In rural Ohio, the presidential campaign feels far away


MINGO JUNCTION, Ohio — Hope has been absent for so long from Appalachian Ohio that many people have forgotten what it’s like.

Idle steel mills run the length of several city blocks, empty and rusting on the thickly wooded banks of the Ohio River, like hulking tombstones for a past that died and the promise that died along with it.

What optimism exists has little, if any, connection to the presidential campaign, which for all its import feels distant and somehow beside the point.

James Rogers worked happily in the mills for 23 years, until he was laid off in 2009. He is studying to be a nurse; a job, true, but one he doesn’t really want. Still, at 44 he has a mortgage, a home deep underwater and two kids to put through college. He figures healthcare offers his best shot at a reliable paycheck.

With the coal mines giving out and the steel business decimated — about 1,500 people work in the few surviving mills, compared with 30,000 at the peak — the medical industry is by far the largest employer in Jefferson County. Young people here tend to escape if they can, leaving the frail and aging behind.

To Rogers, it doesn’t matter who wins the White House in November. He’s a Democrat and supports President Obama but doubts much would change in a second term.

“We elect this guy and all they do is bicker,” said Rogers, still big and burly from his days manning a blast furnace. “Nobody will do this, nobody will do that, it’s all partisan [bull] and what did we do? We lost four years.”

That utter lack of enthusiasm, shot through with anger and cynicism, is shared by many in rural Ohio, a target state for both sides in November. Timothy Bower, 30, runs Mama G’s pizza place, a few miles up the river in Toronto. Rolling and slicing a mound of dough, he described Mitt Romney, the likely Republican nominee, as a “typical empty suit. I don’t believe a word he says.”

Still, Romney has this going for him: He’s not Obama. The president frightens Bower with his expansive healthcare overhaul, his rhetorical shots at the rich and the red ink that has gushed over the last three years. More frightening still, Bowers said, is the prospect of Obama spared future elections and thus free to push even more radical policies.

So “unless a story comes up, something crazy [Romney’s] done in the past,” the libertarian-leaning Republican said resignedly, “I’m going to have to vote” for Romney.

White, working-class voters like Bower and Rogers are vital to the hopes of the two presidential candidates, not just in Ohio but across other battleground state like Iowa, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania. Yet for different reasons, both Romney and the president have struggled to win their support.

Four years ago, blue-collar voters strongly favored Hillary Rodham Clinton over Obama in the Democratic primaries, and a majority of the white working class backed Republican John McCain in the general election.

This year, Romney has emerged as the presumptive GOP nominee despite resistance from voters low on the income ladder. He eked out a victory in Ohio’s March 6 primary, but lost badly to former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum — the grandson of a coal miner, as he reminded audiences time and again — in the Appalachian part of the state. The margin was nearly 40 points in Jefferson County.

Conversations with dozens of voters suggest why both Romney and Obama have failed to connect, and why, for many, the choice of candidates is like picking between bad and worse.

Romney’s considerable wealth came up repeatedly, even among Republicans like George Wilson, 76, a retired Marine sergeant, who plans to vote for the former Massachusetts governor simply to be rid of Obama. (Wilson said he would vote for Mickey Mouse over the Democratic incumbent.)

“Mitt Romney seems to have a problem relating to people when he talks about his wife driving two Cadillacs,” said Wilson, pausing outside the courthouse in downtown Steubenville. “You don’t say things like that to somebody that probably doesn’t have a second car and is trying to keep the first one running.”

Margaret Morrison, a nurse in her 60s, is still getting to know Romney but doubts he has ever “been down to the level of the majority of people” in the Ohio River Valley.

“I may be wrong, but I don’t think he’s had to deal with the fact that he’s lost his job, or had to scramble to get healthcare for his family because he’s been laid off and comes to the end of his benefits,” said Morrison, a Republican. She probably won’t vote for Obama, but isn’t sold on Romney either.

Some of the opposition to the president seems racially inspired. He barely won Democratic-leaning Jefferson County in 2008, underperforming the party’s last two nominees — John F. Kerry and Al Gore — even though he carried Ohio and they both lost the state.

The population is more than 90% white and, although no one said flat-out that they disliked Obama because he is black, there were cutting references to his Kenyan heritage and suggestions that he cared more for brown-skinned people than whites.

