The big play now is natural gas. Fayette County, which borders West Virginia about an hour’s drive south of Pittsburgh, is in the heart of the Marcellus Shale. Civic leaders hope that fracking — the hydraulic fracturing of the shale rock to liberate the gas in its pores — can reverse the fortunes of this depressed region.
This part of Pennsylvania is a political and economic battleground, a transitional place loaded with history, with memories of prosperity but also of vicious poverty. It’s on the front line of America’s economic doldrums, and it is not incidentally a swing county in presidential elections.
John Kerry carried Fayette County in 2004, but four years later John McCain squeaked by Barack Obama. McCain’s margin, 25,669 to 25,509, represented barely enough voters to fill half a basketball court. No one would call Fayette a bellwether, but it represents one very vivid brick in the foundation of American political and economic life: the rural industrial region in a post-industrial age.
This is an overwhemingly Democratic county by party affiliation, but it is politically conservative. It’s full of prototypical Reagan Democrats. That said, Obama has the lead in Pennsylvania polls and handily won the state four years ago. It’s not clear whether it’ll be as competitive as Ohio next door or some of the other swing states.
But the president faces headwinds here. Fayette County’s unemployment rate is higher than the national average. And the memory of coal and the dream of gas will not help Obama as he mines votes in this part of Pennsylvania.
The administration has touted its support for natural gas drilling, but many people here see Obama as unfriendly to fossil fuels. They cite his blocking of the proposed Keystone pipeline in the Great Plains. They talk about the administration’s tougher regulations on pollutants from coal-fired power plants. They’re wary of environmentalists who view fracking as a threat to the water supply.
The amount of anti-Obama sentiment is striking — especially among lifelong Democrats. Robert Schiffbauer, who for 34 years has been a supervisor of South Union Township, is one of those Democrats who thinks the party has lurched to the left.
“We’re talking socialism. Literally,” Schiffbauer said. “I fear what its going to be like if Obama’s reelected. The reins are going to be taken off.”
It’s unclear how many conservative Democrats will embrace Mitt Romney. Mark Rafail, who hosts a talk show on the local AM radio station, says of Obama and Romney, “They’re both elitists.”