When President Barack Obama and opponent Mitt Romney await the decision of US voters on Tuesday night they are more than likely to cast a close eye on the results trickling in from Stark County.
About an hour’s drive south of Cleveland, this agricultural area with a sprinkling of towns and suburbs in the bellwether state of Ohio has voted for the winner in all but one presidential election since 1980.
“As we have voted, so has the state of Ohio and so has the nation,” County Commissioner Janet Creighton said.
“Our citizens do realize the importance they have in the national election,” she added, noting that Stark County “has always been considered a microcosm of Middle America because of the uniqueness of our urban and rural blend.”
Perhaps reflecting the changing economic face of the nation, however, Creighton’s office overlooks the deserted downtown streets of Canton, Stark County’s largest town and seat of the local administration.
Over recent decades, Canton’s population dwindled from 120,000 to less than 75,000. The shuttered plants of the iconic Hoover Company, which once dominated the vacuum cleaner market, tell the story of industrial decline common to many mid-size cities in Rust Belt states such as Ohio.
The recent shale gas boom in the east of the state has fueled hopes for an economic revival, said Creighton, a former mayor of Canton. But she warns: “We are not out of the woods yet.”
Just two days before Tuesday’s election, Obama leads by a razor-thin margin in the state, according to the RealClearPolitics average of recent polls.
No Republican has ever won the presidency without Ohio — the Buckeye State — and analysts say there are few paths to the White House for Romney without a victory here.
With 259,000 registered voters, Stark County is one of the biggest prizes in the hard-fought battle for Ohio.
The results from Canton and the surrounding countryside are usually within a couple of percentage points of the national outcome.
Only in 2004 were voters off, when Democrat John Kerry carried Stark County but incumbent George W. Bush was narrowly re-elected.
Four years ago, Obama won Stark County with 66,712 votes, while Republican candidate John McCain received 63,283 votes.
But Creighton, a Republican, believes this year will be different.
“We have seen on our side much more enthusiasm and a greater ground game than we saw in 2008,” she said, pointing to an increase in early voting among Republicans in Stark County.
“I also think that the independents are leaning our way,” she added.
Mike Garcar is one of the volunteers that have fanned out across the county to chalk up support for a Romney victory.
“I believe strongly in small government and that the free market enterprise system is to bring our country back to prosperity,” the 20-year-old said.
Around five times a week, Garcar heads to the “Victory Center” in Canton, as Romney calls his local campaign offices.
The student often works the phone banks that seek to capture and build voter numbers. On weekends, he knocks on hundreds of doors to ensure that registered Republicans show up and cast their ballots.
“The base is energized, the enthusiasm on the Democratic side is down from four years ago,” he said.
“It’s just a matter of us continuing to volunteer through this weekend, continuing to make phone calls and making sure that we have everybody on the polls. If we do that, I am pretty sure that we win.”
But Randy Gonzalez, the chairman of the Democratic party in Stark County, begs to differ.
“We have a lot of people on the ground,” he said, stressing that the Obama campaign has three field offices in Stark County alone.
According to Gonzalez, dozens of college students have arrived from outside the state, sleeping in a local gymnasium and conducting a final push for Obama in the area.
“The Obama campaign is so important to me because whoever gets elected will most likely get to appoint two Supreme Court justices,” said Brittany Becker, who fears a conservative bench would overturn a ruling that legalized abortion.
The student of government and foreign affairs is a first time voter and specifically targets women in Stark County, but admits voters have found election 2012 to be a grind.
“At this point, most people are just fed up with the calls,” Becker said.
Jenny Myers, who is waiting at a bus stop in downtown Canton, has been contacted several times by Democrats and Republicans.
“It is quite annoying,” she sighs. But compared to states such as California or Texas, which lean strongly Democrat or Republican and rarely receive visits, “the candidates at least care about how we vote here,” she added.