As Indiana and North Carolina hold Democratic presidential primaries Tuesday, residents in two small, working-class towns say economic concerns will determine whether they back Hillary Rodham Clinton or Barack Obama. Voters cite jobs and the high costs of food and gas the most important problems.
PRINCETON, Ind. — By many measures, the economy is fine in this corner of Indiana. Unemployment is at 4.6%, lower than the state's 5.2% rate. Wheat and corn from the farms that surround town fetch high prices, and demand is strong for coal from the mines that dot the area. The county's biggest employer, Toyota, is building a facility to build car seat frames that will provide about 200 new jobs.
So why is everyone so worried?
"It's a shame when you can't take $20 and go to the store and get enough to feed a family," says Linda Straw, 48, who has two jobs and is about to start a third at a convenience store. High gas prices, high food prices and worries about disappearing manufacturing jobs mean that Princeton voters are sizing up Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton and Sen. Barack Obama to see which they trust to bring back good times.
Both candidates are working the region: Clinton visited here Tuesday, drawing more than 1,500 people to a rally on the courthouse steps, where Democratic Mayor Robert Hurst endorsed her.
Obama came to nearby Evansville, the region's largest city, on April 22, drew a crowd of 8,000 people, and won the endorsement of the city's mayor. "He had the audience in the palm of his hand," says Robert Dion, a University of Evansville political scientist.
High gas prices are a double whammy for Princeton. Not only do they hurt residents at the pump, but sales of gas-guzzling trucks and SUVs are slumping — and that's just what Toyota makes here. The massive plant south of town makes Tundra trucks and Sequoia SUVs. Toyota has slowed production and last year laid off 400 temporary workers.
"It's making me nervous, and I don't even work there," says Mark Myers, a mailman.
Lou Andriakos, proprietor of Greek's Candy Store, has noticed less home construction when he's out delivering the local paper. He's noticed a slowdown in housing construction. "Up until last year, on my paper route, you couldn't believe how many houses they were building," he says. "Not anymore."
"It costs as much to gas up my lawnmower as it used to cost to fill up my car," says Loretta Wells, a florist at Karen's Flowers and Gifts on the town square.
The store hiked its delivery fee from $2 to $5 to cover higher gas costs. "Probably most of the residents here are seeing some economic crunch," says owner Karen Ellerman, who is undecided. "Not everybody here works at Toyota."
In fact, only 20% of Toyota's workforce lives in Gibson County, of which Princeton is the county seat. The rest come from the surrounding counties and Illinois and Kentucky.
Voters also notice price increases in the supermarket. "We haven't had a steak in forever," says Mary Goodman, a seamstress, as she heads into Wal-Mart. "I look at the $10-a-pound price tag, and I pick up the ground chuck." She cast her vote early, for Clinton.
All around, people feel less flush — even Toyota workers, says Larry Wallace, who works on the automotive assembly line. "We still have to pay $3.60 for gas," he says.