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Posted by on Mar 3, 2008 in Politics | 17 comments

Unemployment, Underemployment, and Hunger Boosting Obama’s Chances in Ohio

Here in Logan, Ohio, where I’ve served as pastor of Saint Matthew Lutheran Church for four months, concerns about the economy run high. That’s because this town of 6000, nestled in the beautiful Hocking Hills and county seat Hocking County, has been hard hit by a number of plant closings over the past decade. People who once worked decent-paying factory jobs are, in many cases, unemployed or underemployed. A small contingent of the county’s population are transplants or college-educated Hocking County-natives who commute to Columbus, with work locations between forty and sixty minutes away. But others don’t have such options in this area highly dependent on summer and fall tourism and farming.

The consequence: Enormously long lines at local food banks and pantries. Our congregation has become so concerned about the situation, that our members are responding compassionately with increased donations of food and funding for an organization sponsored by the county ministerial association, CHAP (Clearing House Assistance Program). CHAP runs an emergency food assistance program and has recently announced its desire to buttress its rent- and utility-assistance programs.

But the sea of people who arrive for monthly food provided by Second Harvest through the ministry of Smith Chapel, a congregation of the United Methodist Church, provides vivid testimony of the depths of the unemployment and hunger crisis now facing many in our area and in other so-called Rust Belt states like Ohio. Logan and Hocking County were profiled in this piece in The Chicago Tribune and I can vouch for the article’s accuracy.

Politically, the article points out, this crisis is increasing interest in the presidential race, in the Democrats in general, and in Barack Obama in particular. That’s true even here in overwhelmingly white southeastern Ohio, part of southern Ohio, a place where many pundits have speculated that African-American Obama may have a tougher time getting votes.

Anecdotally, I pick up on almost zero concern about or references to Obama’s race among the folks with whom I routinely interact here in Logan and in Columbus, my hometown, a place I visit often these days for hospital visits. And, it should pointed out that Obama’s home state of Illinois, directly west of Ohio, separated only by Indiana, has people in southern Illinois who share many of the same demographic characteristics of southern Ohioans–white, rural, small town, traditional manufacturing communities that have lost industry–and that state has helped vote for Obama in a senatorial primary and election in 2000 and in this year’s presidential primary.

Concerns about the economy will almost trump all other concerns in any given year and in Ohio, that increasingly means that people are taking a look at Obama, even, my conversations show, those folks who have usually voted in the Republican primary.

Why Obama is more the beneficiary of these economic concerns than is his rival, Senator Hillary Clinton, I can only theorize. But it seems to me that throughout this nominating process, we’ve seen that Clinton has a large, loyal base of support within the Democratic Party. It’s composed in part of people who loved her husband, of older women who see a vote for the New York senator as an opportunity to do something historic, and of some of the other older, traditional Democratic loyalists. But in most of the contested primaries this year, Clinton hasn’t seemed able to nudge that base of support up. The frustrating thing for Clinton has been that the more she campaigns in contested states, the more she falls behind. Her level of support, impressive as it is, seems to remain fairly flat.

That’s because Obama has been able not only to excite young people, but also folks within the Democratic Party who are either part of the 48% of the country who themselves say they will never vote for Clinton or who look at Clinton’s high disapproval ratings and, because they want a Democratic victory in the fall, decide to go for the senator from Illinois.

Ohio, demographically, is only slightly older than the rest of the US, but is in most other ways, completely reflective of the rest of the country. That’s why, in recent weeks, with the exception of the always suspect Columbus Dispatch poll, Obama has been gaining among the growing throng of Democratic primary voters in Ohio, while Clinton’s numbers has gone nowhere. (The Dispatch poll is dependent on mailed-in poll responses. While the poll takes a larger sampling of voters than other polls, it hasn’t always been reliable. Presently, the Dispatch poll shows Clinton beating Obama rather handily in Ohio. Other polls are almost unanimously telling a different tale.)

Ohio, with its large union vote, may still give a win to Clinton, who in many ways, is seen as the more traditional candidate of the two remaining Democratic contenders. But if that happens, it won’t be a comforting vote for her. Most polls in Ohio show her margin of victory being within the usual 2-to-4% margin of error.

Like Bill Clinton, I believe that Hillary Clinton must win in both Ohio and Texas in order to remain credibly in this race. The impact of eleven consecutive Obama wins cannot be blunted by anything less than convincing Clinton victories in these two states. With an almost certain loss in the Lone Star state and a probable win or loss by a small margin of victory here, I expect Hillary Clinton to withdraw within days.

For several years now, I’ve been saying that 2008 was the Democrats to lose. But when I first said that, I thought that the central issue of the campaign would be the war in Iraq. With Iraq at least temporarily mollified by the surge and the ten-dollar-a-week payoffs to that country’s once-pervasively violent Sunni population, the war has been taken off the front pages of our collective consciousness. The economy, at present, is the biggest issue of 2008. That issue favors the Democrats in places like Hocking County, as well as in the heavily industrialized northern Ohio cities of Cleveland, Akron, Youngstown, Canton, and Toledo. And it favors them even more pervasively than the war, an issue with many attendant ambiguities for the Dems. That’s because even Democrats and Republicans opposed to the war question leaving Iraq precipitately and stew over the ability of either Clinton or Obama to deal with national security issues.

Obama seems better able to communicate empathy and hope to people concerned about the economy here in Ohio, where our unemployment rate is one point higher than that of the country as a whole. That may be enough to give him an Ohio victory and, therefore, the Democratic nomination.

But however things go politically this year, while governments wrestle with the demands of shifting world economies and how to deal with those realities in a long-term way, churches and other concerned groups of people, will need to find more ways to deal compassionately and creatively with the plight of hungry, unemployed, and underemployed people. It’s one of our biggest challenges these days.

[This piece is being cross-posted at my personal blog.]

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