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The nation's smallest and most remote places are providing Mitt Romney's biggest margins in battleground states as the 2012 presidential race enters its final weeks.
In fact, rural counties are keeping Romney competitive in the states that are now up for grabs. That's what a new bipartisan survey indicates. The poll also finds that President Obama's rural support has plunged since 2008.
The telephone survey of 600 likely voters in rural counties in nine battleground states was conducted Sept. 15-18. A bipartisan polling team produced the survey for the Center for Rural Strategies, a Kentucky-based group trying to attract attention to rural issues.
The rural voters polled favored Romney by 14 points, giving him 54 percent. They said Romney would do a better job with the economy (54 percent), with rural issues (47 percent) and with sharing their values (52 percent). More than half are comfortable with Romney as commander in chief and with him keeping the nation safe and secure.
President Obama garnered 40 percent, a seven-point dive from rural battleground voting four years ago.
"Rural areas in this country are very tough for President Obama," says Anna Greenberg of Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research, a polling firm for Democrats. Greenberg conducted the bipartisan poll and provided analysis.
"Obama's lead is opening up primarily in urban and suburban areas," Greenberg says. "It's all the more reason that Mitt Romney needs rural America because it's the only place where he's really strong."
Greenberg's pollsters found a rock-solid Romney supporter in Stevens Point, Wis., when 66-year-old Donald Young answered the phone.
"Romney has a business background," Young tells NPR. That's key for Young because he says he was forced to retire from his painting business when the economy soured.
"Romney will do something to create a friendly business climate, and [businesses] will open up and start hiring and developing," Young adds.
The economy also has a 2008 Obama supporter now ready to vote for Romney.
"I just thought we'd be in a lot better position here in the United States than we are," says 26-year-old Nicole Heeringa, a single mother of two who works in a candy store in Waupun, Wis.
"Not a lot has been done with our economy," Heeringa continues. "I just want the economy to get better."
Republican pollster and political consultant Glen Bolger supervised the rural battleground survey and also provided analysis. He says rural voters are "going back to their more traditional voting patterns."
Republicans were in charge in 2008, Bolger says, and rural voters joined most of the rest of the electorate in saying, " 'We need a change.' Now you've got the Democrats controlling the White House [and] Senate all four years and the House for two years. People are [again] saying, 'Well, that's not working. It's time for a change.' "
The poll indicates that Romney's rural support is weakest among women. Obama polled better than Romney on only one question: Who would do a better job of addressing the needs and concerns of women? The president scored five points better.
Some of the women who said they were committed to Romney admitted to being ambivalent in followup interviews with NPR.
Obama "is just more appealing," says Erin Jordan, a 24-year-old nurse from Gallipolis, Ohio. "Even doing things like going on late-night shows like Jimmy Fallon and doing those little rap things. ... It just makes him more approachable."
When Jordan thinks of Mitt Romney, "I picture my dad," she says. "My dad's not always firm in what he believes in politically, I guess."
But Romney may still get Jordan's vote because, as a nurse, she's troubled about changes in health care under Obama, and she's concerned about more change if he's re-elected.
Still, the volatility encourages Democratic pollster Greenberg.
"I actually think it's possible that Obama picks up more support in rural areas, which will just bolster a growing lead, frankly," she says.
Republican Bolger disagrees.
"This is a really polarized electorate that we've got in 2012. There's not a lot of movement," Bolger says. "I think it's going to be very difficult for the president to chip away at Mitt Romney's big rural advantage."
In fact, there isn't much rural support up for grabs if the new survey reflects reality. Only 2 percent of those surveyed are undecided or noncommittal. Four percent indicated solid support for Libertarian Gary Johnson or another candidate. Only 3 percent were soft or leaning when they said they preferred Romney or Obama.
Romney appears to have the rural margin he needs to be competitive in battleground states. And Obama has failed, it seems, to hold on to enough of the rural voters who helped him become president.
Additional analysis of the survey is available at the Daily Yonder, a rural news service from the Center for Rural Strategies.