GateHouse News Service -
Despite the continuing exodus from small-town America, rural communities may play a significant role in the 2008 presidential election.
“In key states like Ohio, Pennsylvania and West Virginia, rural issues could be very prominent,” said Chuck Hassebrook, executive director of the Center for Rural Affairs in Lyons, Neb.
“Rural America could play a big role this year when it comes to key swing states,” he said.
There are plenty of differences between presidential candidates when it comes to wooing the farm vote, said Tom Buis, executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based National Farmers Union.
“The general perception of (Republican candidate) John McCain is that he’s not farmer friendly. He never scores well on top farm issues,” he said.
Buis said that on the last NFU scorecard compiled between 2005 and 2006, McCain scored a zero while (Democratic candidate) Barack Obama scored 100.
“A lot of people are uneasy about John McCain’s view of agriculture,” he said.
Perhaps no issue points to the differences between the candidates as much as the subject of ethanol. “McCain is death on ethanol,” said Keith Bolin, who raises hogs and organic corn on his Bureau County farm in Illinois.
“I’m not sure he likes the product but he hates the subsidy. He’s been consistent on that,” he said.
Obama, on the other hand, stays true to his Illinois roots, said Bolin, who serves as president of the American Corn Growers Association, a group formed in the 1980s that represents smaller growers around the country. “I know he’s for ethanol,” he said.
Rick Tolman, executive director of the National Corn Growers Association, the St.-Louis-based group that represents many of the nation’s largest growers, isn’t sure where McCain is on the subject of biofuels but expects ethanol to be a campaign issue this fall.
With more of the nation’s corn (about 20 percent) now going into ethanol production, Tolman said the debate over food-versus-fuel will continue, especially if this year’s harvest falls short and commodity prices continue to rise. “Given the serious weather issues with this year’s grain plantings, we’re not of the crosshairs yet,” he said.
Buis said he hopes that McCain’s campaign doesn’t follow the line voiced in recent efforts that blame ethanol for the increases in world food prices. “That’s a very effective disinformation campaign,” he said.
“If you look behind (the campaign), you’ll find Big Oil and big food processors. The farmer only gets 19.5 cents out of the U.S. food dollar. That leaves 81.5 cents going someplace else before it gets to the consumer’s fork,” said Buis.
The farm bill is another point of contention between candidates. Obama was for it while McCain opposed it, traveling to Iowa to declare it a $300 billion boondoggle.
But the farm bill comes up short when it comes to funding rural development efforts, said Hassebrook, who said that both Democrats and Republicans can share blame.
“Both parties have a miserable record when it comes to rural America,” he said.
While George Bush received a rural majority in the two previous elections, Bolin doesn’t think that McCain can expect a free pass this time around. “Rural America has tended not to vote its pocketbook but vote for social issues like abortion and gun control. This year, I think they will vote for their financial best interests because rural America can’t continue to decline,” he said.