As Recession Lingers in Evangelical Epicenters, How Will Voters React?

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NIXA, Mo. | By most standard measures -- gross domestic product, consumer spending and the like -- the United States is in the midst of a steady, albeit very slow economic recovery. But in this community in the Ozarks of southwestern Missouri, the recession is very much alive.

"We've been going through this for two years now," says Sharon Whitehill Gray, president of the Nixa Area Chamber of Commerce. "You keep thinking you are at the bottom. You keep thinking it can't get worse. Then it does."

That's not just a business leader's lament. Talk to people all around this city and you'll essentially hear the same thing over and over. Unemployment has gotten worse in recent months. Hours have been cut. Businesses have closed.

And Nixa, a socially conservative Evangelical Epicenter in Patchwork Nation, is not alone. Even as the national economic measures show some improvement, broad swaths of the country, and many of those Epicenters, are living in a tough economic environment.

The reason, as we explain in the book "Our Patchwork Nation," is the idea of a single American economy is a myth. Surprising differences still exist at the local level. Different communities have wide of a range of employers, workers and industries, and they experience very different economic realities.

In the beginning of 2011, that is painfully evident in Nixa. And what happens in this community and others like it over the next 12 to 18 months will likely play an important role in the 2012 campaign - and especially the selection of a Republican presidential candidate.

Where the Tough Times Lag

The idea that the recession is just now hitting what people hope is its nadir in Nixa is not a shock to Nixans. Everything comes late, they say. They saw stories about the recession long before it really hit home in their somewhat remote community. But that doesn't soften the blow.

"The economy is what is on everyone's mind here," said Gary Swearengin, pastor of the Nixa Church of the Nazarene. Sunday offerings have taken a hit, he says and as church giving is down. "In times like this a lot of people try to rationalize giving less to the church."

Nixa, like other Evangelical Epicenters, has been on a roller coaster. In some ways unemployment looks better than it did in January 2010. Back then, the unemployment rate was 9.2 percent in Christian County. It's now at only 8 percent. But back in June it was only 7.4 percent. In other words, it doesn't really "feel" better.

Those persistent high rates -- pushed also by the media's downbeat coverage -- have taken a toll on the community's psyche, Swearengin said.

And remember, a down economy is not only reflected in unemployment. Kristi Bohannon, who oversees a set of Sonic Drive-In restaurants in the region, said she has done all she can to save positions for employees, but her stores have been forced to cut hours.

"2010 was worse than 2009 for receipts and 2009 was a bad year. And it looks like January 2011 will be down again," she said.

The 2012 Meaning in Evangelical Communities

Nixa is only one place, of course, but the 473 counties Patchwork Nation calls the Evangelical Epicenters have had a rougher time than many communities. Lower levels of educational attainment and more rural settings have pushed those communities to higher unemployment rates than the national average.

The Epicenters can be seen below - the yellow counties largely bunched in Missouri and the South.

The average Epicenter had an unemployment rate of 9.1 percent for November - the latest numbers available. The U.S. unemployment rate at the county level is about 8.8 percent. And, as in Nixa, the unemployment rate in these Evangelical counties has gone up in recent months.

With the 2012 campaign now less than a year away, those numbers may end up politically significant. Swearengin said the economic downdraft has left his congregation more focused on the economy at the expense of other issues he feels are important, like abortion.

"[Abortion] was just gone as an issue in 2010," Swearengin said about the community. "It was economy, economy, economy."

That's a change worth noting. The Evangelical Epicenters are not wealthy. They have lower-than-average median household incomes. But they don't tend to vote on economic issues - as we have noted on this blog and in "Our Patchwork Nation." Instead they have tended to focus on social and cultural issues. Will that trend hold?

As the Republican presidential field comes into focus in the coming months, these counties are considered to be key to the candidate that wants to capture the vote of social conservatives. But a continued down economy in the Epicenters may alter that equation -- and watching how the presidential hopefuls adjust, especially those with a strong social conservative base such as Mike Huckabee and Sarah Palin, will be telling.

It's not that Epicenters are suddenly going to drift toward libertarianism - religious conservatism runs deep in these locales - but peeling a few economy-centered votes off of them could affect the larger vote in some states. Missouri, Arkansas, Oklahoma, Georgia, Tennessee, Kentucky, Alabama and even the early primary state of South Carolina all have sets of Evangelical Epicenter counties.

Who would stand to gain in those states? More centrist, business-focused Republicans.

Of course, 2012 is still a ways off and the economy may right itself in the Epicenters. Right now, however, any recovery seems a ways off in these communities.