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Ohio unemployment falls, but so does support for Obama

By Alana Semuels, Los Angeles Times –

CANTON, Ohio — Reg Rozell and Kim C. Sweitzer seem like they’d be sure-fire Obama 2012 supporters.

Both have good-paying union jobs at a busy steel mill here and are benefiting from a manufacturing surge that’s keeping their employer — located in a former auto plant — operating three shifts and granting overtime to whomever wants it.

But though both voted for Barack Obama in 2008, they say they won’t vote to re-elect the president, even though they’re noticing positive signs in the economy. They already voted Republican in 2010, helping to elect Gov. John Kasich, who has been locked in a battle with unions ever since.

“I’ve basically been a Democratic voter, but I won’t vote for Obama again,” said Rozell, 61, standing outside the steel plant, which was belching smoke into a drizzly Ohio afternoon. “I don’t like the bailout, I don’t like taxes, I don’t like talking about trillions of dollars of deficit.”

Here in Stark County, a bellwether that has voted for the winner in every presidential election but one since 1980, the concerns of people like Rozell and Sweitzer reflect the challenge confronting President Obama. Despite blue-collar job creation in steel mills, ball-bearing manufacturers and meatpacking companies, many working-class white voters here, and in much of Ohio, say they have reservations about Obama this time around, raising questions about his ability to once again capture this swing state.

Although Ohio’s 20 electoral votes went to Obama in 2008, the latest poll from Quinnipiac University suggests a tight battle, though it is still 10 months before Election Day. In head-to-head matchups against the president, Romney and Gingrich wees favored by 43 percent of those surveyed to 42 percent for Obama. In Stark County, 52 percent of voters chose Obama in 2008, but in 2010, they selected Kasich 50 percent to 46 percent over his Democratic rival.

“I’m optimistic, but I just don’t think he’s doing the job,” Sweitzer said.

The president will speak in Cleveland on Wednesday about the economy, though It’s not necessarily just about the economy anymore.

Voters are increasingly choosing the candidates with whom they most identify, says David Wasserman, House editor for the Cook Political Report. “Lifestyle and culture is driving politics more than regional economic circumstances,” he said. “Obama is more arugula than chicken and dumplings, and that’s a problem.”

It’s true that many white-collar workers — presumably arugula eaters — still stand behind Obama. They include Steve Moroney, a self-identified independent voter who teaches philosophy at a local college.

“He’d just represent the United States in a better way,” said Moroney, who is 49 and white, and was shopping for Christmas presents at a mall in the upscale Belden Village here.

Kelly Bafler, a 42-year old business owner who isn’t optimistic about the economy, says she prefers Obama over any of the Republican contenders.

“I know lot of people are suffering jobwise,” said Bafler, who has two children. “But I’m more frustrated with the Republicans.”

To be sure, unemployment in Ohio is still at 8.5 percent. And the state has shed hundreds of thousands of manufacturing jobs in the past decade, making increases now seem small by comparison. But unemployment has dropped sharply from a statewide high of 10.6 percent two years ago. In Stark County, the unemployment rate has fallen to 8.2 percent, from 10.1 percent a year ago.

That’s in part due to blue-collar job growth. In the first quarter of 2011, the number of jobs in the Canton metropolitan area grew 1.9 percent from the same period the year before, the second fastest growth rate of any metro area in Ohio, according to George Zeller, an independent economic researcher. Manufacturing employment grew 5.3 percent in Canton — and 12.4 percent in Youngstown — he said.

“We’ve had a real big year this year, quite an uptick in all kinds of positions, actually, especially manufacturing,” said Debbie Lindsay, a spokeswoman for Mancan Inc., a staffing agency in Canton. “I actually don’t understand why there are people who aren’t working.”

Job growth isn’t the only factor that would normally be helping Democrats in 2012. When Kasich signed a bill that limited collective bargaining for public employees, organized labor canvassed the state, raising enough money and support to vote down the bill in a referendum by a 2-1 margin.

But the support seems to have faded in the working-class neighborhoods of southwestern Canton, across from the hulking Timken Co. plant, which makes ball bearings and other parts.

“Little by little it’s turning around here, but nobody’s happy with Obama,” said George Barnes, 70, who sat at the bar of Frame’s Tavern drinking Busch from a small glass and watching the news. He’s quick to point out that “it’s not because he’s African American,” but he said he wouldn’t vote for Obama, although he did in 2008.


Others in the many bars located among homes and low-slung buildings in the neighborhood, many of them retired manufacturing workers now dressed in camouflage jackets and baseball caps, agreed.

Despite the distaste for Kasich, Obama will face an uphill challenge in Ohio, said John Russo, co-director of the Center for Working-Class Studies at Youngstown State University.

“Obama has not been real popular; there are a lot of lingering feelings about him, not the least of which, after you clear away all the smoke, is race,” he said.

On a recent weekday, three black voters sat at a Mancan office on a recent weekday, filling out job applications. Although all three are unemployed, they plan to vote for Obama again.

“He’s the lesser of two evils right now,” said Mazette Atkins, who is black, as is 25 percent of the population of Canton. “Who else are you going to vote for? Donald Trump? Newt Gingrich? No way.”

Within a few minutes, a representative for Mancan told Atkins there were no jobs available for him that day. He shrugged his shoulders and walked away, dejected, unemployed, but still an Obama supporter.

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