“How could you do this to us?” the eight-year-old boy demanded of his grandfather, having accosted the old man in the middle of the town’s public library last week. “How could you have voted for Obama?”
“The kid was really upset because his dad was out of work,” explained Greta Christian, the librarian on the front desk in the century-year-old stone building in this Appalachian mining town. “He was being home-schooled by his mom, and he had obviously gotten an earful about how Obama policies were killing the coal industry.”
The thing is, Ms. Christian said, just about everybody in these old-growth forested hills of southeast Ohio votes for Democrats, and the 2008 election that saw Barack Obama come to power was no exception – more than 75 per cent of voters in the region cast ballots for him. Now, a lot are sorry they did. Many people here blame the Obama administration’s environmental regulations for the troubles of the once-dominant coal industry that fuelled these communities.
That desperate feeling mirrors much of an America that has seen people falling out of the middle class or barely holding on in the last four years. Whatever they think of the President and his rival, few are content with how things stand. So, 10 days before the vote, many strategists see the remarkably tight race as coming down to the state of Ohio and its 18 electoral-college votes. And, in Ohio, it’s coming down to the people of the southeast.
“This is where Ohio will be won or lost,” said Celinda Lake, a highly regarded Democratic pollster and strategist.
Which is why Republican candidate Mitt Romney, now pretty close to even with Mr. Obama in national polls, has been making so much of coal in his debates with Mr. Obama. He has said he will ease federal regulations and make “clean coal” a prominent part of any future energy mix.
Ms. Christian, the librarian, is a quintessential Obama supporter: a black woman, under 35, with a college education. She supported Mr. Obama four years ago, but, in the face of regional hardship, even she is wavering.
Across the state, it’s clear that many traditional Democratic constituencies are unhappy with the president they have elected.
It was not supposed to be like this. In 2008, Mr. Obama put together a coalition of support that included young, minority, college-educated, women and non-Southern white voters. In Ohio, it gave him a margin of victory of 4.6 percentage points.
Not now. While Mr. Obama still does well among black and Hispanic voters, he trails Mr. Romney badly among white voters, especially men and those without a college education.
Mr. Obama still enjoys relatively strong support in the northern part of the state, thanks largely to his 2009 bailout of Michigan and Ohio’s cash-strapped auto industries – one out of every eight jobs in the state is linked to the production of cars. But even there, in the Cleveland, Akron, Youngstown and Toledo areas, where the proportion of African-Americans is highest, voting for the President is not a slam dunk.
Riding into Ohio two weeks ago, the first election signs in view concerned an appeal to preserve religious freedom.
They were directed against provisions under the new federal Affordable Care Act, better known as Obamacare, that require employers (including those with religious affiliations, though not churches) to cover the cost of contraceptives – including drugs such as the “morning-after” pill.
To many Catholics, a generally Democratic constituency, this is a political deal breaker. Ms. Lake, the pollster, acknowledged the impact the issue is having on the Toledo area, home to many conservative Catholics.
Marcy Kaptur, she pointed out, has been Toledo’s Democratic member of Congress since 1983. She has done this, Ms. Lake says, by being one of the few House Democrats who is not pro-choice. This is a luxury the author of Obamacare does not enjoy.
Farther south, in Columbus and Dayton, economic issues have trumped party loyalty in many cases. Dayton is a big centre for health services, for example, and many here rally to the call to repeal Obamacare, arguing that it reduces free choice.
In the Columbus suburb of Westerville, Ruth Layman, 78, a teacher for 40 years, said she would have liked to continue supporting a pro-public education president such as Mr. Obama. But she is angry about the lack of jobs in this one-time industrial heartland and is keen to share her story.
One of the Laymans’ two sons, in his 50s, has been forced to work part-time in a fast-food restaurant after three decades in the building industry. There was nothing else available, and no benefits come with a part-time job, she griped. “It’s getting worse and worse here. In all my years, I’ve never seen anything like this.”
Ms. Layman is voting for Mitt Romney, whom she sees as a jobs-first kind of candidate.