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3 March 2008

Beware the Appalachians

Presidential candidates ignore rural Ohio at their peril as the Appalachians may hold the key not ju

By Phillip Obermiller

The Appalachians comprise 12 states and all of West Virginia, according to the federal definition of the region, and although not all the 17 million eligible residents vote – or vote alike – this area could hold real sway over outcome of the US 2008 presidential elections.

But make no mistake, despite its stereotyped depiction in the popular media, Appalachia is not a homogenous region.

At one end of the spectrum it encompasses major cities and towns, and at the other rural counties with fewer residents than some urban neighborhoods. It is a region with a rich endowment in the arts, literature and music, that in some localities still struggles to educate its youth. It exports coal, timber, oil and natural gas by rail and pipeline, while importing tourists along an extensive network of Heritage Trails. Appalachia attracts wealthy retirees in search of a peaceful mountainside view while the poor abide below in many of the region’s “hollers.”

In the Democratic primaries Hillary Clinton has won New York and Tennessee, while Barack Obama took Virginia, Maryland, South Carolina, Georgia, and Alabama. This leaves other states with large Appalachian populations still to weigh in: Pennsylvania, Ohio, West Virginia, Kentucky, North Carolina, and Mississippi.

A similar pattern holds for the Republican candidates, with John McCain winning Maryland, New York, Virginia, and South Carolina, and Mike Huckabee taking West Virginia, Tennessee, Georgia, and Alabama. Pennsylvania, Ohio, Kentucky, North Carolina, and Mississippi remain in play for the Republicans.

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Appalachia hasn’t attracted much attention from the presidential candidates in the current campaign. But it will.

Case in point: Appalachian Ohio. Hillary Clinton’s recent swing through the area seemed merely a token bow to Clinton supporter Governor Ted Strickland’s popularity there. Surrounded by high-ranking politicians and importing Dayton homeowners to discuss home foreclosure, these by-invitation-only tableaus isolate Clinton from the local electorate.

During the 26 February debate held in Cleveland, the Democratic candidates mentioned the metropoles of Cleveland, Toledo, Youngstown, Dayton, and Cincinnati – seemingly quite oblivious to the state’s mostly rural and Appalachian southeast corner. They do so at their peril.

In the last presidential election George W. Bush carried 25 of Ohio’s 29 Appalachian counties, netting him some 90,000 votes and the slim margin needed to put this key state in the Republican column. The 2004 Bush win in Appalachian Ohio was replicated in states across the region, increasing Republican margins in nearly every county beyond the benchmarks established in the 2000 presidential race.

In 2005, 1-in-8 residents of Appalachian Ohio lived in poverty, and that rate is growing as the few manufacturing jobs left in the area continue to dwindle. The question becomes: “why would people who could ostensibly benefit from Democratic rather than Republican policies regularly vote against their own self-interest?”

The answer may lie in the area’s traditional values, which have trumped economic concerns in the past two presidential elections. Strong opinions are held by many residents of Appalachian Ohio on abortion, same-sex marriage, the content of school textbooks and gun control, along with a strong respect for military service.

At the same time, egalitarian beliefs often discount economic success as a key measure of wellbeing. The avid pursuit of a career, educational or financial goals can lead to charges of being “uppity” or “getting too big for your britches”.

These beliefs have significance for Democratic and Republican candidates alike. Will Harvard and Yale-trained lawyers from Chicago and New York, who hold similar positions on abortion, same-sex marriage, gun control, and the war in Iraq, be able to sway Appalachian voters with their social and economic policies?

Will the conservative platform of Mike Huckabee cause many of these same voters to stay home rather than vote for the more moderate John McCain? Will race and gender surface in Appalachia as key considerations in a November election pitting a white male against a woman or an African American man?

The voters of Appalachian Ohio will give us a clue on 4 March.

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