Listening to the Voters: Ohio County Has a Knack for Picking Political Winners

Bellwether, as defined by a wether or other male sheep that leads the flock, usually bearing a bell.

Stark County, Ohio is a place presidential candidates keep a close eye on because it's a political bellwether with an uncanny knack for picking winners. It has voted for the winner in six of the last seven elections. Located on the outer fringes of the Rust Belt in the northeastern part of the state, it was once an industrial powerhouse, but like many manufacturing centers across America, it has suffered a sharp decline in recent years

In Canton - the county seat, factories stand empty, a testament to the loss of thousands of jobs. Not surprisingly, the most important issue for voters in this upcoming presidential election is the economy.

"We're a cross section," said Walsh University Professor Carl Taylor, adding, "we have farmers in the south and more traditional labor in the northern part of the county. These people in Stark County are the people that really both candidates are going to have to appeal to if they want to win the state of Ohio."

'As goes Ohio, so goes the nation' is a popular political refrain, but one based on the fact that the state has gone with the winner in 27 of the last 29 presidential elections. But this isn't the same Ohio it was four years ago. At the height of the great recession in 2010, unemployment in Stark County was above 13 percent, a full three points higher than the national average.

Each and every job here is important and Suarez Industries in North Canton has done something rare for an American business. It brought 400 manufacturing jobs back from China, reengineering the company's space heater to make assembly more cost effective in the United States. Unemployed for several months, Troy Conley packs boxes and is glad to be working again.

"I'm paying a little more attention now than I have the past because it is so important to see the economy start growing," said Conley, adding he has yet to make up his mind on who he will vote for.

Suarez operations manager Hope Paolini said bringing jobs back to the area and putting local people to work is a move in the right direction.

"We have better quality here, we have less returns and we are doing it slightly less expensively," she said.

Unemployment in Stark County is now 8.3 percent, still above the national average, and the topic of jobs dominates conversation here. At Papa Bear's Pizza, a local institution that has been in business for more than 50 years, owner Steve DiPietro is more than willing to discuss politics and believes the country's economic issues go well beyond the White House.

"We have no leadership ... on either side of the aisle," he said, pointing to Congress as the reason for the nation's woes. "They're more worried about getting re-elected than doing what's best for America. They're worried more about being politicians instead of being Americans. They don't care about what's going on with this generation. They have absolute disregard for this generation."

On a Friday night the restaurant bustles with business and Italian dishes fly out of the kitchen to waiting diners. But the last four years have been a struggle and DiPietro's plans to one day pass the business he bought from his father onto his son aren't as certain as they once were.

"I say in the next eight to ten years America's going to be lucky to be in the top five largest economies in the world. What are we going to do without economic superiority?" DiPietro believes this election is critically important, perhaps the most important in his lifetime and said he'll cast his vote for Mitt Romney, believing the Republican will right the economy.

In the last decade a full 10 percent of Canton's population has literally left town. When Hoover, a company ubiquitous with the city, closed its doors for good five years ago, it left behind several hundred thousand feet of empty space and a hole in this community that has not been filled. These are the stark realities facing this county, especially the younger residents. In 2008, President Obama motivated young voters with his promise of hope and change, but recent studies show only 50 percent of those graduating from college this year will find jobs. For Walsh University junior Kristen Slaughter, this election is all about fiscal responsibility.

"I think right now it's all about shrinking the size of government and making it more efficient and under President Obama that's just not happening, so small government to me is better and I think Mitt Romney will do a better job at that."

Her classmate Matt Bly disagrees and believes the president is on the right track.

"I think if you look at the way that jobs and the economy have progressed in the last four years, if you look at the graph of where the economy and jobs were way down when President Obama got into office and now the way that they're progressing and a slow - and he admits it's slow, but it is progressive and it's going in the right direction and I think there's hope."

This community is like so many others in the Midwest, trying to find a firm financial footing in a struggling economy. For Stark County, this election is all about dollars and cents, and if history is taken into account, it's the promise of economic growth that will win the hearts and minds of voters struggling to reclaim their part of the American Dream.