Farmer Floyd Keeler pointed proudly to the banners on the local grain elevator welcoming President Reagan to Deshler, "The Corn City," and explained why he believes that the president should be reelected.
It isn't that Keeler is better off economically now than four years ago -- he isn't. And it isn't that he favors Reagan's farm and economic policies -- he said he doesn't know what they are.
Keeler, anxiously awaiting a glimpse of the president during his recent whistle-stop tour of Ohio, said he is voting for Reagan because, like many millions of other Americans, he feels better. He opposes Democratic nominee Walter F. Mondale because he doesn't want a tax increase, part of which would be used to help others. Although Keeler said he doesn't know what Reagan will do to improve his lot, he believes that the president, and not Mondale, will do the right thing.
"I would rather think that Mondale's policies is for this giveaway stuff for the people that won't work," Keeler said, echoing the sentiments of Reagan enthusiasts from farms in Ohio and factories outside Chicago who have heard the president speak this past week. "I think everyone should have to work if they're able. No one should go hungry. But our giveaway program is too good in this country at this moment. Welfare is better than minimum wage for some woman with a child or two who's got someone living with her, you know, a live-in."
Keeler said he is in the most debt since he started farming 40 years ago. "Our prices are deplorable," he said of his crops of corn, soybeans and wheat. "Last Saturday . . . in this area beans was $5.72 a bushel, and it takes very close to $7 for a break-even point."
But he doesn't blame Reagan for his troubles. Like many other Reagan supporters, Keeler blames Democrats and Congress for the budget deficits.
Reagan's ability to capitalize on the economy's recovery while escaping his share of responsibility for the 1981-1982 recession has been a major campaign plus. And Mondale thus far has failed to persuade a majority of voters that budget and trade deficits threaten the economy in the future -- in part because of a lack of public understanding of those economic issues.
"There's no question economic policy is our strength," Reagan-Bush campaign director Ed Rollins said at a Reagan rally in Perrysburg, Ohio, while fireworks crackled overhead and a choir sang "God Bless America." "More people are working today than at any time in our country," and interest rates and inflation are lower than they were in 1980, Rollins said.
"The American public doesn't understand what those deficits are about," Rollins said. "Most people don't understand the economy."
What people do understand are the obvious, immediate economic issues of unemployment, inflation and interest rates, Rollins said. All of these currently are headed in the right direction for Reagan.
Rollins' view was supported by Treasury Secretary Donald T. Regan when he spoke before a group of bankers last week. "I don't think the average person understands the deficit or cares about it," Regan said. People understand "real income they bring home, pocketbook issues," he added.
Mondale advisers, whose campaign depends on explaining the future dangers of the deficit and the necessity of increasing taxes to lower it, said in interviews that selling economic issues in the campaign probably is their biggest challenge because such issues are perceived as complicated subjects that usually are addressed with simple answers.
In the remaining weeks before the election, the Reagan-Bush campaign plans to concentrate on the issues of the economy and leadership, Rollins said. So far, that strategy seems to have worked.
During speeches across Ohio's Farm Belt, Reagan criticized Mondale's proposals to increase taxes, and thousands of rural Ohioans cheered him. In Dayton and suburban Chicago, the responses were the same: a vote of confidence that is reflected in national surveys.
A Washington Post-ABC News poll taken last week affirmed Rollins' observation that voters prefer Reagan over Mondale as a leader who will make them better off economically and that they don't want tax increases.
According to the poll, 84 percent of those surveyed said the deficit was a serious or very serious problem. But 55 percent blamed the deficit on past presidents, while Reagan was blamed by only 21 percent. The Democrats were assigned more blame than Reagan for the deficits.
Sixty-four percent of the respondents said taxes shouldn't be increased to reduce the deficit, and 29 percent said they should be.
About 70 percent of respondents -- nearly the same percentage as those answering a similar question before the presidential debate on Oct. 7 -- said Reagan had strong leadership qualities. Mondale, on the other hand, was viewed as having such attributes by 46 percent of those polled, up from 34 percent who said so before the debate.
The debate did not change the views of those who felt Reagan would handle the economy better than Mondale would. Before and after the debate, about 49 percent said Reagan would do a better job coping with the deficits, and about 40 percent said Mondale would. About 57 percent said they would trust Reagan more in handling the nation's economy overall, while between 34 and 37 percent said they would trust Mondale more.
Reagan continues to gain from his upbeat characterization of the economy, emphasized in his television advertising and his campaign speeches.
When asked by a student last week at the Wilco Area Career Center in Romeoville, Ill., what was his biggest accomplishment in office, Reagan said, "Well, I could say the economy and the recovery that we've made. And I suppose that would sum it up entirely. And yet, there is another one that I'm awfully proud of, and that is a change of spirit in this land of ours."
"Reagan's always asking the question, 'Are you better off than you were four years ago?' " said Ottawa, Ohio, construction worker Dave Schnipke. "Four years ago, I was laid off, out of work, my unemployment benefits were down to the last week. I happened to catch a job. I've been working ever since."
But if the polls are right, Mondale still is struggling to sell two central themes of his economic message: the need for a tax increase and "fairer" treatment for the disadvantaged.
Mondale favors helping the poor, "but I also feel you can't make poverty obsolete or, you know, find everybody work," Schnipke said. "I'm against giving what you call the freeloaders the money from the government so they have no incentive to work. I think Mondale is trying to help everybody, give everybody a piece of the pie when they really don't need it."
"It's more a matter of not being able to take the basic Democratic Party philosophy of spend more," said David Studebaker, owner of a small computer business in the Chicago suburb of Glen Ellyn. "I've been in business for myself or with partners for the last eight years. My business is better. Businesses in general are expanding. They're buying equipment. Money is easier for them to get. Even though interest rates are high, they're lower than they were four years ago."
Such endorsements frustrate Mondale advisers, who protest that the president takes credit for some improvements that were a matter of luck or were not his doing. The Federal Reserve, for instance, was largely responsible for both the recession and the drop in inflation that followed it, most economists agree.
The Mondale advisers also protest that Reagan at times has misstated the facts about the economy. For example, at the Wilco Center outside Chicago, Reagan said that "unemployment, as we know, was tremendous," with implications that it had occurred during the previous administration.
In fact, unemployment reached record highs under Reagan and has just dropped back to the rate that it was at when Reagan took office. The president boasts that there are more people employed today than at any other time. But, by the same analysis, there also are more unemployed people now than when he took office.
At other times, the president's choice of facts is selective. Although some interest rates -- such as the prime rate -- have declined from their level of the last year of the Carter administration, home mortgage rates have risen and have stayed high under the Reagan administration.
While the Reagan administration boasts of creating 6 million jobs since the recession, 10 million jobs were formed during the previous administration and only two-thirds of factory jobs lost during the last recession have been regained.
But thus far in the campaign, these distinctions don't count for much with a majority of the public.
"I'm very impressed with Ronald Reagan's economic policies," said Dayton toolmaker Sam Wegh. "My job is very secure. I've been working 70 hours a week for the past several months" compared with 32 hours a week four years ago.
"Reagan has done fine by me," Wegh said.