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Will energy boom swing the election?

By John Avlon, CNN Contributor
updated 10:04 AM EDT, Tue October 16, 2012
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • John Avlon: Ohio is considered a vital swing state
  • Avlon: Northeastern Ohio suffered economic woes, then lifted by energy boom
  • Many say their finances have improved, but they're split on presidential choice
  • Avlon: Swing voters want moderate policies, candidates should listen to them

Editor's note: John Avlon is a CNN contributor and senior political columnist for Newsweek and The Daily Beast. He is co-editor of the book "Deadline Artists: America's Greatest Newspaper Columns." He is a regular contributor to "Erin Burnett OutFront" and is a member of the OutFront Political Strike Team. For more political analysis, tune in to "Erin Burnett OutFront" at 7 ET weeknights.

(CNN) -- No Republican has won the White House without Ohio.

In these final weeks, the Buckeye State is an intense campaign battleground and northeastern Ohio is the bellwether of this key swing state.

For decades, the economic news here has been grim. Once the breadbasket and manufacturing backbone of the nation, Ohio has been hit hard by outsourcing while family farms have been under constant pressure.

John Avlon
John Avlon

But a bright spot has suddenly emerged after decades of struggle, an energy boom brought on by natural gas and oil wells. Suddenly, local farmland that had been worth $15 per acre six years ago was valued at $5,800 per acre and leases allow farmers to keep a portion of the royalties if oil and gas are found.

It is a final factor that is impacting the local economy and driving the decision of many independent-minded swing voters here.

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Suddenly, local farmland that had been worth $15 per acre six years ago was valued at $5,800 per acre...
John Avlon

Carol Kiko and her husband Roger have been dairy farmers in Carroll County for decades, raising five kids and working day and night before they leased their land for oil and gas drilling to Rex Energy.

I asked her if she ever imagined this boom would transform her life and her farm. "No, no. Never," she said. " And when that check came, I cried. Because we have worked so long and so hard to get to that point that that one check brought us. It's incredible. Just incredible. People really don't understand the plight of the dairy farmers throughout the years. The ups and the downs. Mostly downs...We couldn't go on vacations. We didn't go out to dinner. We grew all our own food."

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For the first time, Carol and her husband have paid off their debts and can enjoy a vacation now and then. But they insist that this financial windfall hasn't changed them or their values. "I'm still me. I'm still a tightwad, she said with a laugh. "And probably always will be."

Carol is a coveted swing voter in this key swing area of Ohio. "I voted Democrat, and I voted Republican. I voted for Ross Perot," she said. "I don't like the social issues. I don't like to have to vote for a social issue. I want to vote for what's best for the United States."

Concerned about the deficit and debt, she has some pointed advice for the president. "I would like to see Obama, President Obama do like the dairy farmers have done in the past. We had to be efficient. We couldn't spend money that we did not have. We couldn't go in debt. Who's going to bail us out? Nobody."

Ballard Jenkins is another local dairy farmer who has leased his property for oil and gas, and he shares Carol's concern about the deficit and debt.

"There's no way any businessman will be convinced that you can borrow yourself out of debt. You cannot do it. It's physically impossible to borrow yourself out of debt," he said. "At some point in time you have to, as all farmers have, tighten the belt buckle just a little bit."

And despite the growing oil and gas boom, he doesn't see Obama as an ally of this emerging local industry. "I think our local governor is a great ally," Ballard said, referring to Republican Gov. John Kasich. "The president, I don't think he is. That's just in my opinion."

And that's the paradox of this election in Ohio: the economy might be improving slowly, but in the critical area of energy exploration, President Obama isn't seen as supportive of the industry. On the other hand, Mitt Romney still hasn't been able to convince local swing voters he can relate to their way of life.

Paul Naylor is a retired power company worker. We caught this undecided voter volunteering for a local civic group at the Algonquin Mill Fall Festival. I asked him what he thought about President Obama and Mitt Romney.

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"I don't think they know what the real world lives like," Paul told me. "You can't ever know if you have an elevator in your garage and know what the real world lives like. Really? Can you?" he said with a laugh. "I would like to see either one of 'em try to make it on a salary of people around here. They couldn't do it."

Jack Swinehart is a machinist and volunteer firefighter. He voted for Reagan, Clinton and Obama. This year, he's undecided so far, but he's 100% clear about the change he wants to see in Washington.

"Learn how to come together and compromise instead of being so far to the left and so far to the right," he said. "Get back to the middle and have a better understanding of what we as citizens of this country really want."

Let's hope that the candidates and the parties in Washington listen to citizens like Jack and Paul and Ballard and Carol. Not just for their own political self-interest, though swing voters in Ohio have outsized influence, but because their common sense perspective is clarifying.

If politicians listened more to people like them, and less to rabid partisans, we might be able to break the congressional stalemate and make some reasonable progress in Washington.

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The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of John Avlon.

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