Sheryl Harris, a voluble 52-year-old with a Virginia drawl, voted twice for George W. Bush. Raised Baptist, she is convinced — despite all evidence to the contrary — that President Barack Obama, a practicing Christian, is Muslim.
So in this year’s presidential election, will she support Mitt Romney? Not a chance.
“Romney’s going to help the upper class,” said Harris, who earns $28,000 a year as activities director of a Lynchburg senior center. “He doesn’t know everyday people, except maybe the person who cleans his house.”
She’ll vote for Obama, she said: “At least he wasn’t brought up filthy rich.”
White lower- and middle-income voters such as Harris are wild cards in this vituperative presidential campaign. With only a sliver of the electorate in play nationwide, they could be a deciding factor in two southern swing states, Virginia and North Carolina.
Reuters/Ipsos polling data compiled over the past several months shows that, across the Bible Belt, 38 percent of these voters said they would be less likely to vote for a candidate who is “very wealthy” than one who isn’t. This is well above the 20 percent who said they would be less likely to vote for an African-American.
In Lynchburg, many haven’t forgotten Romney’s casual offer to bet Texas Governor Rick Perry $10,000 or his mention of his wife’s “couple of Cadillacs.” Virginia airwaves are saturated with Democratic ads hammering Romney’s Cayman Islands investments and his refusal to release more than two years of tax returns.
At the Democratic convention last week, Obama mocked the GOP’s “tax breaks for millionaires” as “the same prescription they’ve had for the last 30 years.”
A former private equity executive with a net worth of some $250 million, Romney vehemently disputes insinuations that he has paid less taxes than required by law. He calls the attacks an effort “to divert attention from the fact that the president has been a failure when it comes to reigniting the American economy.”
The GOP nominee’s lucrative business career, which he touts far more than his record as governor of Massachusetts, does resonate with many Southern conservatives. “I don’t like to see the wealthy punished for their success,” said Cory Beaver, 26, as he waited on customers at a Lynchburg restaurant. “Obama leans toward socialism.”
Romney’s opposition to gay marriage and his commitment to reversing the Supreme Court’s decision granting women the right to abortion also gain him more support in the Bible Belt than in other regions of the country.
WHERE OLD AND NEW SOUTH COLLIDE
Focusing on 11 states from Virginia and North Carolina to Texas and Oklahoma, the Reuters/Ipsos polling project canvassed 8,690 people in households with incomes under $55,000 a year — just above the U.S. median.
Non-Hispanic whites in this bracket have skewed Republican for more than three decades, and they prefer the GOP nominee to Obama by 46 percent to 29 percent. However, as Romney launches a post-convention ad blitz, those numbers could signal trouble for his campaign. Strategists in both parties figure that to offset the president’s expected landslide among an expanding electorate of blacks and Hispanics — Obama won 80 percent of minority votes in 2008 — Romney must garner more than 60 percent of the white vote overall.
In Virginia, polls show the candidates virtually tied. The state’s 5.9 percent unemployment rate, well below the 8.1 percent national average, works in Obama’s favor. Overall, 35 percent of the electorate is black, Hispanic or Asian.
Large swaths of northern Virginia, which includes Washington, D.C. suburbs, and the Tidewater region, with its heavy military presence, see the federal government as more friend than enemy.
In Lynchburg, a city of 76,000 in south central Virginia, Old and New South collide as downtown’s Victorian gingerbread homes yield to high-tech suburban factories. On Main Street, a pawnbroker displays racks of shotguns across from a marble-and-stainless steel bakery offering creme brulée cupcakes. Several times a day, Appalachian coal trains, more than 100 cars long, wind through town.
The city is best known as headquarters of an evangelical empire: Thomas Road Baptist Church, with 25,000 members, founded by the late Reverend Jerry Falwell, and its fast-growing offshoot, Liberty University.
At Liberty’s May commencement, Romney, a Mormon, sought to stake out common ground with fundamentalist Christians. Without directly mentioning the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, as the Mormon church is formally known, he told the crowd of 34,000: “People of different faiths, like yours and mine … can meet in service, in shared moral convictions about our nation stemming from a common worldview.”
According to Reuters/Ipsos polling data, however, 35 percent of voters overall, and the same proportion of lower- and middle-income white Bible Belt voters, say they would be less likely to vote for a candidate who is Mormon.
Many evangelicals who would normally vote Republican say they view Mormonism as a cult.
Several of those interviewed in Lynchburg were devotees of the TV series “Big Love” and “Sister Wives,” about polygamous Mormon families. They were unaware that the Mormon Church long ago renounced polygamy.
“Mormons don’t believe like we believe,” said Dianna McCullough, a retired factory worker, as she tossed salad in a Tree of Life Ministries soup kitchen. “Like the wives — Romney’s probably got more than one.”
Still, she is undecided in the election. “The gay marriage thing hurts Obama,” she said. “It’s Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve.”
The president has said he supports gay marriage, whereas Romney, in his speech at Liberty, drew his biggest applause with the line, “Marriage is a relationship between one man and one woman.”