Coal Country and Obama: Much Ado About Not Much

Reporting on Politics and Policy.
Nov. 5 2012 7:54 AM

Coal Country and Obama: Much Ado About Not Much

CLEVELAND, Ohio -- Salena Zito is one of my favorite writers on the campaign trail, an Ernie Pyle acolyte who eschews stagey campaign events for walk-and-talks in small towns. She writes today from Mingo Junction, Ohio, a town near the Pennsylvania border, which lost its main economic engine in July.

In this Democrat-stronghold of 3,000 in the shadow of a massive steel plant hugging the Ohio River, hundreds of “Romney for President” signs clutter front yards, the few remaining small businesses and vacant brownfields.
At age 82, Schoolcraft not only is village treasurer but volunteers with the village social-services program, feeding those who fall on hard times. “I have coal miners here who haven't worked in a very long time,” she said.
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Is this an unseen omen of Obama doom in Ohio? Here's the problem. Mingo Junction is in Jefferson County, which, as Zito writes, is a bastion of poor white Democrats. John Kerry won it by nearly 2,000 votes while losing the state. But Obama only won it by 71 votes out of more than 36,000 -- and won Ohio. Overall, McCain got fewer votes than George W. Bush. In Jefferson County, he got more: 17,559, compared to 17,185. And in 1988, Michael Dukakis carried the county in a 8,000 vote landslide. He lost Ohio by 500,000 votes. And here's the sad punchline. The total vote in 1988 was 36,509. The total vote in 2008 was 36,071.

Meanwhile, look at Cleveland's Cuyahoga County, where Barack Obama is trying to run up the score. In 1988, it cast 601,117 votes. In 2008, it cast 667,299 votes, giving the president most of his Ohio margin. No one should doubt that Mitt Romney will outperform John McCain in the coal countries of Ohio and Pennsylvania. The problem: He can gain tens of thousands of votes there, and still lose, because this vote isn't growing, and Democrats have already been winning with smaller margins of it.

David Weigel is a Slate political reporter.