Mitt Romney's considerable wealth comes up repeatedly among voters… (Jeff Swensen, Getty Images )
MINGO JUNCTION, Ohio — Hope has been absent for so long from Appalachian Ohio that many people have forgotten what it's like.
Idle steel mills run the length of several city blocks, empty and rusting on the thickly wooded banks of the Ohio River, like hulking tombstones for a past that died and the promise that died along with it.
What optimism exists has little, if any, connection to the presidential campaign, which for all its import feels distant and somehow beside the point.
James Rogers worked happily in the mills for 23 years, until he was laid off in 2009. He is studying to be a nurse; a job, true, but one he doesn't really want. Still, at 44 he has a mortgage, a home deep underwater and two kids to put through college. He figures healthcare offers his best shot at a reliable paycheck.
With the coal mines giving out and the steel business decimated — about 1,500 people work in the few surviving mills, compared with 30,000 at the peak — the medical industry is by far the largest employer in Jefferson County. Young people here tend to escape if they can, leaving the frail and aging behind.
To Rogers, it doesn't matter who wins the White House in November. He's a Democrat and supports President Obama but doubts much would change in a second term.
"We elect this guy and all they do is bicker," said Rogers, still big and burly from his days manning a blast furnace. "Nobody will do this, nobody will do that, it's all partisan [bull] and what did we do? We lost four years."
That utter lack of enthusiasm, shot through with anger and cynicism, is shared by many in rural Ohio, a target state for both sides in November. Timothy Bower, 30, runs Mama G's pizza place, a few miles up the river in Toronto. Rolling and slicing a mound of dough, he described Mitt Romney, the likely Republican nominee, as a "typical empty suit. I don't believe a word he says."
Still, Romney has this going for him: He's not Obama. The president frightens Bower with his expansive healthcare overhaul, his rhetorical shots at the rich and the red ink that has gushed over the last three years. More frightening still, Bowers said, is the prospect of Obama spared future elections and thus free to push even more radical policies.
So "unless a story comes up, something crazy [Romney's] done in the past," the libertarian-leaning Republican said resignedly, "I'm going to have to vote" for Romney.
White, working-class voters like Bower and Rogers are vital to the hopes of the two presidential candidates, not just in Ohio but across other battleground state like Iowa, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania. Yet for different reasons, both Romney and the president have struggled to win their support.
Four years ago, blue-collar voters strongly favored Hillary Rodham Clinton over Obama in the Democratic primaries, and a majority of the white working class backed Republican John McCain in the general election.
This year, Romney has emerged as the presumptive GOP nominee despite resistance from voters low on the income ladder. He eked out a victory in Ohio's March 6 primary, but lost badly to former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum — the grandson of a coal miner, as he reminded audiences time and again — in the Appalachian part of the state. The margin was nearly 40 points in Jefferson County.
Conversations with dozens of voters suggest why both Romney and Obama have failed to connect, and why, for many, the choice of candidates is like picking between bad and worse.
Romney's considerable wealth came up repeatedly, even among Republicans like George Wilson, 76, a retired Marine sergeant, who plans to vote for the former Massachusetts governor simply to be rid of Obama. (Wilson said he would vote for Mickey Mouse over the Democratic incumbent.)
"Mitt Romney seems to have a problem relating to people when he talks about his wife driving two Cadillacs," said Wilson, pausing outside the courthouse in downtown Steubenville. "You don't say things like that to somebody that probably doesn't have a second car and is trying to keep the first one running."
Margaret Morrison, a nurse in her 60s, is still getting to know Romney but doubts he has ever "been down to the level of the majority of people" in the Ohio River Valley.
"I may be wrong, but I don't think he's had to deal with the fact that he's lost his job, or had to scramble to get healthcare for his family because he's been laid off and comes to the end of his benefits," said Morrison, a Republican. She probably won't vote for Obama, but isn't sold on Romney either.
Some of the opposition to the president seems racially inspired. He barely won Democratic-leaning Jefferson County in 2008, underperforming the party's last two nominees — John F. Kerry and Al Gore — even though he carried Ohio and they both lost the state.