Most of the discontent, however, stemmed from unhappiness over the touch-and-go economy and a feeling that Obama failed to deliver on the promises that got him elected. Unemployment was 10.6% in Jefferson County in February, the most recent month surveyed, compared with 8.3% nationally and 7.6% statewide.

Joseph Lastivka, a Democrat turned independent, voted for Obama the first time he ran, “hoping for change.” The 55-year-old maintenance man has done better than many around here. He has worked for the Catholic diocese in Steubenville for 26 years and kept his job throughout the Great Recession.

But there’s no missing the signs of economic hardship all around — the shrinking population, the vacant storefronts, the plunging home values — and Lastivka doesn’t sense that things are getting better. The jobs that paid well and lifted generations of rural Ohioans into the middle class have gone overseas. Gas prices have risen, and so have the deductibles and co-payments that Lastivka has to pay for his medical coverage. “This healthcare reform was supposed to lower the prices, but it’s been just the opposite,” Lastivka said.

Despite what they say in their campaigns, he said, he is skeptical Romney and Obama “can relate to somebody like Joe Schmoe down the street, that has to work two or three jobs for a living.” He’s not sure which candidate, if either, he’ll support.

In 2008, Obama lost white, working-class voters — those without a college education, making $30,000 to $75,000 a year — by 18 percentage points nationally. His showing was a notable improvement over 2004, when Kerry lost by 23 points.

In 2010, however, white working-class voters backed Republican House candidates by a 30-point margin; the same showing in November would almost certainly doom the president, which explains why Obama is fighting to hold down Romney’s margin. (Lyndon B. Johnson was the last Democratic presidential candidate to win a majority of white working-class voters.)

Here in Ohio, Obama and his surrogates have touted the rescue of the auto industry — a big boon to the state, though not a direct benefit to Appalachia — strong gains in manufacturing and support for community colleges and other sources of worker retraining. Former Gov. Ted Strickland, a Democrat and native of the region, also plans to talk a lot about Romney’s wealth and the disconnect he sees with the lives of average voters.

“There’s not a lot of people in Steubenville building elevators for their cars,” Strickland said dryly, referring to plans for Romney’s expansive La Jolla mansion.

The white working class has been a steadily declining share of the national electorate, down 15 points since 1988, and the trend is likely to continue this year. So in the political calculus, Romney probably needs to surpass McCain’s performance among those voters, unless he significantly cuts Obama’s margin among college-educated whites, blacks and Latinos.

Privately, Romney strategists acknowledge his difficulty connecting, so they intend to sell his private-sector credentials, tap a deep well of anti-Washington antagonism and focus on the uncertain economy.

New technology — the process known as hydraulic fracturing, or fracking — has opened up huge pockets of natural gas in the Appalachian region, offering the prospect of economic revival and potentially tens of thousands of jobs.

Romney has assailed Obama as an impediment to that development, an attack echoed by Republican Bill Johnson, the area’s freshman congressman. “What we know for sure is what’s happening in Ohio is happening in spite of President Obama and his policies, not because of them,” said Johnson, who defeated a two-term Democrat in 2010 by tying him to the administration.

All the back-and-forth, however, seems fairly pointless to 58-year-old Republican Richard Nixon. (Yes, really; it says so on his driver’s license.)

Nixon worked 29 years in the steel industry, until 2006. As a metallurgical analyst, he was prosperous enough to drive a new Buick Riviera off the lot the day it arrived in September 1996. Today, the teal-green midsize labors with 177,000 miles on the odometer and the scars of an unhappy meeting with a deer.

Nixon works part time selling men’s clothing in Pittsburgh, about 45 miles away, and works as a substitute teacher for $75 a day — less, he said, than the janitor makes. In all, he earns a bit over half of what he did in the 1980s. “I used to consider myself lower middle class,” Nixon said. “Now I don’t even consider that.”

Obama hasn’t helped, Nixon said, and the mere mention of Romney drew an audible snort. “I don’t really see a difference,” Nixon said. So he’s not putting a lot of stock in the candidates. He’ll vote — probably for Romney, otherwise, what right does he have to complain? — but his main focus is completing a master’s degree in education this summer.

By November, he hopes to have a full-time teaching job and, perhaps, a bit of his old life back.