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.”
Conversations with voters in struggling places such as Pike County lay bare the most fundamental questions looming over the 2012 election: Should these voters choose the incumbent who didn’t rescue them from economic struggle or the superwealthy challenger who seems absurdly removed from it? To most, neither guy seems to get it.
A LOSS OF PRIDE
There’s no better tour guide of Pike County than Commissioner Blaine Beekman, a local elected official for most of the last 37 years and a history buff who traces his ancestors in the community back to 1801. He’s also run the chamber of commerce and taught at the high school, which means he knows just about everybody left here to know.
In the county seat of Waverly, an Obama placard hangs forlornly in an empty storefront. The courthouse had an outhouse as recently as 2009. Dollar stores, fast-food restaurants, and plain churches are abundant; the food pantry is doing record-setting business. The reds and golds of autumn leaves and orange Halloween pumpkins atop front porches are all that brighten the landscape.
“This is a pass-through. No one stops here,” said Beekman, 69, who looks frail in a gray sweater vest and baggy Wrangler jeans.
The only presidential candidate anyone can remember coming to Pike County was 2004 Democratic nominee John Kerry. Wearing a mustard-colored barn jacket, the senator from Massachusetts campaigned at Maggie West’s family farm, drawing more than 8,000 people. “I think he got the surprise of his life when he came down here, because the crowd was huge,” said Teddy Wheeler, the county auditor who relentlessly lobbied the campaign to send Kerry. “The Washington insiders don’t know it all. Here you can see how real working people live.”
Among the other near-presidential sightings: First lady Rosalynn Carter attended a rally at the high school in 1980. President Bush drove through Pike County on a 2004 campaign bus tour but didn’t stop. Residents lined up on the side of the road to wave signs. Romney’s oldest son, Tagg, visited the local GOP headquarters in September.
“There’s no question things are worse off. [Obama] has had four years to change things. The country is in debt more than it’s ever been.” —Jerry Morkassel, at the Waverly McDonald’s.
Yet for a place the national campaigns forgot, this county knows how to pick presidents. It voted for Democrat Bill Clinton in 1992 and 1996 and for Bush in 2000 and 2004. In 2008, Republican John McCain won by only 129 votes. Democrats outnumber Republicans by more than 2-to-1, but the majority of Pike County voters don’t belong to a political party. “We’re all in this together,” said Beekman, a Democrat who appreciated the phone call from Republican Sen. Rob Portman when his wife of 47 years died in July.
Unlike the rapidly growing—and, frequently, rapidly diversifying—communities that now draw presidential candidates, Pike County is shrinking. It lost roughly 1,000 people between the 2000 and 2010 censuses, leaving an overwhelmingly white population estimated at just 28,628. Local construction companies, lumber mills, small farms, and mom-and-pop retailers have gone under, enticing few outsiders to come and giving residents little incentive to stay.
The worst hit: the closing of the Mill’s Pride cabinet factory by Michigan-based Masco that put some 1,200 people out of work. Since the late 1980s, the factory produced ready-to-assemble kitchen cabinets sold at Home Depot and Lowe’s. Employees didn’t make a fortune—they earned between $12 and $15 an hour—but it was a living, and the job came with health insurance. “The closure is driven by our desire to focus on our core brands,” Masco Cabinetry President Karen Strauss said when it was announced in 2010. “It is not the result of failed efforts or the quality of the workforce dedicated to these product lines.” Now, behind a chain-link fence topped by barbed wire, a lone security guard roams the property in a golf cart. “We’ve tried everything to market it,” Beekman sighed.
When Obama took office, unemployment in Pike County stood at 15.8 percent. It peaked at 18 percent in January 2010 and has been slowly declining, in part because some residents gave up looking for work or moved away. The biggest employer in town is a Cold War-era gaseous-diffusion plant that until 2001 enriched uranium for nuclear weapons and produced fuel for nuclear-power plants. About 2,000 workers are cleaning up the 1,200-acre site and building a centrifuge plant using the next generation of uranium-enrichment technology. Future jobs depend on whether the plant qualifies for a $2 billion federal loan guarantee.
