“I’ve been talking to lots of women who work in Des Moines and are so upset about what gas prices have been the past few years. They can’t afford groceries,” said Birchard, a 73-year- old sales representative for Newton Manufacturing Co., walking from block to block at 10 a.m. on a Saturday to encourage voters to turn out for the Republican Party.
Heavy turnout in the small towns and countryside of states such as Iowa, Ohio, Virginia and Wisconsin are central to the hopes of Republican Mitt Romney to offset a Democratic advantage in urban areas, said Steffen Schmidt, a political science professor at Iowa State University in Ames. A poll of rural voters last week by the Center for Rural Strategies put Romney ahead by 22 percentage points in non-metro areas of nine states where the race is close, a key reason why the presidential campaign is essentially tied.
In 2008, Obama lost the rural areas of 13 closely contested states polled by the center by only 2.4 percentage points.
“When Republicans pile up votes in rural areas, they win, and when Democrats don’t pay attention to rural areas, it comes back to bite them,” said Dee Davis, president of the Center for Rural Strategies in Whitesburg, Kentucky, which commissioned the poll. “The voters are harder to reach, but they can make the difference.”
In 2004, President George W. Bush won 59 percent of the rural vote nationwide and captured Ohio’s crucial electoral votes by running up a 149,469-vote margin in non-urban areas. He carried the state by 136,221 votes.
Nationwide, rural residents represent about 20 percent of the population, while in Iowa the figure is 36 percent, according to census data. Reaching those voters, who live in cheaper, yet more dispersed media markets, requires a different strategy, with a premium on direct mail, phone banks and appeals from community leaders such as bankers and small-business owners, Schmidt said.
And volunteers such as Birchard, willing to drive 20 miles from Newton, her hometown, to walk through a small town on a weekend.
In Lynnville, 50 miles east of the state capital of Des Moines, Dorothy “Dot” Zylstra, 62, welcomed Birchard, a volunteer for Republican campaigns dating to George H.W. Bush, into her living room, where her grandchildren played to a Saturday-morning cartoon soundtrack as she filled out the absentee ballot request Birchard gave her.
“I retired in May and I have to go back to work,” largely to cover the medical costs of her husband, Dennis, who has hemophilia and has started building elaborate birdhouses for extra cash, she said.
“It’s not going good,” said Zylstra, who said she’d vote a straight Republican ticket as Birchard walked her through how to fill out the ballot.
Romney outscored Obama by 30 percentage points, 62-32, on the question of who would do the best job improving the economy in the Center for Rural Strategies’ poll. He also led on topics including values, the economy, Medicare and Social Security, who’s best for the middle class and the federal deficit by at least 20 percentage points.
The only topics on which Obama was close were women’s issues and health care, where Romney held two- and three-point leads. Obama had led on women’s issues by five points in the September poll.
The survey of 600 voters in nine swing states was released Oct. 16 and was funded by the Carnegie Corporation of New York. It was conducted by Democratic pollster Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research and designed by the Republican firm of North Star Opinion Research. The 2012 survey included North Carolina, Colorado, Florida, Iowa, Nevada, New Hampshire, Ohio, Virginia and Wisconsin.
Campaigning today in Ames, Iowa, Romney pledged to support the rural economy and spoke of the importance of the Midwest state to the election. “We’ll open more markets for American agriculture, products and services,” he said. “This state may be the state that decides what kind of an America we’re going to have and what kind of lives our families are going to have.”
Republicans have benefited from the rural vote for decades because of the party’s association with small-town values such as self-sufficiency and social conservatism, said John Morgan, a Reston, Virginia-based demographer for Republican campaigns including President Ronald Reagan’s dating to the 1950s.
Augmenting that appeal in recent decades is an active religious conservative vote that has rallied around Romney out of disdain for Obama, Morgan said. Though Romney’s positions on social issues have been more moderate than other challengers for this year’s Republican nomination, both his business background and his positions on values work for him against the president, Morgan said.
“We want to make Barack Obama a one-term president” said Bob Vander Plaats, president of The Family Leader, a Pleasant Hill, Iowa-based group that endorsed former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum before his slim victory over Romney in Iowa’s January caucus. “Is Romney Rick Santorum? No, but he’s not Obama. We have a wide network, a network that can move numbers and move numbers quickly. And we have energy.”
In Iowa, where blacks comprise just 3.1 percent of the population, the urban, African-American Obama also faces an uphill battle with voters who are reluctant to accept him as the country’s leader for cultural reasons, said Schmidt, the Iowa State political science professor.
Energy, which is creating jobs in non-urban areas even as high gas prices make rural commutes more expensive, is emerging as a larger issue this cycle, Schmidt said. Still, local concerns vary. In Lynnville, the 2007 closing of the Maytag Corp. plant in nearby Newton, a larger town 35 miles east of Des Moines, cost jobs that have only partially restored by a new TPI Composites Inc. plant making wind turbine blades.
Of the 10 most rural states according to U.S. Census data, Obama leads in Maine and Vermont, according to the average of polls aggregated by the Real Clear Politics website. The other eight are all solidly Republican.
New Hampshire and Iowa, rated 11th and 12th, are tossups.
Iowa supported then-President George W. Bush in 2004, boosted Obama’s White House bid in 2008 with a win in its caucuses and gave him a 10-percentage-point victory that November. The state’s 5.2 percent unemployment rate, below the national average of 7.8 percent, and record farm profits have insulated it from the economic woes that have dominated this year’s election, even as income inequality within the state has grown.
Democrats say rural areas aren’t a GOP monopoly. In Grinnell, about 15 miles north of Lynnville, Harriett Dickey- Chasins, a campus psychologist at Grinnell College, is door- knocking for Obama. Brenda Hagedorn, a 51-year-old kindergarten and Sunday school teacher, lets her into her home, saying she’ll vote for the president.
“I’m a little concerned about Romney’s views on women and choices,” she said.
In 2008, both Jasper County, which contains Newton and Lynnville, and Poweshiek County, with Grinnell as its largest city, went for Obama with 52 and 55 percent of the vote, respectively.
Romney’s dramatic polling improvement in rural areas over Republican performance in 2008 may be skewed because different states are in play this time around, Davis said. Still, the clear small-town GOP advantage goes a long way in explaining why the race is tight overall -- and why reaching every voter, everywhere will be crucial, he said.
“Rural voters turn out,” he said. “It’s a real sleeper factor.”
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