This story was reprinted with permission from the Charlotte Observer
ROCKINGHAM — Jerry Maines has been a Democrat all his life, just as his father was, in this onetime textile center between Charlotte and the beach.
But Maines, 40, hasn’t had steady work since he helped build the Lanesboro Correctional Institution in nearby Polkton, which opened in 2004. Odd construction and electrical jobs have helped him get by since then, but even those have all but dried up.
“I wouldn’t feel as bad if I wasn’t trying so hard,” Maines said last week, standing outside McDonald’s awaiting a phone call. He said he favored President Barack Obama in 2008, but now he’s not so sure.
“I would vote for anybody who would help bring jobs. I can’t decide if one’s better than the other one. I don’t know if I’m even going to vote.”
About 110 miles to the west on U.S. 74, Louis St. Charles munched hushpuppies at the lunch counter at Red Bridges Barbecue Lodge in Shelby and said he feels glad to have a job with an automotive retail shop when so many people nearby are looking for work.
St. Charles, 27, voted for Republican John McCain four years ago and with the economy as it is, doesn’t plan on voting for Obama. “If you don’t have jobs, nothing else can go.”
Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney remain in a tight contest for North Carolina’s coveted 15 electoral votes. A survey last week from Raleigh-based Public Policy Polling, a Democratic-leaning firm, had the two candidates tied at 48 percent.
The state’s 9.6 percent unemployment rate ranks fifth-highest in the nation, higher than every battleground state except Nevada in an election that has centered on the economy.
Rural votes won’t make or break either candidate in a state that now has more than half its population in urban areas. But the experiences of voters in hard-hit counties like Richmond and Cleveland — one traditionally blue, one red — dramatize the uphill battle Obama faces to repeat his narrow 2008 victory in North Carolina.
The traditional Democratic stronghold of Richmond County, home of Rockingham, hasn’t voted for a Republican for president since Richard Nixon. Four years ago Obama carried it by fewer than 300 votes. With an unemployment rate of 12.7 percent, a number of voters say they are rethinking their choices.
And Cleveland County, which went nearly 60 percent for McCain, could get even redder as it continues to lose manufacturing jobs.
“In a state where Obama wins by 14,000 votes in 2008, he’s got to hold on to every one of those votes, practically, to hold on in 2012,” said Wake Forest University political scientist John Dinan. “Every advantage his campaign gained in 2008 is one he can’t give up.”
North Carolina’s unemployment rate was 7.8 percent in November 2008, when Obama was elected. Within a year, it had spiked above 11 percent.
It has steadily declined since then, but remains higher than economically troubled states such as Michigan, Arizona and South Carolina.
Manufacturing and construction especially suffered in North Carolina, another blow to counties like Richmond and Cleveland, which were already dealing with textile job losses much longer in the making.
The month Obama was inaugurated, Cleveland County lost 419 jobs when the Entertainment Distribution Co. plant closed, and 123 jobs when MeadWestvaco’s packaging plant shut down, according to layoff notices filed with the state. Earlier this year, the RockTenn facility in Shelby closed, ending 152 jobs.
“I don’t know that they blame the Obama administration for what’s going on today, but they see it extending what’s going on today,” said N.C. Sen. Wes Westmoreland, a Republican from Shelby.
Richmond County has long struggled with unemployment and poverty, worsened by the recession and its aftermath. It has remained Democratic even as rural voters elsewhere in the state have gradually grown Republican.
But now, voters in Richmond County say they’re considering switching their votes, or know people who are.
Henry Antos, 46, who runs Henry’s Uptown Cafe in Rockingham, is among them. He voted for Obama in 2008 but said he won’t be doing so again because Obama “didn’t do what he said he would.” Taxes are an issue for him, but unemployment worries him more, as he sees fewer customers streaming in at lunchtime.
“I want them to get jobs so they can come in and eat,” he said.
But while many talk of changing their votes or staying home, political scientists say unemployment is one of many factors influencing voting trends — with historic political affiliation remaining a major driver in the voting booth.
“Generally, counties tend to be fairly stable in their voting patterns, come a good year, come a bad year,” Catawba College political scientist Michael Bitzer said.
Republicans, in general, are going to vote for Romney and Democrats for Obama, Dinan from Wake Forest University said. And each side views the economy through its own political lens.
“There are dramatically different responses when you ask Democrats how the economy is doing or ask Republicans how the economy is doing,” Dinan said.
“Republicans are in general much more likely to say it’s not doing well.”
Four years ago, Charles Deaver, 27, of Hamlet, was a restaurant manager. Today, he’s a busboy at Hudson Brothers Deli in Rockingham.
Deaver is a registered Republican but voted for Obama in 2008. He understands why many are disenchanted with the president.
But as a recent student, Deaver said he likes Obama’s emphasis on student loans. And a history of undiagnosed epilepsy without health insurance has put him in favor of the president’s signature Affordable Care Act.
He’s already voted for Obama — though he expects few of his neighbors to follow suit.
“If they’ve been working in the factories or in the mills,” he said, “they’re going for Romney.”
AT A GLANCE
County seat: Rockingham
County population: 46,611
Unemployment rate: 12.7 percent
Largest private employers: Perdue Products Inc., First Health Of The Carolinas Inc.,
Demographics: 58 percent white non-Hispanic, 31 percent black
2008 presidential vote: 50.3 percent Obama
County seat: Shelby
County population: 97,489
Unemployment rate: 10.7 percent
Largest private employers: Cleveland Regional Medical Center, Walmart, Gardner-Webb University, Select PEO Inc.
Demographics: 74 percent white non-Hispanic, 21 percent black
2008 presidential vote: 59.5 percent McCain