Romney's Small Town Issues Evident in North Carolina

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CHARLOTTE, NC - This city may be filled with Democrats this week, but the border region offers some good news for Mitt Romney. As Patchwork Nation noted in Wednesday’s Wall Street Journal, drive just a half hour west on Interstate 85 and you will run into Gastonia (and Gaston County), where his support runs very deep.

We can’t share that full piece on the Patchwork Nation site because the Journal charges a subscription fee. But a few of the most relevant paragraphs and points:

In 2008, Mr. Obama won 62% of the vote in Mecklenburg County, which includes Charlotte, on the way to carrying North Carolina by 0.3 percentage points. To win again, Mr. Obama is looking to Mecklenburg and other North Carolina counties like it—such as Wake and Durham—with similar growth, income levels and relatively high educational attainment.

Mr. Obama's 2008 opponent, Sen. John McCain, carried 62% of the vote in Gaston County, which includes Gastonia.

But in 2004, then-President George W. Bush scored a larger win than Mr. McCain in Gaston County, capturing 67% of the vote. If Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney boosts his 2012 margin to those heights in Gaston and similar counties around North Carolina, he could improve his chances.

Resistance to the president in Gastonia only appears to have grown. "People don't talk much about [Obama] here," says Steven Stover, a McCain voter, and owner of restaurant on Gastonia's Main Street. Mr. Obama won in 2008 because he was "cool," said Mr. Stover, and because people were excited to elect an African American president.

As we noted in that piece there are massive challenges for President Obama in counties like Gaston, an Evangelical Epicenter in Patchwork Nation. In 2008, Sen. John McCain won those counties nationally by some 33 percentage points. That was one of the few county types where McCain actually outperformed against George W. Bush’s 2004 results.

But Evangelical Epicenters also hint at some other challenges for the newly minted GOP nominee, tied to small-town economics. The hardest hit among them have suffered for years, with the troubles beginning long before the Great Recession, and they may not be sure what they see in Romney and his time at Bain Capital.

People we talked to in Gastonia said that was definitely the case in Gaston County, which was built on textile mills that began closing well over a decade ago. At Ford’s Seed Store on Main Street, Manager Peggy Long said the hard times for her gardening store began “back on 9/11.” That’s 11 years of hard times.

At the local Kimbrell’s Furniture on Main Street, the staff says the downturn for Gastonia began earlier. Donna Pregman says it began in the mid-1990s as agreements expanded free trade. Sitting next to her Susan Hinson says, “It didn’t start going bad four years ago, it was 30 years ago.”

Walking up and down Main Street the testaments to the changes in Gastonia are everywhere. It is a collection of empty storefronts, punctuated by the offices of lawyers and bail bondsmen. The last of the big textile mills in Gaston closed back in 2009, though the Spindle City Café, open for lunch six days a week, remains.

In short, Gastonia and Gaston have been hammered by globalization. And they may not be the kinds of places that are predisposed to support the man who was formerly the head of a private equity firm. And while everyone person we spoke with in Gastonia said they planned to vote for Romney, none of them were very supportive of him.

“Lesser of two evils,” was the most common description of nominee, several people, directly and indirectly, pointed out his time at Bain. “I’m certainly not happy about it,” Pregman said.

That’s where Gaston and Gastonia are interesting. Ultimately they will vote for Romney. There are other factors that cause them to lean Republican beyond the economic struggles of the past four years.

The city and county are true Evangelical Epicenters. You can hardly turn your head without seeing a house of worship– Loray Baptist Church, Liberty Baptist Church, Living Water Community Worship Center – and parishioners in those congregations tend to be more socially conservative.

But there are many communities that share Gastonia’s economic troubles, that don’t have the same strong evangelical ties. Patchwork Nation has been to many communities like Gastonia in the past four years, rural communities that have struggled for a long time, but that have a less culturally conservative bent. Often they are Service Worker Centers or Emptying Nests in the more northern states.

We wrote last week that those are precisely the types of communities where Romney needs to improve his polling numbers.

In other words, Gaston County and Evangelical Epicenters like it are security blankets for Romney in North Carolina. Their strong social conservatism is his defense against bigger more metropolitan places like Charlotte and Mecklenburg County.

But the feelings expressed in Gaston also indicate a larger challenge for him in small-town rural communities.

How much of Gaston’s support for Romney is built around its Evangelical bent and how much is built around discontent with Obama? That’s something we will explore in the coming weeks.