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.