Old ghosts in rural Ohio

ruralOhiochurchIt’s clear, to anyone who reads major newspapers, that one of the story templates of this election is the attempt by top Democrats to reach out to church people. I mean, search this here weblog for the words “Democrats” and “pews.”

But, apparently, things did not go all that well in rural Ohio during the recent primary, which brings us to the latest snarkfest from the Washington Post Style pages.

It hit me, while reading this, that one of the side effects of the MSM’s discovery that there are “good Christians” and even a few “good evangelicals,” that this may make it harder for reporters to cover people in the pews who still take conservative stands on basic moral issues, such as the right to life and the definition of marriage. Let me state the obvious, which is that the goal is fair and accurate coverage, not favorable coverage for these folks — a large percentage of whom live in rural Ohio.

The big questions are stated clearly for us during a visit to Darke County:

For county Democratic Party Chairman James Surber, it is a place to contemplate the most puzzling human behavior. “I have always said that the three most baffling questions you could ponder forever are: What’s the meaning and purpose of life? Why is Bruce Willis a star? And why do farmers vote Republican?”

Surber, the elected county engineer who has 110 acres of farmland himself, struggles to change minds. “It’s very challenging in an area like this,” he says. “Thirty years ago, when I came to this county, it wasn’t that way at all. It was nip and tuck. But the 1980s have effected some changes that are almost impossible to deal with. Two issues that have worked against us are abortion and gun owners’ rights.”

Guns are certainly important to a lot of rural voters, but you would have to say that the Style gods have the major issue right there. Are we actually talking about pro-life Democrats?

We then start hearing from people who are so Christian that they even want to vote for Mike Huckabee. There’s rumor. There’s hearsay. Yet these voters are also very concerned about the economy. Some of their concerns sound, well, progressive. But many of them voted for Huckabee in rural Ohio. Why?

So this is what the Democratic Party is up against. In 2004, George W. Bush carried Darke County with 70 percent of the vote. His margins in rural Ohio swung the state for him and thus swung the election. Nationally, Bush beat John Kerry in rural counties by 19 points; he defeated Al Gore in rural America by 22 points in 2000, according to the Center for Rural Strategies. Recent polling done by the center, however, has shown some erosion in the GOP’s grip on rural voters, driven by the Iraq war, the economy and negative views overall of the Bush administration’s stewardship of the nation. Democrats see an opportunity.

“It’s all social and cultural,” says Dave “Mudcat” Saunders, a John Edwards strategist who is now unaligned. “It has nothing to do with policy. It’s about wedge politics. And the way you pull wedgies out is simple — you say it’s a lie. I’m talking about on a one-on-one basis, when you are out in the field.”

But what if the wedge issues are real?

What this story really, really needs are some voices on the other side. It’s crucial to hear these voices that keep saying, “We don’t understand. We don’t understand. We don’t understand why people in rural Ohio believe the way that they do.” But is there anyone out there who has lived there forever and feels that they DO understand?

Eventually, we do get to hear from a rural Christian who explains it all, 88-year-old Naomi Winans. One would be tempted to think that the Style folks search for a week to find her. She is perfect.

Ready? This is the end of the story, the final word.

“I’m a Christian lady and I kind of like that Huckabee, Huckletree, however you pronounce it. And I think McCain is too old. And I like that fella who is running against Hillary, and he was my choice until I heard what he said the other day.” She wouldn’t say what he said. “And I didn’t want a woman. That’s a man’s job being president. I don’t think God put a woman here to run the country. Well, her husband was in there already. They don’t need that much more money, do they?”

Winans then went out into the rain and cold. She was a Republican voter for Huckabee, someone with whom the Democrats never had a chance.

That explains that.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • FW Ken

    It has nothing to do with policy. It’s about wedge politics.

    There’s the money quote. As you note, the policies are real: do we withdraw from Iraq with or without stabilizing the country? Should abortion be legal? In what degree? We all want prosperity, but what policies will give that in the greatest degree?

    It really is a shame the reporter let this Democratic functionary get away with a statement like that. And will the MSM ever figure out that at least some Christians aren’t taken in by church affiliation? Granted a lot are, but quite a few of us vote issues. It would be nice to hear more of those voices.

  • Michael

    What this story really, really needs are some voices on the other side. It’s crucial to hear these voices that keep saying, “We don’t understand. We don’t understand. We don’t understand why people in rural Ohio believe the way that they do.” But is there anyone out there who has lived there forever and feels that they DO understand?

    There are voices on the other side. Plenty of them. They just aren’t talking heads (of which there is actually only one in the whole story, who talked about wedge issues). This is a great example of letting people talk and explain themselves, which they did. I don’t find a drop of snark, except in your post.

    This is a great little campaign story, getting people to talk about politics. It was part of a package that included a gay bar in rural Texas where people talked about why they vote for Democrats . . . which has a lot of religious ghosts in it too.

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt


    You are so funny. Really!

  • Michael

    TMatt, I think you see a story in the WP Style section and automatically assume it is going to be snarky and immediately get defensive about how people who agree with you are going to be portrayed.

    It was a Style story about how people vote. The writer let people talk. That is how people in rural Ohio talk; they don’t talk like the inside-the-Beltway activists and pundits we are used to listening to. So the words “abortion” and “gay marriage” don’t automatically jump out of their mouths in a kneejerk response.

    Arguably to prompt them to talk about abortion and gay marriage would have been forcing a narrative, something that you usually find troubling. This isn’t the Arlington Group, these are regular people.

    I could agree that adding the guy who mentioned the comments about “wedge” issues doesn’t really move the story forward, but beyond that it is a pretty great non-news campaign story.

