LINEVILLE, IOWA — They had worked for generations to obscure the state border, because a farming town of 300 couldn’t afford to be divided. “One Place, One Community,” proclaimed a sign on the road into town, and Main Street was located half in one state and half in the other. Kids from Iowa sometimes went to public schools in Missouri. Families from Missouri sometimes paid taxes to Iowa.
“Nobody knows who lives where, and nobody really cares,” the mayor said.
At least until earlier this year, when workers for both presidential campaigns arrived here with maps and satellite images to walk the dirt roads and ask residents where, exactly, Iowa ended, and where, exactly, Missouri began. They knocked on doors in Iowa to recruit volunteers but walked past houses in Missouri. They built a combined 74 campaign offices in one state and only six in the other. They bombarded one side of town with so much mail that the brochures filled a storage room and the postmaster extended his hours.
“Iowa, you could determine the next president!” read one glossy flier, sent to Lineville by the hundreds.
Meanwhile, less than 100 feet away in Missouri, the only hint of an upcoming election was homemade fliers gathering dust on the counter of the liquor store: “Missouri Tobacco Tax Initiative, Proposition B — the No. 1 Issue for Missourians in 2012.”
Here in Lineville and so many other places around the country, the presidential campaign has crystallized geography, turning a rural state line into a hard divider. Voters on one side are regarded as all-important. Voters on the other side are all but disregarded. A close national campaign has become increasingly hyper-local in its final days, with both President Obama and Mitt Romney devoting their time and money to winning over a small number of swing voters in a smaller number of swing states. Iowa is one of them. Republican-leaning Missouri is not.
One of the dividing lines between them is a potholed road that bisects the cornfields and cattle herds of Lineville, where residents experience contrary versions of an American presidential campaign.
“I’m not sure anybody gives a lick what I think,” said Nancy Snow, the town secretary, who lives on the Missouri side.
“You’d think we were all rich and famous the way they’re coming after us,” said Jack Shields, the mayor, who lives on the Iowa side.
Shields has been the mayor of Lineville for 15 years without ever running for office. He had never once declared himself a candidate — never raised money, ordered yard signs or campaigned. People in town had started writing down his name on their ballots for mayor because they trusted his judgment, knew most of his five siblings and admired the way he ran the local grain elevator. He had accepted the job each time even though it barely paid, because he had never lived anywhere else, and because serving Lineville seemed like the right thing to do.
“If somebody else wants this job, they can have it,” he liked to say. “You can’t afford to disagree with people in a town this size. We keep our politics quiet.”
Now, six days from a presidential election that had become everything but quiet, he arrived home in work boots and overalls to a small family farm on the Iowa state line and opened his mailbox. Inside were three fliers supporting Obama and two more sent on behalf of Romney. “Help decide!” read one. “This is about your future,” read another. He tossed aside the mailings and walked up to his house.
He expected the phone to ring any minute with the first of three nightly robo-calls, which came so regularly he could predict their times. One came at 6, another at 7:30 and the last one at 8. Even though he knew many of the recordings by heart, sometimes he still decided to answer. It gave him a break from the incessant cycle of campaign ads playing on his TV.
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.”
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.