By now, you’re undoubtedly tired of the seemingly endless stream of attack ads on your television and political propaganda in your mailbox. Despair not, however, for Election Day is but 19 days away.
With just more than two weeks left to earn your affections, it appears that Republican challenger Mitt Romney has widened his lead over President Barack Obama… at least, that is, in the rural regions of the country.
We’ve all seen the map – you know, the one with the red states versus the blue states? Or perhaps you’ve seen the one (below) drawn at county level, with each county colored in red if Senator McCain earned a majority of votes, and in blue if President Obama earned a majority of votes.
If the past three election cycles have shown anything, it’s that rural votes matter. In 2004, for example, the election between President George W. Bush and Senator John F. Kerry largely came down to (as it will again in 2012) the state of Ohio. In the Buckeye State, President Bush carried the rural counties handily, despite losing the major urban centers of the state.
After that election, I attended a function where Ohio Republican Party Chairman Bob Bennett was the keynote speaker. Bennett told the story of the election, noting that going into the final days of the campaign the party knew the President would lose cities like Columbus and Cleveland by something on the order of 100,000 votes. Bennett said he called on his volunteers and operatives in the rural counties to step up their efforts, and Bush indeed won by 118,599 votes, despite having lost Franklin (Columbus), Cuyahoga (Cleveland), Lucas (Toledo) and Mahoning (Youngstown) counties.
In 2008, of course, this did not happen. Senator John McCain won more or less the same counties as did President Bush, but by much slimmer margins, and in the end lost Ohio to then-Senator Barack Obama by 258,897 votes. No Republican, you’ve probably heard it said, has ever won the White House without winning the Buckeye State.
To borrow an investment term, the spread narrowed between 2004 and 2008. Take one rural county as an example. At the time, I was living and voting in Logan County, a relatively typical rural county in the state. In 2004, Bush earned 14,471 votes to Kerry’s 6,825 – a 68% to 32% split. In 2008, McCain still won the county, but earned only 13,848 votes versus Obama’s 7,936 – a spread of 62% to 36%.
Important notes from this comparison:
488 additional people voted in 2008 than voted in 2004.
McCain earned 623 fewer votes than did Bush
Obama earned 1,111 more votes than did Kerry
Now, understand that in Franklin County, home of the state’s capital city, Bush lost in 2004 by 48,548 votes. It took him roughly 6.3 Logan Counties to overcome his margin of loss in the state capital. In 2008, Obama won by 116,206, more than double Kerry’s margin of victory in Franklin County. It would have taken McCain nearly 19.7 Logan Counties to overcome that deficit because the margin of victory in the rural county had tightened by nearly 2,000 votes, and because an additional 50,000 people voted in Franklin County, apparently all voting for Senator Obama.
Okay, that brings me to the original topic: Mitt Romney’s performance in rural counties. In the second poll of rural, swing-state voters conducted this election cycle, Governor Romney increased his lead over the President.
As reported by my colleague Jacqui Fatka at Feedstuffs, a National Rural Assembly poll released Oct. 16 found that rural swing-state voters preferred Romney to Obama by a 22-point margin, 59% to 37%. In a similar poll from mid-September, conducted before the first presidential debate, Romney led Obama among rural voters in swing states by 14 points, 54% to 40%.
“We’re seeing a major shift to Gov. Romney among these voters, and that’s going a long way toward tightening the presidential race,” said Dee Davis, president of the Center for Rural Strategies, which commissioned the poll.
The poll questioned 600 likely voters living in rural counties in nine swing states — Colorado, Florida, Iowa, Nevada, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Ohio, Virginia and Wisconsin. Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research, a firm that works for Democratic candidates, conducted the poll. A Republican firm, North Star Opinion Research, helped design and interpret the poll’s results. The poll was funded by the Carnegie Corporation of New York.
Dan Judy of North Star Opinion Research said Mitt Romney had been “under-performing” among rural voters in September. “Now he has surged into a huge lead,” Judy said, “And I think it’s fair to say his lead among these rural voters is what’s helping him in swing states overall.”
Given that Obama won Ohio 60% to 39% in 2008, Governor Romney needs to perform as close to – or better – than 60% in the rural counties to have a chance of winning. Understand that the urban counties in Ohio, with the possible exception of more-conservative Hamilton County (Cincinnati), are not suddenly going to part ways with the President. Based on my own informal survey of the landscape in Columbus (where I reside), I think that turnout will be smaller than in 2008, and I think the race will be much closer. On one hand there is a contingent of Obama voters who are disenchanted with the President for one reason or the other, and on the other hand I think the Romney team has a much better organization than did Romney. Romney isn’t necessarily any more exciting of a candidate than was McCain, although his first debate performance helped (we’ll skip discussion of the backyard brawl disguised as a second debate), but he appears to be much more engaged in Ohio, and seems to have a better infrastructure and get-out-the-vote effort underway.
Having a Republican in the Governor’s Mansion will help, and John Kasich has performed well by most accounts. This was not the case in 2008 when then-Governor Ted Strickland was a strong campaigner for Senator Obama. Moreover, Romney appears to have a much better connection with rural voters in Ohio, a connection that McCain simply opted not to cultivate at all.
With 19 days left, anything can happen. The Libya question, I believe, will be a thorn in the President’s side in the waning days. Many voters, of course, have already sent in their ballots, so lingering issues will have no effect on their decision. Even so, this race is clearly too close to call at this point, although it’s clearly the President’s to lose.