When Romney told donors in Florida that he didn’t expect support from the “47 percent” of Americans who see government as a lifeline, he was talking about pretty much everybody in Pike County. Most people work at the plant, in county or state government, in the schools, or at the hospitals. Many receive food stamps or disability benefits, collect Social Security, use Medicare or Medicaid to get health care, or receive veterans’ benefits. “Every family is touched by government here, so the thing Romney said throws red flags up in a place like this,” Beekman said. “I think Romney has a very strong chance of losing this county because he scares people to death.”
Beekman invited Kim Rittenour, a former member of the local Republican executive committee and a high-school Spanish teacher, over to his home for a second opinion. Her three kids are grown, but she worries about her students’ future if Obama is reelected. “We need more jobs. Our young people are losing hope,” she said, sitting at Beekman’s round kitchen table wearing a green polo shirt with her school insignia. But Rittenour doesn’t fault the president or Romney for not visiting Pike County. “We’re just one tiny area among many areas with problems,” she said. “They can’t be everywhere.”
AN EMPTY BUS
To understand the vagaries of the modern presidential campaign trail is to understand the idiosyncrasies of the centuries-old Electoral College. Under the process established in the Constitution, the candidate who receives the majority of a state’s popular vote earns all of that state’s “electors.” In all but two states that use some proportional representation, winner takes all. The candidate who earns at least 270 electors wins the White House.
The system discourages candidates from visiting states they are likely to win as well as those that are out of reach. In his star-turning speech at the 2004 Democratic convention, Obama dismissed “the pundits who like to slice and dice our country into red states and blue states: red for Republicans, blue states for Democrats.” But he has proven the pundits right. The president has mostly campaigned in the 10 or so states with purple hues, along with states such as California, New York, and Texas that harbor networks of rich donors.
The same has been true for Romney since he clinched the Republican nomination in the spring, resulting in a campaign that reaches only scattered pockets of the country where voters are signing checks or areas closely divided by party.
In contrast, most of the states harboring counties with the worst unemployment rates clearly tilt Democratic or Republican. Of the 100 counties with the highest joblessness that National Journal analyzed, 16 are in California, which hasn’t voted for the GOP nominee since George H.W. Bush in 1988. Twenty-nine of the counties are in Alabama, Mississippi, and South Carolina, which haven’t voted for a Democrat for president since Southerner Jimmy Carter won in 1976.
But there are exceptions: 13 of the 100 counties are in swing states that see frequent visits from the presidential candidates. Three are in Michigan: Baraga County (16.3 percent unemployment), Montmorency County (14.7 percent), and Oscoda County (14.7 percent). Three are in Nevada: Nye County (15.5 percent), Lyon County (15.3 percent), and Mineral County (14.3 percent). And three are in North Carolina: (Scotland County (17.6 percent), Graham County (15.2 percent), and Rutherford County (14.5 percent). There are also Menominee County, Wis. (20.2 percent), Luna County, N.M. (16.6 percent), Martinsville, Va. (16.3 percent), and Hendry County, Fla. (16.1 percent).
Martinsville, a city decimated by the exodus of furniture and textile manufacturing jobs, took note when Romney’s campaign bus stopped in town in early October. But, as it turned out, only the bus driver was aboard. Locals peeked in at the plush seating and flat-screen television tuned to Fox News. Romney’s state director, Sara Craig, told the Martinsville Bulletin that it’s not unusual for the bus to travel to communities without Romney. “We want people to know we care,” she said.
