There were two telling moments in the second debate that passed under the media spin radar scope but pointed to something troubling for President Obama. GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney evoked God and defense of gun ownership. That was a subtle unstated reaffirmation of a political chit that Romney banks on. And that's a wipe-out of Obama with the rural vote. Then President Barack Obama gave the GOP endless battering points when he told a San Francisco fundraising crowd in April 2008 that rural folk zealously cling to their guns and Bibles.Obama's off-the-cuff remark in of all places hyper liberal, urban and cosmopolitan San Francisco supposedly proved that Obama was snobbish, liberal, and a hopelessly elite urban politician, with a healthy dose tossed in of racial condescension. Leaving aside the talk of guns and bibles, Obama was close to the mark in sizing up exactly the problem he and any other Democrat face in trying to get a hearing with rural, mostly white, and very conservative voters. They've been a tough sell for every Democratic candidate for the past two decades.
Two recent polls by GOP and Democratic polling firms show that Romney has a commanding lead over Obama in rural areas. The only hitch for Romney was that for a while more than a few rural voters held back their full-throated support for him due to their suspicion and fear that he was too moderate, too accommodating to Democrats, and worse, too much of an out-of-touch, elitist, big city politico slickster too.
There was little chance that their suspicion of Romney would ever translate into votes for Obama. Even when he was suspect, Romney maintained a comfortable double digit percentage bulge over Obama among rural voters. This percentage bulge has now nearly doubled in size.
The rural vote -- that is the white, conservative, heavily evangelical rural vote -- is a huge staple for the GOP and Romney in part because the GOP presidential contenders know that the nation's big cities have become either majority-minority cities. The Democrats have a tight lock on the votes in these cities. The other part is the crucial need of the GOP to off-set the urban vote by ratcheting up the number and percentage of white voters in the countryside. The standard break point for GOP presidential candidates to bag the White House is that they must get 60 percent or more of the 104 million white voters, who make up close to 75 percent of the nation's voters.
But it's not just the raw numbers that count. It's where the numbers of rural voters reside, and their crucial importance to the final election tally. The general consensus is that the eight swing states that Obama and Romney are battling over will determine who wins the White House. Iowa and New Hampshire have 50 percent or more of their population living in rural areas or small towns. And another six -- Michigan, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia and Wisconsin -- have far bigger percentages of voters that live in the rural areas or small towns than the national average.
Here's where Obama's alleged guns and religion faux pas in 2008 can come back to haunt him. In surveys in 16 states where exit or entrance polls have been conducted, a far greater percentage of voters self-describe themselves as conservative, and an even bigger number label themselves as born again or evangelical Christians. The estimate is that 17 million Christian evangelicals, the overwhelming majority of whom were registered Republicans, stayed home on Election Day in 2008. Then GOP presidential contender John McCain was not George W. Bush, who with his outspoken conservatism and evangelism was a darling with rural voters. This cost the GOP big in Ohio, Florida and North Carolina. Obama won these states by single-digit margins.
The gun issue is vital to presidential and local politics. Surveys and polls back that up. The majority of independents and a whopping majority of Republicans said that they would go to the barricades to protect gun owners' rights. No Democrat will dare risk uttering a peep about tougher gun control laws. This includes President Obama. Both parties know that the gun control issue is a minefield and a surefire loser for a candidate.
These are the voters that Romney in the closing days of the campaign will pull out all stops to make sure dutifully flood the polls en masse on Election Day. The hope is that they will help him replace the man in the White House who supposedly would take away their guns and Bibles. At least that's Romney's hope.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. He is a frequent political commentator on MSNBC and a weekly co-host of the Al Sharpton Show on American Urban Radio Network. He is the author of How Obama Governed: The Year of Crisis and Challenge. He is an associate editor of New America Media. He is the host of the weekly Hutchinson Report on KPFK-Radio and the Pacifica Network.