The reason the most impoverished counties are overlooked is obvious to anyone who makes a living in politics: Most of these counties aren’t in the handful of all-mighty swing states that will tip the presidential election. These are the dozen or so states truly up for grabs, where the outcome on Nov. 6 is not easily predicted by the overwhelmingly Democratic or Republican leanings of the electorate. Even within the swing states, the presidential campaign trail runs narrowly through only the biggest media markets and the most politically competitive counties. Two of the most frequently visited spots, Fairfax and Loudon counties in Northern Virginia, are the two wealthiest counties in the country. The campaign trail is also well-worn in the middle-class and more-affluent neighborhoods around Cleveland and Columbus, Denver and Orlando.
There are other reasons the nation’s most downtrodden places—mostly small towns and scarcely populated rural areas—don’t make it onto the itineraries for Obama and Romney. Time is precious, especially for a sitting president, so staffers are reluctant to schedule stops in far-flung places. Under constant pressure to raise money behind closed doors, the nominees have even fewer opportunities for public appearances. Voter turnout is also lower in poorer places than in more-affluent areas. Turnout in Pike County, for example, has run between 4 and 10 percentage points behind the statewide figure in the last three presidential elections. Poor people are not big campaign donors, nor do they have a bevy of high-powered lobbyists in Washington at their command. “Talking about poverty doesn’t drive votes,” said Democratic strategist Dave (Mudcat) Saunders, who has made a name for himself teaching candidates how to connect with rural voters in the South.
What’s more, poor communities create potentially unpleasant backdrops for television spots and, in 2012, uncomfortable questions for both a Democratic president who failed to revive those local economies and a Republican nominee who wants to perpetuate tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans.
Why does it matter where Obama and Romney campaign? History shows that the path’s followed on the campaign trail can shape public debate and influence White House policy. John F. Kennedy’s tour of poverty-stricken Appalachia in 1960 shocked the nation’s conscience and led him to create an economic-development agency focused on that region. After Kennedy’s assassination, President Johnson launched the “War on Poverty” in 1964 from a front porch in the Appalachian town of Inez, Ky.