“I think Romney has a very strong chance of losing this county because he scares people to death.” —Blaine Beekman, Pike County commissioner
Obama did visit Martinsville in his 2008 campaign, along with a handful of other counties currently dogged with the highest unemployment rates in the country: Dallas County, Ala., where he commemorated the anniversary of the Selma voting-rights march; Macon County, Ga., where he addressed the congregation of Harvest Cathedral; Clarendon County, S.C., where he called for a new civil-rights movement from the courthouse; and Washington County, Miss., where he ordered scrambled eggs, turkey sausage, wheat toast, and grits at Buck’s Restaurant on the morning of the Democratic caucus. “We need some jobs!” someone in the crowd called out, according to The New York Times.
“I promise when I’m president of the United States, I’ll come back to the Delta,” he responded. Obama did come back, once, after the 2010 oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.
Elkhart, Ind., is a striking example of a struggling community that no longer fits Obama’s political calculus. The onetime “RV Capital of the World” was grappling with a skyrocketing unemployment rate when Obama, eyeing the reliably Republican state as a potential pickup, campaigned there twice in his 2008 campaign. He was the first Democratic nominee to win Indiana since 1964, and he returned to Elkhart twice more in the early months of his administration to promote his economic-stimulus plan. But in light of Republican electoral gains, a still-struggling economy, and low job-approval ratings, the Obama campaign wrote the state off in 2012.
The candidates have also spent little time in the inner cities. Romney’s lone foray into urban America came when he visited a west Philadelphia charter school in May. He was heckled. Obama has traveled to Cleveland, Detroit, Miami, New York City, and Philadelphia, but mostly for fundraisers. Tavis Smiley, a television and radio talk-show host who, along with Princeton University professor Cornel West, launched a “Poverty Tour 2.0” last month of four states, argues that the nation’s first black president takes the African-American vote for granted and is wary of being accused of playing favorites.
“He’s too cautious, too calibrated, and, at times, too callous toward black voters,” Smiley said. “He wants black people to have his back, but to what degree does he have the backs of black voters?”
As president, Obama has only sparingly visited rural areas, as well. He passed through the upper Midwest and then Virginia and North Carolina last year on separate bus tours, but the places he visited were not in nearly as dire shape as Pike County.
NO TALK, NO WALK
The political calculations that led Obama and Romney to skip the nation’s poorest counties are starkly different. Visiting a struggling community as a freshman senator from Illinois on the verge of making history is different than appearing there as a sitting president who can be held accountable for the economy at hand. Campaigning in downtrodden areas has had the potential to be awkward for Romney. Along with the now-infamous “47 percent” remark at the Florida fundraiser, Romney said in January, “I’m not concerned about the very poor. We have a safety net there. If it needs repair, I’ll fix it.” (Democratic critics seized on the first part of his quote.)
If the poor represent anything in this election, it’s ammunition, particularly for Romney, who has run ads that accuse Obama of gutting welfare-to-work requirements. (In the primary, Newt Gingrich derided Obama as “the food-stamp president.”) But lately, Romney and his running mate, Paul Ryan, have been trying to strike a more sympathetic chord in a bid to draw moderate voters. Ryan gave an address in Cleveland this week in which he rejected Democratic attacks that his ticket seeks to do away with the social safety net, but, at the same time, called on churches and communities, rather than the federal government, to take a leading role in helping the less fortunate.
“Republicans have been appealing to the fear or hatred of a class of people who they think are making out like bandits at their expense,” said Dean Baker, codirector of the Center for Economic and Policy Research. “It doesn’t surprise me that Obama and Romney are going to areas that are better off.”
Not only have Obama and Romney bypassed the nation’s hardest-hit communities, but they have also rarely talked in depth about the poor. For Romney, who spent his career creating wealth as a business consultant and venture capitalist, the fact that one out of six Americans are living in poverty is a trademark line in his stump speech. But the statistic is a brick used to build a case against Obama’s economic stewardship, not an introduction to a detailed blueprint of an antipoverty policy. Obama, a former community activist who cut his teeth fighting poverty in inner-city Chicago, always frames his policies as designed to rebuild the middle class.
