This is the land of die-hard Democrats — mill workers, coal miners and union members. They have voted party line for generations, forming a reliable constituency for just about any Democrat who decides to run for office.
But when it comes to President Obama, a small part of this constituency balks.
“Certain precincts in this county are not going to vote for Obama,” said John Corrigan, clerk of courts for Jefferson County, who was drinking coffee in a furniture shop downtown one morning last week with a small group of friends, retired judges and civil servants. “I don’t want to say it, but we all know why.”
A retired state employee, Jason Foreman, interjected, “I’ll say it: it’s because he’s black.”
For nearly three and a half years, a black family has occupied the White House, and much of the time what has been most remarkable about that fact is how unremarkable it has become to the country. While Mr. Obama will always be known to the history books as the country’s first black president, his mixed-race heritage has only rarely surfaced in visible and explicit ways amid the tumult of a deep recession, two wars and shifting political currents.
But as Mr. Obama braces for what most signs suggest will be a close re-election battle, race remains a powerful factor among a small minority of voters — especially, research suggests, those in economically distressed regions with high proportions of white working-class residents, like this one.
Mr. Obama barely won this county in 2008 — 48.9 percent to John McCain’s 48.7 percent. Four years earlier, John Kerry had an easier time here, winning 52.3 percent to 47.2 percent over George W. Bush. Given Ohio’s critical importance as a swing state that will most likely be won or lost by the narrowest of margins, the fact that Mr. Obama’s race is a deal-breaker for even a small number of otherwise loyal Democrats could have implications for the final results.
Obama advisers acknowledged that some areas of the state presented more political challenges than others, but said that the racial sentiment was not a major source of worry. The campaign’s strategy relies in large part on a strong performance in cities and suburban areas to make up for any falloff elsewhere among Democrats in this or other corners of Ohio.
The Obama campaign aggressively monitors any racial remarks made against the president, but officials rarely openly discuss Mr. Obama’s race. The president released his birth certificate last year in an effort to quell a growing controversy about whether he is a United States citizen. He said last month that race in America was still “complicated.”
“I never bought into the notion that by electing me, somehow we were entering into a post-racial period,” Mr. Obama said in an interview with Rolling Stone.
“I’ve seen in my own lifetime how racial attitudes have changed and improved, and anybody who suggests that they haven’t isn’t paying attention or is trying to make a rhetorical point,” he said. “Because we all see it every day, and me being in this Oval Office is a testimony to changes that have been taking place.”
Researchers have long struggled to quantify racial bias in electoral politics, in part because of the reliance on surveys, a forum in which respondents rarely admit to prejudice. In 50 interviews in this county over three days last week, 5 people raised race directly as a reason they would not vote for Mr. Obama. In those conversations, voters were not asked specifically about race, but about their views on the candidates generally. Those who raised the issue did so of their own accord.
“I’ll just come right out and say it: he was elected because of his race,” said Sara Reese, a bank employee who said she voted for Ralph Nader in 2008, even though she usually votes Democrat.
Did her father, a staunch Democrat and retired mill worker, vote for Mr. Obama? “I’d have to say no. I don’t think he could do it,” she said.
But the main quarrels Democratic voters here have with Mr. Obama have nothing to do with race. They include his opposition to the Keystone pipeline, an environmental stance they say will harm this area, whose backbone, the Ohio River, is lined with metal mills and coal mines.
And the economy, on the rise nationally, is still stuck here. About one in three residents in Steubenville live in poverty, double the national rate. Shale gas, which has begun to bring profits to some counties in Ohio, has yet to take off here, and downtown is a grid of empty storefronts behind dusty glass.
“The big word was ‘change,’ but there’s not been much of that,” said Christopher Brown, a union leader in Steubenville, who said more than 200 of his members were still out of work. “Members are saying, ‘What has President Obama done for us?’ ”
As for race, he said, “It’s not on the front table, it’s in the back seat.”
Just how far back is a question no one can definitively answer. “Race in America is always a work in progress,” said Clement A. Price, a professor of history at Rutgers-Newark. “It’s often a proxy for social anxieties, such as this long recession, joblessness and the war abroad.”
Stephanie Montgomery, who is black and a graduate of Franciscan University in Steubenville, said her race came up so often in her job search in this area that she developed a technique for recognizing when it was happening. The sign: when warmth on the phone turns cool in person, and “they lose eye contact with you.”
“You almost need a corporate environment to get a fair shot,” she said while standing at a job fair in the Steubenville mall. She said that she did not vote for Mr. Obama in 2008 because she preferred Mr. McCain’s more conservative platform, but that Mr. Obama seemed to be a lightning rod for criticism, in part because of his race.
“He’s everything they hate,” she said, referring to ultraconservatives. “An affirmative-action baby. Got the Nobel Prize without deserving it.”
Many who raised race as a concern cast Mr. Obama as a flawed candidate carried to victory by blacks voting for the first time. Others expressed concerns indirectly, through suspicions about Mr. Obama’s background and questions about his faith.
“He was like, ‘Here I am, I’m black and I’m proud,’ ” said Lesia Felsoci, a bank employee drinking a beer in an Applebee’s. “To me, he didn’t have a platform. Black people voted him in, that’s why he won. It was black ignorance.”
Louis Tripodi, a baker in Steubenville who voted for Mr. Obama, blames talk radio and Republican rhetoric for encouraging such attitudes. “ ‘He’s a Muslim, he’s a socialist, he’s not born in this country,’ ” he said. “It’s got a lot to do with race.”
Race has also helped Mr. Obama. It increased voter turnout among blacks in 2008, and some younger voters said it was part of why they voted for him. But now that history has been made, it is less of a pull.
“It was kind of like a bandwagon that a lot of young people jumped on because it was history,” said Dee Kirkland, a 22-year-old working in a pizza shop in nearby Yorkville. “It was a fad to like him,” she said, adding that “race shouldn’t hinder you, but it also shouldn’t help you.”
Mr. Obama still has a number of enthusiastic supporters here. Diane Woods, the owner of Pee Dee’s Brunch and Bar, a diner in downtown Steubenville, described him as “regal, and presidential,” and said she would vote for him again because “when he talks, it makes sense to me.”
The fact that race came up at all in 2008 “really showed how divided we still are,” she said, cooking eggs one gray morning last week. “Blacks came out to vote for the first time because he was black, and you had all these whites saying, ‘Oh, there’s another vote from some drug addict.’ ”
Mr. Corrigan, who supports Mr. Obama, said he believed that the president would ultimately win this mostly Democratic county but that it would be very close, a prediction he said was underscored by a recent flurry of Republican visits. Rick Santorum came here twice during his campaign, and Gov. John R. Kasich, a Republican, gave his annual address here this winter.
“It’s going to be a nail-biter,” said Mr. Brown, the union official.