A Mississippi Independent Travels into Missouri's only Bush-Obama County
Reflections on Iron County
by Joe Doolittle
I was born in Alabama and grew up in Mississippi. At 23, I still live in Oxford, home of Ole Miss. With that information alone, I can see where your imagination may travel. Is there a bottle of tobacco juice to the side of my keyboard and a Rebel flag tacked to the wall above my bed? Or am I a Generation Y version of Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha? Perhaps you wonder if you can find a resemblance of me in Kathryn Stockard’s Mississippi? While none of those visions of Deep South caricatures are close to my reality, I am free of that antagonistic, self-righteous desire to repudiate my surroundings. Though I’ve never shot a deer and never intend on doing so, I’m opposed to the idea of gun control. I support Roe v. Wade, yet I understand the vast religious implications it bears for many. I did not grow up with a nanny. I’m not a Republican. But hey, I’m not a Democrat either.
Growing up as an Independent below the Mason-Dixon makes me somewhat of an insider and outsider when looking into this highly complex chunk of the country. People have certain expectations for certain regions and states. Sure, it sounds obvious, but that notion didn’t fully resonate with me until last weekend, when I visited the Midwest for the first time.
I always imagined the Heartland to be similar to my home, the Deep South. That was my certain expectation, my oversimplification. In my head it was rural, religious, and right-wing. The Three R’s. Driving into Iron County, MO, one becomes almost hypnotized by the seemingly unending farmland, the rolling hills. Markers of civilization aren’t exit signs denoting the nearest McDonald’s, but rather quaint, unassuming churches – just like in my neck of the woods. So, as I pulled into the parking lot of my motel for the evening, I self-satisfyingly checked off the first two R’s of my mental list. Rural and religious, as expected. Right on the money.
The next day I stood outside the Iron County Courthouse and spoke with members of the Missouri Republican Caucus. When I mentioned I was part of a project that profiled swing counties across the nation, I was met with a brief look of confusion from a lifelong Iron County conservative. “This isn’t one of them,” she chuckled, stomping out the butt of her cigarette on the pavement.
At first I assumed she meant Iron County was a conservative stronghold, that it was only a fluke when Barack Obama carried it in the 2008 election. But as I spoke with more members of the caucus, I began to realize she intended quite the opposite. Out of a county whose population totals roughly ten-thousand, approximately twenty-five Republicans showed up for the caucus. In this little slice of Missouri, to be conservative is to be in the minority. My conversation with Steve Russell, publisher and editor of The Mountain Echo, only confirmed it.
“The county’s elected officers are virtually all democrats,” he told me bluntly.
I stopped short of completing my hat trick. On the surface, Iron County seemed so familiar. Remember that perpetual farmland, the quaint churches? All superficial qualities shared with my home state, Mississippi. But nowhere in Mississippi will one find – or, at least, I haven’t found – a primarily rural county nearly so democratic. Not to mention, the demographics of Iron County are overwhelmingly white. Democratic enclaves in Mississippi exist typically in counties with a high African American population.
But Russell was quick to mention that, though Iron County may vote democratic, it doesn’t necessarily espouse every liberal principle. “Do they believe everything that the democratic platform stands for? I would question it,” he mused. “For instance, we have elected officials who are catholic, who are obviously anti-abortion, but yet they’re democrat.”
I got the sense he wanted to quash any misconceptions one may get from looking at the county’s voting record. Sure, it may vote “democrat,” but it’s not exactly “liberal.” Social issues, such as abortion and gay rights, are likely to remain hot button topics. After all, this is small-town America, and some expectations must hold true, right?
I suppose. But standing on the lawn of that courthouse Saturday, speaking with members of the caucus, I was caught off guard by the comment of a Romney supporter. After telling me whom she’s supporting, she quickly added, entirely unprovoked, “I don’t mind his church affiliation at all. I think that’s not a problem for us as Americans.” But then again, Rick Santorum easily won Missouri’s primary in February, and regardless of which state I was in, be it Mississippi or Missouri, if I asked one of his supporters if he or she would have a problem voting for Romney should he get the nomination, each time I was met with a resounding “no, we just want Obama out.”
So, who knows? Maybe my certain expectation about the Midwest wasn’t that far off, and perhaps the two regions aren’t so different. Though, if that’s true, I suppose to fully exemplify that unity I should tweak the Three R’s: rural, religious, and Rick (or Romney).
