Bellwether travels: Will the rural vote help win Ohio for Mitt?

posted at 5:41 pm on November 6, 2012 by Mary Katharine Ham

Bowling Green, a town of 30,000, was carved out of the mucky wetlands they call the Great Black Swamp— a remnant of an ancient glacier that made the shores of Lake Eerie one of the best places to get a wagon wheel stuck in the 1800s. A nearby oil discovery brought money to the farming area in the late 1800s, and its legacy remains in the towering, tony homes still standing on the town’s main drag. They’re now surrounded by the characteristically shabby group houses of a college town, 20-somethings jogging in the brisk fall weather or lounging on porch couches.

If Ohio is a bellwether for the nation, the northwest corner is a bellwether for the state, and Wood County is a bellwether for the whole shebang. The county has been a reliable predictor of the mood of the nation, missing only one presidential pick since 1964 in 1976— one of only a handful of counties in the nation to do so (Ohio’s Tuscarawas County in the east is another). A Sunday Columbus Dispatch poll showed Obama up two in the state, but Romney up four in this region.

Wood’s combination of Bowling Green State University professors and young college students surrounded by communities of rural, churchgoing voters who lean right makes it a microcosm of the 50-50 nation.

One of those conservative voters sat in a local coffee shop on Main St. this weekend, discussing politics in hushed tones with a friend. Grounds for Thought is owned by a local Democrat running for Ohio house, so Barbara a retired teacher was careful to keep it quiet because, frankly, “we like their coffee.”

“My husband and I are in the farming community,” Barbara said. “So, many of the farm people that we talk to and the signs in their yard are for Romney.”

Like every other Republican in the state, Barbara points out encouraging anecdotes— her 92-year-old neighbor hasn’t had a political sign in his yard in 30 years until he put one up for the GOP candidate, 10 of 13 in her retired teachers group leaning right in a recent meeting. Though things seem quieter on the college campus for Obama than they were in 2008, she says the farming vote will have to turn out to make it happen for Romney.

“I definitely think they’re more excited (than 2008),” Barbara said of Republican voters, ticking off the locations of Romney’s large rallies in places like Defiance and Findlay.

She remembers how an underreported evangelical turnout won the state for for George W. Bush in 2004. The Romney campaign has done much less overt outreach to evangelical voters than Bush, but outside groups are in the state and seem convinced they’ll see an evangelical surge again today:

This year, the election in Ohio is about reactivating evangelical and Catholic voters who were missing in 2008, religious activists in the state said.

Among the army of religious forces playing roles are David Lane’s Los Angeles-based Pastors and Pews, Tony Perkins’ Washington-based Family Research Council, Ralph Reed’s Atlanta-based Faith and Freedom Coalition, and Phil Burres‘ Cincinnati-based Citizens for Community Values.

Mr. Lane and his California associates have held several glitzy mass rallies for the state’s churchgoers featuring high-profile religious and political leaders. Mr. Lane and Mr. Reed each has produced a voter guide to distribute to Ohio’s faithful, Mr. Blackwell said.

Columbus-based pollster and Republican campaign strategist Brett A. Sciotto said he sees evidence of a major religious conservative push in his state.

A full-page ad in the Marysville Journal-Tribune, near Columbus reflects some of those efforts. A handsome, young farming couple stands in a field under the headline, “When rural Ohio speaks, Ohio families win.” The ad includes the story of Bush’s win, saying rural voters could make the difference in saving “core liberties of free speech and freedom of religion.” The ad is paid for by outside group, Citizens for Community Values.

Preliminary early voting information from the Wood County Board of Elections suggests Republicans have at least closed the gap in that formerly Democrat-heavy metric. As of Friday, according to a local official, Republicans had turned in only two fewer early ballots than Democrats. In 2008, the final gap in early voting resulted in a double-digit advantage for Obama. Ohio residents don’t register by party, but voters are categorized as Democrats or Republicans depending on which party’s primary they’ve most recently voted in.

An Obama GOTV location was buzzing Saturday as a young college woman trained a group of canvassers, clipboards in hand. Obama volunteer Emily Garcia was running the show.

“I’m kind of as involved as you can get,” the BGSU sophomore said. She missed out on the Obama magic on campus in 2008, but said she was encouraged by the numbers turning up to get out the vote. Asked about enthusiasm on campus, she replied, “I think it’s pretty high.”

At the Ben Franklin craft store on Main St., Wendell, a 49-year-old engineer shopping with his teenage son, wondered if Ohio polling was picking up rural voters like him.

“We live out in the country. I think a lot of the people in our area are conservative so they lean toward the Romney ticket,” he said. He’s supporting Romney “because of his business experience. The government is a business and I think he can do what’s necessary.”

Wilma, a retired Obama voter browsing the aisles, voiced a common sentiment in Ohio, where voters are bombarded by campaign ads during every commercial break on TV and radio.

“I voted early and I wish it was over now,” she said with a laugh. “A lot of people who vote early, I think that’s what they’re thinking.”

She’s sympathetic to the president’s plea for a little more time to turn the country around.

“I almost feel like, the president should be in eight years because they can’t get anything done in four years,” she said.

Jana, a 27-year-old Republican, said she hears from others who are fed up with waiting.

“They’re upset that this hasn’t gone more positive,” she said. “They think, ‘well, we gave him his chance.’”

Update: This is what the radio sounds like in Ohio right now. I recorded a sampling while I was on the road. Please excuse the quality:


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