Oskaloosa, Iowa — Mitt Romney is not losing in this reliable Republican stronghold, a small town an hour’s drive through the cornfields southeast of Des Moines. But he does not exactly appear to be winning, either.
Oskaloosa (population 12,000) is predominantly white, and rural, and religious – all demographic traits which tend to favour Republican candidates. John McCain won here handily in 2008, with 58 per cent of the vote, and Republican candidates swept the races for federal and state offices in 2010.
“Oskaloosa has a history of being more conservative,” said David Krutzfeldt, the town’s mayor. “It tends to be more Republican in its voting patterns.”
Unfortunately for Romney, the town seems to have a lot of residents Kyle Stock, 61, a gruff independent trucker with a handlebar mustache. He describes himself as a conservative, and says his most important political concern is the growing national debt, an issue on which the Republicans constantly hammer Barack Obama. Stock is critical of the American welfare state. “I never got a check from the government in my life,” he says.
But come November 6, he plans to pull the lever for Obama.
“I can’t vote for Romney. In my opinion, he hasn’t come forward and gave any direction on where he’s going to go with anything,” he grumbles between bites of a ham and cheese omelette at Julie’s Homestyle Cafe, a downtown diner.
“Obama has done all right with what he’s inherited,” Stock adds.
Sitting across from him is Bruce Snyder, 69, who recently retired from the trucking business. He offered the closest thing to an endorsement of Romney that I heard in dozens of interviews in Oskaloosa.
“I wouldn’t vote for [Obama]. I never did,” said Snyder, who isn’t sure if he will vote in November. “But don’t get me wrong! I don’t like Romney either… he’s the lesser of two evils now, not somebody I really like.”
Paycheck to paycheck
This swing state, as a whole, is less conservative than Oskaloosa: Obama carried Iowa in 2008 with 54 per cent of the vote, a nine-point margin over McCain, and Democrats won here in four of the previous six elections as well.
The poor corn harvest in Iowa has taken a psychological toll on farmers in this agricultural region [Al Jazeera]
The state’s economy has fared better than the rest of the country over the past few years, which should offer Obama some immunity against Romney’s central argument, that he has done a terrible job managing the economy.
Iowa’s unemployment rate peaked in 2009 and 2010 at 6.3 per cent, compared to 10 per cent nationwide. Home values have remained relatively stable, and a strong agricultural sector has helped to prop up the economy.
But there is a profound sense of anxiety here, despite the comparatively strong macroeconomic statistics. Most Iowans have jobs, but many are living paycheck-to-paycheck: The per capita income in Oskaloosa is just $19,651, according to the US census bureau, nearly $6,000 below the state average.
Farmers have had a particularly terrible year because of a record-setting drought across the Midwest. The economic impact will be limited, because most of Iowa’s crops are covered by federally guaranteed insurance plans, which will pay out billions later this year. But the acres of parched cornstalks outside of town, browning in the sun, have taken a psychological toll of sorts, farmers say.
Romney and his running mate, Paul Ryan, have made this uncertainty a recurring part of their campaign. Iowa was Ryan’s first stop after he was announced as the vice presidential nominee.
“We have people who are hurting in this country… families are hurting because they’re living paycheck to paycheck, and the paychecks aren’t being stretched as far as they used to,” he said on a visit to the Iowa state fair.
“This is the worst economic recovery, if you want to call it that, in 70 years.”
‘He’s for the working man’
Yet the Romney campaign doesn’t seem to have connected with many voters in places like Oskaloosa – neither his base nor the independent voters he needs to woo. An NBC News/Marist University poll found that 51 per cent of registered voters in Iowa had an "unfavorable" impression of Romney, up from 43 per cent in May.
Local Republicans complain that Romney isn’t conservative enough, and lament that their preferred candidate did not win the party’s nomination. “I liked [Rick] Perry… he was a real conservative,” Snyder said.
“Romney is definitely the lesser of two evils,” added Julie Wells, the owner of the cafe. “Santorum was the one we decided we liked.”
A CBS/YouGov poll released in September found that 91 per cent of registered Republicans “definitely” planned to vote, but there seemed to be no such urgency in Oskaloosa: one-fourth of the roughly two dozen Republican-leaning voters I spoke to said they weren’t sure if they would bother to vote come November. “I’m at the point where I don’t think there’s anything to vote for,” said Harry Dewitt, 48, a construction worker currently receiving disability payments.
Meanwhile, if you set out to design a presidential candidate who would alienate the blue-collar voters in a place like Oskaloosa, it would be hard to top Romney. “I can’t vote for a guy that’s got money in a Swiss bank account,” Stock said.
He has not made a connection with Iowans like Bruce Van Weelden, one of those increasingly rare “swing voters” who attain an almost mythical status in American presidential politics.
The 50-year-old independent contractor voted twice for Bill Clinton, then twice for George W Bush. He now seems to regret that latter decision; he supported Obama in 2008, and plans to vote for him again in November. Obama’s critics, he says, “forget” all of the president’s successes, like the decision to bail out the auto industry.
“We had Bush for so many years, and he brought us into war. I think we’ll be a lot better off after four years of Obama,” he said. “Romney seems so phony to me. Obama seems like he’s got his life together.”
Tom O’Connor, a retired welder, compared Romney (unfavourably) to the “big bankers” who caused the financial crisis.
“I’ve been back and forth so much I’m not sure, but after hearing Clinton, I kind of like Obama,” O’Connor said, referring to the former president’s widely-lauded speech at the Democratic National Convention.
“[Obama] has got issues, like [his views on] guns… but he’s for the working man,” he added.