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.”