In Appalachian coal country, Romney is now viewed with nearly as much suspicion as Obama -- and that may be the story of the 2012 election.
MORRISTOWN, Ohio -- This ought to be the place where President Obama's reelection hopes went to die.
In the coal-mining country of Southeastern Ohio, half an hour from the West Virginia border, I expected to find a potent stew of anti-Obama sentiment. This area is the home of the downtrodden Appalachian whites who've never much trusted the president -- but now, thanks to cultural resentments and the coal industry's decline, they're practically in open revolt. Just look at the results of the West Virginia presidential primary: rather than pull the lever for Obama, nearly 40 percent of the state's Democrats cast votes instead for an unknown Texas prison inmate, Keith Judd, who'd managed to get his name on the ballot. As one Democratic elected official told me darkly, this part of the state is "the northernmost extension of the Confederacy."
But in the day I spent criscrossing this rolling green landscape, it wasn't that simple.
I found Fred Chafin in his driveway, leaning against a red pickup truck and sipping a can of Budweiser under a "Dale Earnhardt Jr. Boulevard" sign. "I wish there was somebody else to vote for -- maybe Hillary," the 51-year-old maintenance man said with a laugh. "I'm not really a Republican or a Democrat. I don't know too much about Romney. But if he's for the rich to get richer, I'm not for that."
Chafin said he'd probably vote for Obama. He wished the deficit and unemployment were lower. But the president had, he thought, had a big mess to deal with, and four years probably wasn't enough for anyone to turn that around.
Recent polls have the president winning Ohio -- a state he took by less than 5 points four years ago -- by 8, 9, and even 10 points. It's hard to believe that Obama could actually better his margin from the heady heights of the 2008 campaign, but at this point, that is what he is poised to do. And in talking to voters here, in a region that should have been easy pickings for Romney, I started to understand why that might be the case. When the story of the 2012 election is written, if nothing major changes in the next few weeks, it will be voters like these who doomed Romney's campaign.
"It's not just Ohio. West Virginia, Kentucky, Virginia, even Illinois -- any state that has mining, people are concerned about their jobs," Mike Carey told me. The president of the Ohio Coal Association, Carey is also the vice president and chief lobbyist for Ohio-based Murray Energy Corp., America's largest privately owned coal company.
To hear Carey tell it, Obama has imposed a slew of regulations that have decimated the coal industry, and as a result, management and workers alike have turned decisively against the president. "Every week you have another company announcing layoffs. In the communities miners live in, people are scared," he said. "This has transcended partisanship."
For the first time in 40 years, the United Mine Workers Union, which endorsed Obama in 2008, John Kerry in 2004 and Al Gore in 2000, has declined to endorse a presidential candidate.* In April, the union's president said Obama's EPA had done to coal workers what the Navy SEALs did to Osama bin Laden. In the rural neighborhoods I drove through, every fourth or fifth yard seemed to have a sign reading, "Stop the War on Coal -- FIRE OBAMA." (Only once, though, did I see a Romney sign alongside it, and I even saw one with the word "FIRE" blacked out.)
Don Workman, a 71-year-old retired trucker, told me not to heed the signs: "Murray handed out those signs and told 'em to put them up," he said -- meaning the coal company and its CEO, Robert Murray, a major Romney donor. Workman invited me into the tiny front room of the home he shares with his wife, a retired restaurant cook, just down the street from a marker for the birthplace of Hopalong Cassidy. An oxygen tank rested beside him; a side table was crammed with crosses, religious plaques, and a lamp shaped like a deer.
A Republican until he switched sides in 2008, Workman plans to vote for Obama a second time. Whatever's happening to the coal industry, he doesn't think it's the president's fault. "I was born and raised here. I worked coal off and on all my life," he said. "It's a cycle. Every seven years or so, it goes up and down."
Experts say the coal industry's recent fortunes have more to do with a transition to cleaner fuels that partly preceded Obama and with the current low price of natural gas. And some of the miners seem to believe that, like Dan Gingerich, a 31-year-old who works underground and told me he blamed oil and gas more than Obama. "I'd like to be a Republican, but I don't know if Romney really knows what to do," he said. "I wish the Republicans would have somebody else."
Ed Crooks, a retired former miner in a John Deere cap and salt-and-pepper mustache, told me he's definitely not voting for Obama. What about Romney, I asked? "That's a scary thought," he said, chuckling. "I believe he's going to cut the coal companies out and shut all the mines down. He thinks they're responsible for people dying."