For most of every four years, he has felt like the mayor of a “little nothing place,” he said — a place that was all but disappearing. The town population has been dwindling by about a dozen people each year from a peak of about 600 in the early 1980s, and now the mayor’s two-room office doubles as the town’s only tornado shelter. The purple-painted restaurant on the square is named “The Restaurant.” A gas station and a liquor store are the only other remaining businesses in town. A quarter of the population lives below the poverty line, and young people are leaving to find jobs in Des Moines. Gas prices have skyrocketed, and it’s a 34-mile drive to buy groceries at the nearest Wal-Mart. The local school district — also the town’s biggest employer — closed in 2010, and not a single politician outside of the county did anything to save it.
And yet all of a sudden his besieged rural America is the American heartland, and its barns and cornfields are being used as the props of endless campaign rallies, and his phone won’t stop ringing, and the pollsters wanted to keep him on the line to ask him questions about what he thought.
“I don’t care for the tradeoffs, for the talking points,” he said. “They need us now but they won’t need us later. That’s soured me on it.”
‘It was nice to be asked’
A block across town, in a railroad-style house that doubled as Lineville’s liquor store, Nancy Snow’s phone wasn’t ringing, and another day of the presidential campaign in Missouri was quietly passing by. She sat on the couch in her living room in the early afternoon and watched “The Young and The Restless,” which she would re-watch at 9 p.m. Her seat on the couch afforded a clear view into her one-room liquor store, with a walk-in fridge, a “Welcome Hunters” sign and jars of pickled eggs and cured sausages sitting alongside the cash register.
She usually keeps the store open six days a week, from 9 a.m. to 10:30 p.m., and she has been the only employee ever since her husband died in 2005. She spends each day as a captive in the house, waiting for business, trying to pass the time. She makes her bed. She watches her cowboy shows. She walks her cat around the yard on a leash. She turns on MSNBC, Fox News and then CNN.
A week earlier, a pollster had called to ask if she would be willing to participate in a survey about the election, and she had talked to him about her opinions for an hour.
“It was nice to be asked,” she said.
For the first time since she could remember, she felt like the observer of a presidential election and not a participant. Missouri had been a swing state in almost every previous election, but now Romney led in the polls by 8 percentage points, and the Democrats had all but withdrawn. Obama had opened two campaign offices in the state, compared with the 22 offices he had there in 2008. This time, his supporters had spent less than $1 million to advertise in Missouri while spending more than $20 million in Iowa.
Snow has received mail and phone calls about the controversial senatorial contest between Democrat Claire McCaskill and Republican Todd Akin, but nothing from Obama or Romney. What she hears about the election comes mostly from her customers — nearly all of them from the more-populated Iowa side of town, and many weary of the campaign.
“I can’t wait for it to be over,” said one customer, interrupting “The Young and The Restless” to buy a carton of Winstons.
“They’re not bothering me,” Snow said.
She planned to vote nonetheless, at a building a few miles down the road in Missouri. Her plan was to cast her ballot at 8:30 a.m. on Nov. 6 and then hurry back to Lineville. Before she opened her store, she wanted to walk over to the polling location on the Iowa side. “Everybody who is anybody will be over there,” she said. She wanted to see the election unfold in a place that mattered, a block away.