“They’re not talking about poverty at all,” said Democratic strategist Joe Trippi, who advised John Edwards in 2008, one of the few presidential candidates to make the issue a centerpiece since Kennedy’s trip to Appalachia. “Both parties have become slaves to polls that say they need to talk only about the middle class. The poor are not seen as a persuadable voting bloc, and most of the country is not going to be persuaded by someone who wants to spend a lot of money helping poor people.”
While championing smaller government and less spending, Republicans have demonized food stamps and other welfare programs as colossal wastes of taxpayer dollars that encourage slackers to become freeloaders. As former President Reagan once put it, “Some years ago, the federal government declared war on poverty, and poverty won.” Republican Jack Kemp, who ran unsuccessfully for president in 1988 and served as Housing secretary under President George H.W. Bush, often talked of launching a war against poverty—although, in his conservative vision, private markets would wage the battle, not big-government programs. Even so, Kemp’s focus on the poor made him stand out among Republicans.
Sporadic calls to put poverty at the center of the political campaign come only from low-profile, liberal corners. Half in Ten, a coalition of liberal groups trying to cut poverty in half in 10 years, used social media to lobby the moderators of the presidential debates to bring poverty back into the public debate. The effort failed. “We are trying to build public will in this country to cut poverty, but the word barely comes up,” said Eric Stegman, manager of the Half in Ten campaign and a poverty expert at the Center for American Progress Action Fund. “Poverty is always buried under discussion about the struggles of the middle class.”
In response to requests for interviews about the nominees’ travel, the campaigns offered only perfunctory statements maintaining that their policies will create a better quality of life for all voters.
“Our campaign has invested in all 50 states and the District of Columbia in order to talk to voters about the clear choice they face in this election between the president’s vision to get people back to work and restore economic security for the middle class—and Mitt Romney’s plan to bring us back to the failed policies that got us into this mess in the first place,” wrote Obama campaign spokesman Adam Fetcher in an e-mail. “While the president’s travel is focused on those areas where the race is tightest, and unfortunately he can’t make it to every county, we work hard to run an accessible campaign that empowers and reaches every American, allows them to hear the president’s messages, and helps them understand how their lives have improved as a result of his first term in office.”
Romney’s deputy communications director, Sarah Pompei, e-mailed this statement and refused to answer follow-up questions over the phone: “Gov. Romney is the only candidate laying out a plan for the next four years that will get our economy growing and create jobs for 12 million people in this country. Voters understand they have a choice between a candidate with a plan to help the middle class and small businesses and more of the same, and they know they can’t afford four more years of the last four years. That’s why we’re seeing support and enthusiasm continue to grow across all areas of the country, and you’ll see that manifested in the best voter turnout operations a Republican candidate has ever seen.”
As president, Obama can tout his health care overhaul as a concrete achievement that will help improve the lives of the nation’s hardest-hit residents. Starting in 2014, “Obamacare” will provide subsidies to low- and middle-income people to buy health insurance, making coverage more affordable for an estimated 19 million people by 2019. The law also expands eligibility for Medicaid, the insurance program for poor and disabled Americans, to another 17 million people (although it’s unclear how many will ultimately be covered, because the Supreme Court reversed a section of the law that would have financially penalized states that decline to enlarge the program). Obama has also expanded eligibility for food stamps, building on steps taken by former President George W. Bush.
Romney’s principal prescription for the poor is the good economy he says he can deliver. But at least two of his proposals could weaken the safety net. He wants to repeal Obama’s health care law, for a start. He also wants to turn Medicaid into a block grant and curb its growth. The Kaiser Family Foundation analyzed a Romney-like Medicaid proposal and concluded that over 10 years, spending would decrease $1.7 trillion below projected levels. The reduction would translate into at least 14 million fewer people covered, a 25 percent cut.
Judy Dixon, who has worked as executive director of the Pike County Outreach Council for more than 20 years, stood among dozens of cans of tuna and sliced pears and 10-pound bags of potatoes. The small warehouse, wedged between McConkey’s Auto Parts store and the Pike Heritage Museum, is a “choice food pantry,” which means that people get to pick the foods they prefer instead of being handed a prepacked grocery bag or meal.
