror Obama’s campaign troubles with working-class voters elsewhere in the country.
It’s too early to tell how well the Mitt Romney/Paul Ryan ticket and their message of being “America’s Comeback Team” will resonate here, but Romney is making an important move by just appearing in person.
“Showing up matters,” said Wilhelm, the Democratic advisor.
Voters here respond well to candidates who bring a message of economic populism, he said. They want to know: “Do you get us? Do you respect our culture?” he said.
Even before the 2008 economic collapse, the economy was struggling in many parts of Southeast Ohio. “People here want to work” is a common refrain in this area, but for decades, many people who grew up or lived here have left the foothills of the Appalachian mountains seeking work elsewhere in the state and nation.
Thus, “the importance of Appalachia in Ohio politics is not limited to Appalachia,” Wilhelm says.
Couladis, the county Republican chairman, said many people in the Athens area travel long distances to work – an hour or more to Columbus, 45 minutes to Vinton County next door or 45 minutes to Parkersburg, across the Ohio River in West Virginia.
As he helped to organize his 45-year high school reunion, Couladis said he found that about 80 percent of his former classmates are “scattered all over” – many having left for bigger cities. “Unless you get a job at the university, people are going elsewhere,” he said.
Couladis’ point only emphasizes how much of Southeastern Ohio’s problems are long-term – this exodus from the region is not new – but it also shows how desperate many voters here are for a change in their economic fortunes.
VOTER CONCERNS: JOBS, JOBS, JOBS
When Patchwork Nation visited Southeast Ohio for a week in August, jobs and the economy easily dominated the concerns of residents and voters here.
Outside a pizzeria in Logan, Harold Smith of Union Furnace says he voted for Obama in 2008 and he’s planning to do so again. But the president needs to do more to help the economy, he said.
“I think he’s done a good job,” Smith said. “I don’t think with anyone else, if you put them in that job, that they would do much better.”
Down the street waiting for an outdoor community concert to begin, Bob and Becky Lingo both wore shirts emblazoned with the phrase “MGLG: More God, Less Government.”
“If I was ever a Republican, I am now,” Bob Lingo said. “Obama wants this country to be dependent on the government.”
The retired electrician now volunteers at the Smith Chapel Food Pantry, and says it serves 900 to 1,200 families a month. “We need jobs bad,” he said, pointing out that the list of sheriff’s sales in the newspaper has grown to as many as three pages.
“One job can make or break a family,” he said.
John Graham of Logan, who dreamed up the MGLG shirts, is a recruiter and trainer for a local Tea Party chapter that he describes as “fairly active.” The retired salesman, who helps other Tea Party members try to motivate people to vote, said he’s now backing Romney. “He’s conservative enough for me,” Graham said. A strong military, a balanced budget, lowering the federal debt and deficit, in addition to some social issues, top his list of concerns this election year.
But jobs are the big driver here. The unemployment rate in Southeast Ohio has improved some this year, at least according to the latest county-level data from May, but people here say that many neighbors and family members are underemployed or have just given up looking for work, particularly in the small-town Service Worker Center counties around here.
In Athens County, the unemployment rate is only 7.8 percent. To the north and south, in Morgan and Meigs counties, it’s 10.4 and 11.7 percent, respectively. (Nationally, it’s 8.3 percent, as of July’s figures.) Still, people across Athens County point out major economic challenges and personal struggles.
“The economy is so damn bad, it’s like they’ve given up on us,” said Susan Sama, a mother of two who was picking up food at the Friends and Neighbors Community Choice Food Center in Athens County’s Lottridge. Many others can’t afford to feed their kids, she said.
“Barack Obama needs to do something,” she said. “We need more jobs, especially around the mid-Ohio Valley.”
Later this week, Patchwork Nation and the Public Insight Network will take a closer look at the campaigns’ strategies in rural Ohio and the ongoing issues of poverty and unemployment in the region.
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