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."
Crooks wasn't the only one to repeat this talking point about Romney calling coal plants deadly. At first, I had no idea what they were talking about. It turns out Romney, as governor of Massachusetts in 2003, held a press conference in front of a coal-fired power plant. "I will not create jobs or hold jobs that kill people," he said, and then, gesturing at the facility behind him: "That plant, that plant kills people." You can see the footage in an Obama campaign ad that's been airing heavily here. It seems to have made an impression.
"Not One of Us"
The Obama ad is called "Not One of Us," and that was another theme of my conversations with voters about Romney. (It's an insidious title -- can you imagine Romney making an anti-Obama ad called "not one of us" without getting shouted down for implicit racism?) Those opposed to Obama cited various reasons, from disappointment to anger to being convinced he's a Muslim. But the impressions of Romney were remarkably consistent: He's for the rich.
"I think Obama's more for the regular working class people, and Romney's for the big business and the well-to-do," said Eric Burkhead, the road and cemetery superintendent for Kirkwood Township, working on a truck in the gravel driveway of the local garage. The 66-year-old didn't like what he saw happening with coal and wasn't wild about Obamacare, but he planned to vote for Obama.
I heard it over and over again from Ohioans -- the idea that Romney stands for the wealthy and not for them. Obama's depiction of his rival as an out-of-touch rich guy, which has gotten no little assistance from Romney himself, has made a deep and effective impression with these self-consciously working-class voters.
Burkhead had this to say as well: "Obama wasn't handed a bucket of roses. Thus far, I think he's about done what he can do. It doesn't matter to me if someone's pink, orange, green, blue or yellow if they do their job."
The allusion to race seemed like a pointed one. Plenty of Democrats attribute Obama's struggles in Appalachia to lingering racism, some latent, some not so. The problem for Romney is that he, too, seems alien to many voters here, whether because of his fortune or because of his Mormon faith.
Dale Lude, a 76-year-old farmer and retired union trucker, is a staunch Republican who's thoroughly disgusted with Obama. Lude, who raises cattle not far from where he grew up, outside St. Clairsville, thinks the president has trampled the Constitution and dishonored the nation abroad.
"I think we have a person who is the first black being president, and I think he's allowing a lot of his personal characteristics to show through," Lude told me as he finished his lunch at Schlepp's Family Restaurant, his rough hands protruding from the sleeves of the plaid flannel shirt he wore beneath a pair of denim overalls. "I have never been able to understand where he stands, religion-wise. I don't think he's a Christian, and I think he's leaning toward the Muslim side of things."
Lude will vote for Romney, but with more suspicion than enthusiasm. Among other things, he said, speaking in a careful passive voice, "It seems there's a certain amount of opposition to the Mormon faith, and that's a problem for him."
Romney's Missed Opportunity
Darrel Johnson is a military veteran who voted for John McCain in 2008. He doesn't think Obama is doing his job. But everything the 40-year-old has heard about Romney has turned him off. He's now pretty sure he'll vote for the Libertarian candidate, Gary Johnson.
For Romney to win this election, he needed to hang onto the voters McCain won four years ago, then convert just a small percentage of disaffected former Obama supporters. A few months ago, this didn't seem like a tall order. It was hard to imagine anyone who voted against Obama in his landslide year -- when antagonism to President Bush was at its height, and all the momentum was behind Obama's lofty promise of hope and change -- turning around and supporting the president now that his image has been dented by four rough and unhopeful years. Obama, for his part, would have to stake his strategy on writing off the voters he lost four years ago, replacing them with new members of the electorate, particularly young and Hispanic citizens who'd never voted before.
But if Romney actually starts to lose McCain voters, he's in big trouble. That would explain his suddenly slipping margins in swing states: not just 10 points in Ohio, but 9 points in Florida and 8 points in Virginia.
Darrel Johnson isn't switching from McCain to Obama, but some Ohio voters are: In the recent poll conducted by the Columbus Dispatch, 5 percent of McCain's 2008 supporters were voting for Obama, and another 5 percent were undecided. A 70-year-old Cincinnatian named Wayne Butterfass told the paper he'd voted Republican most of his life, but couldn't bring himself to do so this year.
It is far too soon to write Romney's obituary in Ohio or anywhere else, with a month still left in the campaign and the debates yet to begin. But Romney's route to victory has always gone through the white, working-class regions that regard Obama with distrust. If he's not making the sale here, where is he going to make it?
* Correction: An earlier version of this post stated that this election is the first time in its history that the United Mine Workers Union has declined to endorse any candidate. We regret the error.