ONTARIO, Ohio — For all the vagaries and shifts among Ohio voting groups in the last generation, one bloc remains constant: Rural residents generally vote Republican.
For Mitt Romney’s campaign, relying on history is not good enough.
The Republican nominee is counting on volunteers such as Pamela Wilging to tap into voter enthusiasm that they insist is coursing through many of the farm communities and small towns of Ohio, an enthusiasm that was lacking in 2008.
“I held my nose and voted for John McCain,” the self-proclaimed independent voter said. This time?
“I cannot describe the energy,” she said of efforts in this rural central Ohio hamlet to help secure a Republican victory. “The economy feels just like 1979,” she said, referring to the recession that led to President Carter’s overwhelming defeat by Ronald Reagan. “I think this is going to be a repeat.”
Wilging, 63, was in the Richland County headquarters of the Romney-Ryan campaign on Wednesday, making phone calls to roust fellow Ohioans to vote for the former Massachusetts governor on Tuesday.
In phone banks located in strip malls, and as part of neighborhood teams fanning out across towns and farms to knock on doors, Romney volunteers are trying not only to sway independent voters but to also persuade traditional Republican allies to come out in overwhelming numbers.
In 2008, McCain won the rural vote, but the margins narrowed: roughly 56 percent of Richland County, down from the 60 percent George W. Bush secured in his narrow 2004 win in Ohio over Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts; in neighboring Crawford County, McCain won roughly 58 percent of the vote, down from 64 percent.
“I think you are going to see us recover some of those margins,” said Scott Jennings, the Romney campaign’s state director. “Last time, you saw a lot of independents stay home. We’re not going to have that problem this time.”
Both campaigns plan to work overtime to boost early voting and to get traditional voters to the polls on Tuesday. In Ohio’s northeastern areas, including manufacturing areas around Cleveland, Akron, and Youngstown, the Obama campaign is focusing on Democratic strongholds, while the Romney campaign is training significant effort in the southwestern part of the state around Cincinnati and in coal country in the foothills of Appalachia in the east, which have been more conservative. Both campaigns are battling for voters around Columbus.
The Romney campaign’s renewed confidence in Ohio’s rich farmland comes in part from his campaign’s major effort to have his backers personally reach voters.
As Wilging made calls, another volunteer put together packets for door-to-door canvassing scheduled for the evening — replete with detailed street maps, lists of specific residents and how they voted in the last election, campaign literature, and a script with two main questions to ask: when they plan to vote and how.
“There is no question we are talking to more people than any Republican candidate for president in recent memory,” said Jennings. “We’re doing a lot of that on the front porch.”
He estimated that in the last 2½ weeks, the Romney-Ryan campaign has knocked on more than 700,000 doors across Ohio.
The majority of rural Ohio voters tend to support candidates who back smaller government, lower taxes, and fewer gun laws. Broad swaths of the rural vote have high numbers of fundamentalist Christians.
In an effort to increase turnout of such voters, evangelical preacher Billy Graham recently bought ads in Ohio newspapers advocating for Romney’s positions on social issues. The ad buy was also seen as an effort to ease concerns of religious conservatives over Romney’s Mormon faith.
It is voters like Deb Wiles, a 49-year-old manager of a discount store, that the campaign is hoping to get to the polls.
“I voted for Obama last time but he made a lot of promises, and they didn’t come through,” she said at the Coney Island Inn restaurant in nearby Mansfield, the county seat. “The retail business has dropped drastically in the last few years. People don’t have the money they used to.”
She added: “I kind of feel like maybe we do need a change. If I were standing at the poll today I’d probably vote for Romney.”
The Romney campaign already believes it is outstripping the Obama operation’s vaunted get-out-the-vote effort in enlisting more voters who have not consistently cast ballots, Jennings said. He also expressed optimism that the campaign has been making key inroads in the early voting, where Obama outperformed McCain in 2008.
“We like where we stand in early voting,” he said.
Of 1.3 million votes cast so far, 30 percent were by registered Democrats and 24 percent by registered Republicans, the Associated Press reported.
Romney’s efforts in rural Ohio are also relying on a deep antipathy for Obama among voters in places such as Galion, a town of 9,000 people in Crawford County.
“There certainly is an excitement against Obama,” said George Dallas, the 66-year-old owner of Total Systems Integration, which installs computer technology in schools and businesses. “I would vote for anybody but Obama.”
Dallas said his business employs 12 people, down from 30 a few years ago.
“For us it has been disastrous the last four years,” he said. “People are unwilling to invest until they know what is going to happen. Most of my customers are deferring purchases until after the election.’’
The Republican Party in Richland County is trying to tap into that anti-Obama feeling. In several locations near town, billboards depict a hard hat next to the words: “President Obama, we built it, you broke it, we’ll fix it. You’re fired!”
Many locals say Romney can do better.
“He’ll get people back to work,” said Paul Cok, 76, who was having lunch at the Mansfield diner with his brother Earl, 70, both farmers from Celeryville, in north central Huron County.
Earl, who like Paul voted early this year for Romney, said their neighbors “don’t want Obama anymore.”
Although this area is not particularly fertile territory for Democrats, the Obama campaign is vowing not to cede any votes. Like they have done in other conservative pockets in tossup states, campaign officials have set up their own extensive operations in rural Ohio. Next door to the diner is the Richland County headquarters of Obama-Biden complete with its own phone banks and canvassers.
A waitress behind the counter, who asked not to be quoted, whispered over the largely Republican customers: “I’m voting for Obama. Look at what he had to work with. It was so screwed up.”