The pixie-haired Dixon peered into an empty freezer and gestured toward the picked-over shelves. Business has spiked since Obama’s election, from under 1,200 people every month in 2008 to more than 3,000 people most months this year. The biggest reason: The decision to shut down the Mill’s Pride cabinet factory drove people to the pantry who had never before asked for handouts.
To Dixon, who has heard about Romney’s career taking over struggling companies that in some cases went under, the election is a no-brainer. “To me, there is this disconnect,” she said. “The way he seems and the way he does business, he would be the kind of guy who would close the plant.”
The bookkeeper and handyman at the food pantry, Ray Osborne, has little faith that either Romney or Obama will lift the county out of its economic slog. “I’m not really motivated [to vote]. I’ll be honest with you,” said Osborne, leaning on cases of pinto beans. “Look at the Congress. They don’t get along, and they don’t get anything done.”
Ohio’s Democratic former Gov. Ted Strickland grew up just south of Pike County and knows it well. He doesn’t fault the candidates for not making it down here, noting that Romney has been to neighboring Ross County and Obama drew 8,000 people to Athens County in southeastern Ohio. “I think they’re trying to get around,” he said. But he added that he understands the community’s frustrations with presidential politics. “When you grow up in an area like this, you feel as if much of the economic opportunities that are available are somewhere else,” Strickland said.
Opinions about whether the economy has improved under the president largely depend on party labels. “There’s no question things are worse off,” said Jerry Morkassel, 71, drinking coffee on a Sunday morning at McDonald’s. “He’s had four years to change things. The country is in debt more than it’s ever been. The country is more divided than it’s ever been in my lifetime. Why would we give someone more time who hasn’t worked out?”
Morkassel, whose white beard, windbreaker, and baseball cap shielded him from the foggy, brisk morning, credited Republican Gov. John Kasich, not the president, for the state’s falling unemployment rate. “Obama is antibusiness,” said the retired construction supervisor. “He wants government to control everything.”
Ed Jordan, a 65-year-old retired engineer, looked up from the sports section of The Columbus Dispatch. He’s also a Republican. “I’ll just take the lesser of two evils,” he said, referring to Romney. “Washington, D.C., isn’t for America anymore. They screw up everything.”
On the other side of the restaurant, 50-year-old David Dewitt was sitting with a handful of buddies who meet every Sunday morning to place their NASCAR bets. Dewitt runs the city-owned cemetery in Waverly. His wife owns a hair salon. His son plays tuba in the band at Ohio State University—a big deal here. “I think we’re headed in the right direction,” said Dewitt, who heads the local Democratic Party. “We’re just not there yet.”
Across the table was Marlin Ramsey, who worked at a trucking company for 25 years. Before that, he worked at a company that made hydraulic pumps. Like most Pike County adults, he didn’t attend college. He receives Social Security and Medicare; his son teaches physical education at the high school. “I’m part of that 47 percent Romney said was no good,” Ramsey said. “I don’t think he has an interest in low-income or poor people. I think he’s really out of touch.”
Back at the food pantry, Frederick recalled the good old days at Mill’s Pride, where he earned almost $12 an hour. Now he works part-time at a grocery store that pays minimum wage, $7.70 per hour. That’s not nearly enough to support himself, his son, and his daughter who lives with his ex-wife but comes over for meals sometimes. Frederick was hesitant to talk politics at first, but once he got going, he realized he had a lot to say about presidential candidates ignoring Pike County.
“Everyone just talks about the middle class,” he said. “What about the lower class?” Clutching one plastic bag of food in each hand, Frederick stepped out into the autumn chill.
This article appeared in print as "Beyond the Trail."
George E. Condon Jr. contributed contributed to this article.
This article appears in the October 27, 2012, edition of National Journal Magazine.