There, that looks about right.
Iron County (Statewide)
Santorum: 54% (55.2%)
Romney: 22% (25.3%)
Paul: 13% (12.2%)
Uncommitted: 3% (7.3%)
Iron County Voters
“Ron Paul, he believes what he says and he does what he says. He doesn’t switch his mind at the end of the day. If he says he’s going to vote a certain way, that is how he’s going to vote. I don’t have to struggle with my conscience when I’m voting for him because I know that what I’m voting for is what he stands for.”
Daniel Snyder, Unemployed
“If we could cut back on the taxation and on regulation of businesses, that would be a great help to Missouri as it would be to any state… I’m going to be for Mitt Romney this year… I think he would be good to stimulate our economy, to bring us out of the doldrums we’re in now… I don’t mind his church affiliation at all. I think that’s not a problem for us as Americans.”
Isabel Strong, Retired
“I’m going to be voting for Gingrich… I feel he has the ability to win, number one, and number two, he has the ability to get things done. I mean, he has in the past. I felt when he was the Speaker he worked well with the other side of the aisle, and one of the only times that I can remember, or may ever remember, when we had a balanced budget… I hear a lot of people running on, ‘I can create jobs, I can create jobs, I can hire people.’ … The only way they can do that is the way Obama’s done it, by expanding government. Their job is to create an atmosphere where the private sector can thrive, and that is with lower taxes, lower regulations…”
Tony Harverson, Small business owner
“I don’t think anybody’s message is playing particularly well on the Republican side [in Iron county]… I think that’s kind of reflective of the national scope. I don’t think we’re a whole lot different… If gas prices go to $5 a gallon this summer, it may very well hurt [Obama] politically, particularly if whoever the Republican nominee is chooses to make that an issue… As the parties move farther and farther apart ideologically, I see more and more people that are very reluctant to classify themselves as a Republican, very reluctant to classify themselves as a Democrat.”
Steve Russell, Publisher and Editor, The Mountain Echo
Population 2010: 10,630
Iron County (US Figure)
% White: 95.6% (63.7%)
% Black: 1.2% (12.2%)
% Hispanic: 1.3% (16.3%)
% Asian: .1% (4.7%)
% Native American: .5% (.7%)
Median Age: 42.7 (37.2)
Median Household Income: $29,803 ($51,222)
Poverty Rate: 21.6% (14.4%)
Median Housing Price (2000): $51,800 ($119,600)
Median Housing Price (2010): $77,200 ($187,500)
% of Adults with at least BA: 9.1% (28.0%)
Unemployment Rate: 11.6% (9.6%)
Agriculture and Primary Activities: 9.3% (1.9%)
Construction: 6.9% (6.8%)
Manufacturing: 12.7% (10.7%)
Wholesale Trade: 0.7% (2.9%)
Retail Trade: 10.8% (11.6%)
Transportation, Warehousing and Utilities: 6.8% (5.0%)
Information: 1.4% (2.3%)
Finance, Insurance, and Real Estate: 1.7% (6.8%)
Professional, Scientific and Management Services: 5.2% (10.5%)
Education and Health Care Services: 27.0% (22.6%)
Arts, Entertainment and Recreation Services: 5.4% (9.1%)
Other Services: 2.6% (4.9%)
Public Administration: 9.5% (4.9%)
2008 Results: Obama 50.1%, McCain 47.3%
2004 Results: Bush 52.9%, Kerry 46.1%
2000 Results: Bush 50.7%, Gore 46.3%
1996 Winner: Clinton
1992 Winner: Clinton
1988 Winner: Dukakis (Bush)
1984 Winner: Reagan
1980 Winner: Carter (Reagan)
1976 Winner: Carter
1972 Winner: Nixon
1968 Winner: Humphrey (Nixon)
1964 Winner: Johnson
1960 Winner: Nixon (Kennedy)
Population, racial demographics and median age:
2010 Census Summary File 1
2000 Census Summary File 1
Household income, BA attainment, housing prices 2010, poverty rate and economic sectors:
American Community Survey 2010, 5-year estimates
Housing prices 2000:
Census Summary File 3
Bureau of Labor Statistics
Historical Election Results:
Dave Leip’s Election Atlas