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    I wrote about this piece after receiving a letter from someone from rural Ohio who thought the piece has horrible and packed with stereotypes. I ran it by some others. Ditto.

    Who wants to hear talking heads? I want to hear another side of the story, someone who does not fit the WPost Style view of what people there are like and believe.

    And, Michael, you would want that too if the story had anything to do with something that mattered deeply to you.

  • jcs

    I’m from rural Ohio (now living in DC), and yes, I thought the story was “horrible and packed with stereotypes” too…

  • jcs

    I’m from rural Ohio (now living in DC), and yes, I thought the story was “horrible and packed with stereotypes” too…

    “That is how people in rural Ohio talk”

    Really? And how would you know this? I spent most of my life in rural Ohio, and that is not how most people talk. There are some people like this, and I got the sense that the reporter was cherry-picking sources to find these people.

  • Michael

    And how would you know this? I spent most of my life in rural Ohio, and that is not how most people talk. There are some people like this

    I guess this is my point. There are people who talk this way, which is endearing in its honesty and lack of spin. I grew up in the rural Midwest and even lived in Ohio. My family–who still live in the rural Midwest–talk like this, in a folksy, matter of fact kind of way. They don’t talk like people with book deals or bloggers.

    So unless you assume the writer was talking to hyperarticulate people who read off the abortion and gay marriage hymn book supplied by the conservative elite and then chose to quote other people, you have to assume that the most interesting people are the ones he quoted. Reporters–even at the evil WP–don’t have the time to skip over good quotes in order to allegedly paint people in a bad light.

    What’s ironic is that I find what the people had to say to be very interesting and enlightening. You can “hear their voice” when you read the story. But, that’s my bias.

  • Maureen

    *roll eyes*

    Yes, there are some people who talk like this. There are also some Trekkies who wear their uniforms all the time, even to jury duty for the Whitewater trial.

    But this is supposed to be a story about rural Ohio voters and how they think and vote, not how one eccentric little old lady thinks.

    But this is typical. You could have an entire Star Trek convention full of glamorous actresses and actors, single Star Trek fans who make seven figures and wear designer clothes, free cars and computers in the dealer room, gourmet food, and free drinks. And where would you find the reporters? Clustered around the one person guaranteed to make the convention look bad, and reporting this extreme data outlier as a typical attendee.

  • Chris Bolinger

    The rural U.S. is not homogeneous. The rural Midwest is not homogeneous (sorry, Michael). Rural Ohio is not homogeneous. The area northwest of Dayton has more in common with Indiana than it does with the river towns of eastern and southern Ohio, or the hill country of southeast Ohio, or the Amish country of the northern and northeastern parts of the state.

    I didn’t consider the piece snarky, just a waste of ink. Too many D.C.-area folks believe that you can swoop into an area, interview a few folks, and then generalize about a population or a category of people in a state, a region, or the entire country. It just doesn’t work, unless your objective is to cherry-pick a few folks who fit your preconceived notions about “those types of people”, in which case it works wonderfully and makes a nice, tidy little article that clueless people in the D.C. area read as gospel.

  • Martha

    I think the real question is why the “Washington Post” Style Section thinks the Democrats are the answer.

    There were mentions of real concerns by real people – how is the economy doing? what happens when local businesses close down and jobs are lost? how will these be replaced? – but the reporter made it sound like “If only these people could be convinced to vote for a Democratic candidate instead of stubbornly remaining solidly Republican supporters, all their problems would be solved.”

    I’d kind of like to know myself just what exactly Obama’s policy on stimulating the economy would be, and until people get to see that and compare and contrast, maybe – just possibly maybe – they may not be so much solidly Republican as sticking with the devil they know?

  • Harris

    Yawn. This is a “dog bites man” sort of story, or the print version of “car accident at Maple and Main” that is the staple of small town journalism.

    Clearly Mr Suber in the story, and perhaps TMatt himself seem to be suffering from the Populist Fallacy that farmers and agrarian communities are the natural constituency of the Democratic Party. Minnesota Farmers Party to the contrary, this is certainly not the case for the rural communities of the Midwest. The electoral evidence belies this (one notorious rural country in Michigan has voted for only one Democrat for President ever: George McClellan), as does the literary and cultural evidence (see Main Street). These communities have been conservative for a very long time.

    So while the article is nominally about “why they vote” it really is more about the urban v. rural, a kind of tourism article about the odd people so far away from the Center Of Things.

  • Chris Bolinger

    Ah, yes, those homogeneous “rural communities of the Midwest”. They’re all the same. *yawn*

  • http://knapsack.blogspot.com Jeff

    In case anyone at all cares — i do! — that’s the view looking south from behind Fairmount Presbyterian Church in southeastern Licking County, just off of the old National Road, now US 40.

    As Al Roker would say, in my neck of the woods! Nice shot, TMatt, and a blessed Lent to ye.

  • Maureen

    Ah, Licking County. That explains the angle of the hill. :)

    I sicced my younger brother, the family Democrat, onto this article. He was incredulous that anyone would go to Darke County for such a thing, as the place is such a huge Republican stronghold these days.

    Our ancestors on that side, from that area, were rabidly Republican. Since they had Irish last names and did business with the black side of town, they were harassed by the Klan during its brief period of power during the twenties. My ancestor the florist proudly used the ancestral pre-Civil War brass knuckles on the Klansmen when they trespassed all over his flowerbeds during their big Greenville rally, and that was the end of that.

  • http://oh-and-this.blogspot.com/ Just Me

    Hmm.. Why is Bruce Willis a star?? Maybe the answer to that would clear up many other human mysteries. Even in politics.

    (I recall JFK addressing a crowd and asking what was the fahmahs’ biggest concern today.. “We’re STAHvin,” came the unexpected from an audience member. Hasn’t changed much.)