[imgcontainer right] [img:Cramer_Walsh_K_talk08_948.jpeg] [source]Jeff Miller[/source] Katherine Cramer Walsh has spent the last five years talking with rural voters in Wisconsin. She found voters who didn't think either party worked for, or even understood, them. [/imgcontainer]

I live in a state that contains rural swing state voters — Wisconsin.

It’s part of Bush-Obama land, the counties that voted for both George Bush and Barack Obama. In fact, as Joel Achenbach of the Washington Post pointed me to the other day, the “Bush-Obama” website shows that Wisconsin has more counties than any other state that flipped from Bush in 2004 to Obama in 2008.

And now it is possible that some of these counties will swing back to Romney in 2012. Many people in these places voted for Republican Governor Scott Walker in our state’s recent recall election.

What’s going on?

I have had the good fortune of spending the last five years listening to conversations of people in rural areas of Wisconsin as they try to make sense of politics. What I learned from the people that shared their thoughts with me sheds some light on the kinds of politicians who gain their support.

Just for background, here’s what I did. I sampled 27 communities from across the state to give me a wide range of places, varying by partisanship, urbanicity, type of agriculture, type of local industry, region of the state, and racial and ethnic diversity.

Then in each of those communities I sought out a group of regulars — a group of people who met regularly for the sake of spending time with one another. The places I went to were mainly early morning coffee klatches. These were folks on their way to work and retirees. They were predominantly men, but often a mix of men and women, and I sought out women-only groups as well.

In the end, I visited with 39 groups an average of 2 times each.

I grew up in Wisconsin, but in a town that was then just north of the Milwaukee metro area. So what I heard in rural areas surprised me. I learned that many folks in rural areas have an acute sense that rural areas are on the short end of the stick — economically, politically, and culturally.

They talked about how all of their resources are sucked away by Madison and Milwaukee (the two metro areas in Wisconsin, with Madison as the capital and Milwaukee as the main industrial center), resources that are never seen again.

[imgcontainer] [img:FlippedMap09-18.jpeg] [source]Tim Murphy/Deesmealz[/source] Here are the counties that switched allegiance between 2004 and 2008. Counties in red voted for John Kerry in 2004 but John McCain in 2008. Blue counties switched from voting Republican (George Bush) in 2004 to Barack Obama in 2008. [/imgcontainer]

Also, they felt that the big decisions are made in those cities and forced upon the rural areas. The listening doesn’t go in reverse, they said.

They felt ignored. And they felt misunderstood. They talked about how city folk just don’t get rural folk and don’t understand the rural way of life.

Those of you who have lived in rural areas for some time will chuckle and say, “No kidding.” But this is news to a lot of us.

[imgcontainer left] [img:MapWisconsinFieldwork_grayscale.jpg] [source]Katherine Cramer Walsh[/source] These are the rural communities where I talked with voters. [/imgcontainer]

And it matters for politics. My sense is that many people in the rural areas of Wisconsin feel completely unrepresented by either party. When I ask them a standard survey question, “Which party do you think best represents the interests of people around here?” I sometimes get laughter, and I sometimes get anger. But I almost always get something along the lines of, “None of’em.”

What is appealing to many of the folks I listened to is a politician who favors smaller government and acknowledges their hard work. There is a reverence for hard work in these conversations and a sense that rural life requires an appreciation of hard work. They see themselves working hard and see their taxes going up and sense that their money is being siphoned off to pay for government programs and for other folks’ health care and pensions.

Whatever the programs are, they don’t seem to be benefiting rural communities, because most of their communities are dying before their eyes.

Such a mindset would seem to lean people toward the Republican Party.

So then why the support for Obama in 2008 in many of these places? I think the answer lies in the possibility that it isn’t necessarily less government that many of these people want, but government that works for them.

Obama’s messages of “hope” and “change” in 2008 resonated with people. Many of the people I listened to wanted something different, and Obama promised it. It might be as simple as that.

Two years later Scott Walker ran on a platform of cutting back government spending, and this, too, resonated with many people still feeling the pain of the recession.

Will swing voters in the rural areas of Wisconsin vote for Romney rather than Obama? My sense is it will hinge on who can best convey, not necessarily through policy, but through sentiment, that he understands the concerns and needs of rural people.

The image of Romney as an extremely wealthy person of an unfamiliar religion doesn’t play well in “outstate” Wisconsin, but Obama’s promise of change rings empty for many people in rural Wisconsin now, too.

Katherine Cramer Walsh is is an Associate Professor in the Department of Political Science, and is an affiliate faculty member in the School of Journalism and Mass Communication, the LaFollette School of Public Affairs, the Department of Forest and Wildlife Ecology, and the Wisconsin Center for the Advancement of Postsecondary Education.

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