“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.
To be sure, though, many Obama supporters are hanging tough. In a rich-smelling Westerville chocolates shop, a pair of what pollsters call “waitress moms” in their 30s dispense an excellent coffee, pack up gift boxes and talk politics.
Anna Nelson, a single mother, originally from Iowa, is sticking with Mr. Obama. “I only vote on social issues,” she said, referring to gay marriage and a woman’s right to choose whether to abort a pregnancy. “These are the things that matter most.”
“If Romney wins,’ she said, “I told my [teenage] daughter we’re moving to Scandinavia.”
Her colleague, Kirsten Heft, a registered Democrat born in Columbus, also will vote again for Mr. Obama, though she acknowledges that the quality of life in the area has taken a hit in recent years. “Protecting the middle class is my biggest concern,” said the mother of two teenage children.
The biggest question facing the Obama campaign is whether it can get supporters to the polls on election day (and in early balloting), especially in its northern stronghold. Indeed, the Obama campaign this week opened its 125th constituency office in the state, about double the number of the Romney campaign, in the hope that the organization’s ground game can get the President across the goal line.
On Thursday evening, Mr. Obama used Air Force One as a backdrop for a spirited rally at Cleveland’s waterfront airport intended to rally the area troops to get out the vote. Last week, also in the Cleveland area, it was the tandem of Bill Clinton and Bruce Springsteen who worked the crowd on Mr. Obama’s behalf.
But the amount of time and the quantity of money for TV ads the two presidential campaigns are spending in traditional Democratic strongholds suggest that the Obama campaign has no lock on this support. Just on Wednesday, Romney running mate Paul Ryan waded into Democratic Cleveland and gave a major speech denouncing the poverty that has gripped the city on Mr. Obama’s watch, even with the auto bailout.
Mr. Romney is benefiting from the kind of support among this group that once was enjoyed by Ronald Reagan, when so-called Reagan Democrats turned to the Republican candidate. In Ohio, it’s happening in this eastern coal country.
In nearby Hopedale, Hooty Mckee, a fiftysomething coal miner, his face still blackened from his underground shift, said the Obama policies “made me change my vote [from Democrat to Republican]” for the first time. Others nodded in agreement, though none of the rest would give his name.
Though Mr. Romney vows to ease the federal regulations against the mining and burning of coal, the shift in support for the former Massachusetts governor is more by default than because of any particular affection for a man seen by many here as elitist. The election in Ohio has become a referendum on the Obama presidency, and Mr. Romney is benefiting from the strong disaffection so many in this constituency are feeling.
It was in Ohio in 1980 that Ronald Reagan turned around that year’s election campaign against another Democratic president, Jimmy Carter. During the debate in Cleveland, Mr. Reagan asked if people were better off then than they were four years before, when Mr. Carter took office.
The answer, in the negative, led to a great many white, middle-class Americans breaking Democratic ranks and supporting the Republican.
All these years later, Ohioans are once again asking themselves the same question about another Democratic president, and their answer may well decide his national fate.
By the numbers
11,544,951 - Estimated population of Ohio in 2011.
83.6 - Percentage of Ohio population identifying as white in 2011, with 12.4 per cent identifying as black and 3.2 per cent as Hispanic.
18 - Ohio’s cache of votes in the electoral college, out of the 270 a candidate would need to win.
1960 - The last year in which the winner of the presidential race did not win in Ohio.
58,235 - The number of presidential-race TV ads that aired in Ohio between Sept. 24 and Oct 24.
$57-million - Amount (U.S.) the Obama campaign had spent on Ohio ads as of Oct. 24.
$34-million - Amount the Romney campaign had spent on Ohio ads as of Oct. 24.
10 - The number of times Barack Obama and/or Joe Biden visited Ohio in the 30 days up to Oct. 24.
21 - The number of times Mitt Romney and/or Paul Ryan visited Ohio in the same period.
2.1 - The number of points, on average, by which Mr. Obama led Mr. Romney in Ohio polls as of Friday, down from a 5.2-point lead a month earlier.
4.6 - The number of points by which Mr. Obama beat John McCain in Ohio in 2008.
Sources: U.S. Census Bureau, Bloomberg News, USA Today, Real Clear Politics, NBC News (TheGrio.com), CNN Politics.