Small Ohio Towns Play Hefty Role

Small towns like this bucolic river community may play an outsized role in determining whether John McCain or Barack Obama becomes president. They are the swing counties in what may be the most important swing state in this election.

Four years ago, John Kerry's presidential campaign organization blitzed through Ohio's 16 heavily Democratic counties to generate massive voter turnout. On Election Day, Kerry won more votes in Ohio than any previous Democratic presidential nominee.

But his hefty edge in the state's urban areas couldn't quite offset huge margins President Bush ran up in towns like this one. Bush won Ohio in 2004 with 51% of the vote — a margin of about 118,600 votes of 5.6 million cast. His victory, which claimed Ohio's 20 electoral votes and clinched the election, was driven by huge margins in small towns and rural areas where he captured 60% or more of votes.

This year, McCain needs to run up the score in these small communities to offset Obama's advantage in Ohio's cities.

Ohio has dozens of rural counties containing small towns that once thrived on factories that made Huffy bikes, Etch A Sketches, cars and other products. These are traditional Republican strongholds where Bush won big in 2004 and Hillary Rodham Clinton scored well in the Democratic primary earlier this year.

These counties have some of the most difficult economic conditions in the nation. They are overwhelmingly white, blue-collar and conservative.

Voters crossed over in 2006

In 2006, these voters took their anger out on Ohio Republicans at every level — the U.S. Senate, the governor, state legislators, mayors and city councils. A USA TODAY analysis found that high-unemployment counties in Ohio were far more likely to swing from Republican in 2004 to Democrat in 2006. The swing was 5 percentage points greater in counties that had unemployment 1 percentage point or more above the state average.

"The issue that matters here is jobs," says Coshocton Mayor Steve Mercer, a Republican. "That's what will determine if John McCain can hold onto the Bush margins of 2004."

High unemployment has unsettled the political landscape in Ohio. A car mat factory that once employed more than 1,000 will close here in November. In nearby Zanesville, an auto electronics plant will lay off its final 200 workers shortly after the new president takes office. The factory employed 1,500 before its work was moved to China and Mexico.

Coshocton is a town of 11,500 that was the birthplace of specialty advertising, a home to artisans and factories making Coca-Cola trays and calendars. Now, Coshocton's downtown is half-vacant. Unemployment in the county is 10.2%.

"About the only job you can get here anymore is at fast-food restaurants," says Roger Tuck, 51, who is on disability from a car parts factory in a nearby town.

Unemployment in Ohio was 7.2% in July, the highest in 15 years. The jobless rate is especially high in Republican counties.

Democrats hope for gains

Sen. Sherrod Brown and Gov. Ted Strickland, both Democrats, won big in 2006 by going after votes in counties normally ceded to Republicans. The Obama campaign is following this strategy.

Using extra money from its strong fundraising, the Obama campaign is trying to win — or at least reduce margins of defeat — in Republican counties.

"Sherrod Brown came after votes in our county. He talked trade and jobs. It was very effective," says Democrat Chiarra Duggan, a lawyer in Bryan, the biggest town in Williams County.

Bush won Williams County by 30 percentage points in 2004. In 2006, Brown came within one percentage point of besting moderate Republican Sen. Mike DeWine in the Republican stronghold. Strickland, who became governor, won the county.

Unlike Kerry, Obama is contesting Williams County, which has 10% unemployment.

The Democrats also are trying to mimic the Republicans' grassroots success of 2004. The Kerry campaign in Ohio was dominated by out-of-state organizers who worked to get out Democratic voters. "It was top-down, and that left some hard feelings," Duggan says.

By contrast, the Bush campaign emphasized neighbor-to-neighbor contact. The result was voter turnout that may have decided the election.

"We've stolen a page out of the Republican playbook," says John Hagner, who's running the voter turnout effort for the Ohio Democratic Party.

Ohio Republican spokesman John McClelland says his party is ahead of 2004 when measured by volunteers and voter contacts. McCain's selection of Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin as his running mate eliminated any enthusiasm advantage Democrats might have had, McClelland says.

Obama's challenge is winning over enough white voters in Republican counties who voted for Bush and, in this year's Ohio primary, Clinton. "The conservative nature of our rural communities is a good fit with the Republican Party," says Mercer, the Republican mayor. "But it will be a challenge for McCain to match the votes Bush got."

Gordon Hart, a farmer and chairman of the Coshocton County Democratic Party, isn't sure either. "It's all mixed up," he says. "Obama isn't going to get all the Hillary supporters, but he'll get his share."

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