WAVERLY, Ohio—“Pintos, dear?” the clerk at the food pantry asked 48-year-old Dave Frederick, who gratefully accepted the can of beans, along with turkey sausage, peppers, and a loaf of bread. Frederick lost his job when the Mill’s Pride cabinet factory closed two years ago and has found only part-time, minimum-wage work. Asked whether he’s voting for President Obama or Mitt Romney, Frederick isn’t keen on either one.
“We ought to get someone who’s been to the backwoods of Ohio to run the country, someone who understands what the workingman is going through,” said Frederick, who lives in a mobile home with his 18-year-old son, a high school senior unsure of what he will do next. “I would love to give the candidates some ideas about how to turn the economy around.”
He’s never had the chance. Obama and Romney have spent more time campaigning in Ohio than in any other state, but neither has been to Pike County, where the 12.9 percent unemployment rate is the worst in the state. This community on the western edge of Appalachia is a casualty of modern presidential politics; even in a campaign obsessed with jobs, the nominees consistently pass over the communities with the highest unemployment numbers in favor of more prosperous parts of the country.
In fact, National Journal found that neither Obama nor Romney has campaigned in any of the 100 counties with the highest jobless rates, according to July data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, with one exception: Romney went to Fresno, Calif. (14.7 percent unemployment) for private fundraisers in September 2011 and in May 2012.
To be sure, both candidates cross paths with people who are looking for work, but neither has shown up in places as desperate as Pike County. “We send our kids home with food in their backpacks on the weekends because we know they don’t have much at home,” said Sharon Manson, a school-board member in the county’s biggest city, Waverly. “We still have people with dirt floors and no technology.”
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.
“Leaders go to the folks who don’t have a voice and give it to them. It’s a failure of leadership when politicians won’t look them in the eye and tell them they are not forgotten,” said longtime Democratic strategist Steve Jarding, who teaches public policy at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government. “Going into these poor areas makes perfect sense at a time when our country is seeing the greatest percentage of people hurting since the Great Depression, and for the candidates to ignore them is unconscionable…. It’s the untold story of this campaign.”
George E. Condon Jr. contributed contributed to this article.
This article appears in the October 27, 2012 edition of National Journal Magazine.