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RealClearPolitics HorseRaceBlog

By Jay Cost

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Does McCain Have a Rural Problem?

I have covered in some detail Barack Obama's "rural problem," which manifested itself in poor performances in primary battles east of the Mississippi. My sense - based on the poll data, press reports, and people with whom I speak in Western Pennsylvania - is that it is still present.

Does John McCain have a rural problem, too?

What tipped me off to the possibility is McCain's poll position in Indiana. In its most recent report, the University of Wisconsin Advertising Project showed that McCain is not spending money on television in the Hoosier State. But the polls have been tight - which has been contrary to my expectations. I figured that, with the conventions and the realization that this is a close race, the partisanship of Indiana would induce the state to swing McCain's way (an inverse of New Jersey's quadrennial flirtation with the GOP). According to recent polls, this has not happened. McCain retains a lead in the RCP average, but it is much less than what George W. Bush pulled in 2004. Why?

Pundits have often referenced Obama's proximity to the state. That's a positive reason to explain the tight race: Indiana likes Obama because he's the friendly neighbor. But what if part of the answer is negative: Indiana doesn't like McCain so much.

Why would Indiana not like John McCain? After all, he's a Republican who has stood up for party reform and good governance. For example, he has opposed government subsidies for ethanol, and the good Republican folk in Indiana should really respond to that, right?

Maybe not.

Indiana is a major producer of ethanol - number 5 in the nation, capable of producing 1.2 billion gallons of ethanol per year. Indiana also ranks number 5 in corn production, generating 760 million bushels per year. Corn producers love ethanol because it's another use for their crop, which means corn prices go up.

Could this be why McCain is doing poorly relative to George W. Bush's performance in 2004? It might be. Granted, only a small slice of Indiana's workforce is classified as agricultural. Like western Ohio, Indiana's workers are much more focused on manufacturing and tech than agriculture - despite the vast acres dedicated to farming. However, corn production is still a crucial aspect of the state's economy - especially in the productive farmland along Interstate 65 between Indianapolis and...Chicago!

I'd note that McCain is also doing poorly in Iowa, number one with a bullet in both corn and ethanol production. He's also had problems in Minnesota, number four in ethanol and corn.

This ethanol issue might explain this peculiar bit of news that crossed my sight line last week.

OMAHA, Neb. - Reliably Republican, Nebraska has been giving the GOP all its electoral votes in every presidential election since 1964. Democratic candidate Barack Obama is trying to take just one of its five votes this year by focusing on Omaha, the state's biggest, most diverse city.

Why would Obama be angling for Nebraska? It could be in part that it's number 3 in corn and number 2 in ethanol. Of course, Omaha is a large city - not a farm. However, it is tied to the economy of the state, and therefore to corn and ethanol. Maybe the Obama campaign's theory is that disinclination to McCain among ethanol-friendly voters, plus the 10% African American population, plus the 6% Hispanic population, plus the tight geographical boundaries of the district (favorable for organizing) will enable him to eke out a win.

Meanwhile, Illinois ranks second in corn production and third in ethanol. If there is something going on here, it is unsurprising that a candidate like Obama - an urban politician who must appeal to a large rural electorate - would note it. If you want to win statewide in Illinois, you have to know a thing or two about the downstate economy. That might have tipped his team off to the potential of Iowa, Indiana, and even Nebraska.

There are two other states that Obama has angled for that might be explained by McCain's anti-pork stands: North Dakota and Alaska. Again, it is strange to expect to vote against the Republican nominee. But is it strange to expect them to vote against John McCain?

Again, maybe not.

John McCain has a reputation as a pork buster. This year Alaska received the most pork per capita - $555.54 per person. North Dakota ranks third - $207.72 per person. This might even explain why the Obama campaign recently tossed a few bucks in advertising at West Virginia, which received $179.80 per person this year.

Unfortunately, we don't have the kind of polling data that could push this analysis to the next level. We'd need to link individual attitudes about McCain to proximity to ethanol and/or pork barrel spending. We can't do that. All we can do is suggest that McCain might have a problem.

If he does, it would be a lesson in why Congress still rolls the log: it helps members win reelection. People might not like the profligacy of the process, but many of them like getting goodies from the government. Some people in some places more than like it - they actually need the assistance. If you stand in their way, then give them an opportunity to vote you down, they might just do that.

What's this mean electorally? McCain only needs Indiana to go for him by a single vote. He can sacrifice some votes there. More than some, actually. Bush won the state by 20 points in 2004. It's one thing to talk about Obama shaving that lead down. It's another thing entirely to talk about him taking the state. Ditto for Nebraska's second congressional district, which went for Bush by 22 points in 2004. I would be surprised if Obama took either. And recent reports indicate that Obama has bailed on North Dakota and Alaska.

So, outside Iowa, it's unlikely that any Electors are going to be moved. Nevertheless, based on the data available to us in the public, we'd have to peg the likelihood of Obama winning Indiana at some non-zero number. That's pretty unique for a year that probably won't be a Democratic blowout.

I don't know if the McCain campaign needs to do engage Obama in Indiana. After all, it has reams of data that those of us in the public simply do not possess. We have just a handful of public polls. It has so much more than that. Team McCain might be looking at that three-point lead in the Hoosier State and feel pretty good, given how much Obama has spent. We can't know.

Nevertheless, it is fair to suggest that it consider tightening it's message to farmers. A quick Google search betrays McCain's soft underbelly on this front.

Farmers for McCain - Google Search.gif

Compare that to what we find searching "Farmers for Obama." This is not what John McCain should want an undecided Indiana farmer to see when trying to make a decision on whom to support.

-Jay Cost