October 1, 2012 -- Coal miners may make up less than half of one percent of the American electorate, but those blue collar workers' votes could pack a punch far beyond what their numbers suggest.
The majority of America's coal production is clustered in a handful of states, three of which happen to be some of the most fiercely contested battleground states in 2012: Pennsylvania, Ohio and Virginia.
And with Obama starting to pull ahead in those vital states, the Mitt Romney campaign is training its sights (and its ad budget) on the familiar blue collar faces of coal country.
Over the past two weeks Romney has launched three coal-themed ads that attack President Obama for "waging a war on coal" and featuring coal miners criticizing Obama for "attacking my livelihood" with regulations. He made campaign stops in Ohio, Virginia and Pennsylvania last week, and his running mate Paul Ryan appeared again in Ohio over the weekend.
President Obama has also been out in force in coal country. He responded to Romney's first two ads with one of his own, showing a clip from 2003 of Romney standing in front of a coal-fired plant as governor of Massachusetts declaring "that plant kills people." Obama held campaign rallies last week in Ohio and Virginia.
But the 27,000 Ohioans, 63,000 Pennsylvanians and 45,000 Virginians that are employed by the coal mining industry aren't the only voters this recent coal country push is likely courting.
"The logic for Romney is to find a potential economic problem that is relevant to Ohio voters that can potentially be connected to Obama," said Justin Buchler, an associate political science professor at Case Western Reserve University, in Cleveland. "It's not just about coal miners; it's about anyone who is willing to attribute economic blame to the president."
In Obama's first two years in office, the coal industry cut 664 jobs and closed 173 plants, according to data from the U.S. Energy Information Administration. In West Virginia, where both campaigns ran coal-themed ads this week, about 1,000 coal mining jobs were cut between 2008 and 2010, the most recent year data is available.
But in the battleground state of Ohio, there were six more coal plants in 2010 than when Obama took office, adding a net of 77 jobs. In Virginia, 160 more people were employed at coal mines in 2010 than they were in 2008, although the state had eight fewer mines, according to the Energy Information Administration.
One of Obama's 2008 campaign promises was to institute a cap and trade program to reduce carbon emissions 80 percent by 2050. The cap-and-trade system caps the amount of carbon each company can emit and allows high-pollution companies to buy additional carbon permits from low-pollution companies, thus encouraging large polluters to fine cost-effective ways to reduce their emissions.
After Republican opposition stalled the president's proposal in the Senate, Obama directed the Environmental Protection Agency to issue an emissions cap rule that many Republicans criticized as a backdoor path to cap-and-trade. In his re-election bid, Obama is pushing for more clean coal and renewable energy and supports extending tax credits for wind energy manufactures.
Romney's energy plan focuses on upping U.S. oil production by increasing offshore drilling and completing the Keystone pipeline. Romney opposes cap-and-trade, which he dubs an "energy tax," and plans to let tax credits for wind energy production expire.
Paul Beck, a political science professor emeritus at Ohio State University, said coal mining is just one avenue for Romney in his attempt to cull support among working class voters.
"This is a broader issue of, How do you court the white working class?" said Paul Beck, a political science professor emeritus at Ohio State University. "Coal miners are a group that I think it's easy for white working class people to identify with. We know who they are and what they do, and it's a tough job and a dangerous job so there is sympathy there."
That white working class came out in force for Republicans in the last election. The GOP picked up 14 House seats and one Senate seat in coal mining states during the 2010 midterm election.
But those states are trending toward Obama in 2012, according to the latest battleground state polls. In Ohio, where the GOP picked up five House seats in 2010, Obama is beating Romney by 10 points, according to a CBS/New York Times/Quinnipiac poll released this week.
And in Pennsylvania, where Democrats lost five House seats and one Senate seat in 2010, Obama has pulled seven points ahead of Romney, according to a Morning Call poll released Friday. A collection of polls from mid-September showed Obama leading by between four and eight percentage points in Virginia, where Republicans gained three House seats in 2010.
"Obama could win the election without doing any better in 2012 than he did in 2008 among white working class voters, but Romney can't win the election if he can't do well in that group," Beck said.