U.S. presidential candidates are focusing on battleground states, also known as swing states, where the presidential election outcome remains too close to call. In 2000, Republican George Bush won by less than one percent of the vote in five battleground states. He surprised many analysts when he won West Virginia, a small state of two million citizens that historically has voted for the Democratic Party. V.O.A's Brent Hurd recently traveled to West Virginia, which is again a battleground state.
Mike Carter of Washington D.C. is a volunteer with NEXT, an organization that supports Democratic Senator John Kerry and brings Washingtonians to West Virginia to talk about the presidential election. Mr. Carter believes his mission is not only to get Mr. Kerry elected, but to excite people to vote.
"If we have a more informed electorate and more people vote for Bush this time, if he actually wins the popular vote and more people are at the polls, I guess I can live with that. It's more important to actually get people engaged. That is the primary thing, I think, this year."
ON THE BUS: "Good Morning, can everybody hear me in the back?"
Sarah Warren is one of a handful of NEXT leaders on today's bus ride to the town of Martinsburg, population 15,000. She believes that speaking directly with voters will encourage turnout at the polls on November 2nd:
"The conventional wisdom is that someone is more likely to go out and vote if they are personally asked to vote. It is neighbor to neighbor. Hi, how are you? I am a volunteer with NEXT. Do you mind if I ask you if there is an issue that is important to you in the upcoming election?"
Kathryn Carnell responds, "The economy. I think four years is enough for me to have seen that it's not working, and there needs to be a change."
48-year-old Kathryn Carnell is struggling to find work. She blames the state's economic sluggishness on President Bush. An estimated 18,000 jobs in West Virginia have been lost under Mr. Bush's watch.
Ferrel Guillory, a political analyst at the University of North Carolina, says that given
the U.S. economy's poor performance under Republican leadership, the Democratic Party should be ahead in rural states like West Virginia. But President Bush has an advantage here and throughout the south, where more than two out of three white males voted for Mr. Bush in 2000.
"Despite rural areas bearing the brunt of the economic downturn, many white rural voters have stuck with President Bush because of their strong cultural affinity with him: his manner of being, his support for the availability of guns, his support for a constitutional amendment opposing gay marriage and other symbolic issues that put him on the socially conservative side."
Another important issue to many West Virginians is the violence in Iraq. Professor Ferrel Guillory:
"West Virginia has sent a lot of young people to the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq. This is in keeping with the fact that rural communities bear the heaviest share of the burden of membership in the armed forces. The public concern about the continued death of soldiers has added to the anxiety."
The Republican Party has also been active in grassroots efforts to re-elect President Bush. Kris Warner, the West Virginian Republican Party chairman says volunteers are campaigning door to door and passing out pro-Bush pamphlets at sporting events throughout the state, especially in the eastern part of West Virginia.
"The major difference this year than any year in the past is just the number of volunteers. We have over 10,000 volunteers in West Virginia that are committed to this election. The Eastern Panhandle is the most hotly contested area of the state. We are actually doing better in other parts of the state than the Eastern Panhandle but things are coming on strong and we are glad we've got another 35 days to go."
Meanwhile, the NEXT bus is leaving the Eastern Panhandle and heading home to Washington. Volunteer Mike Carter glows with enthusiasm.
"I feel like I made a difference at least in a microcosm way. I registered five people to vote. No matter what they do, they are registered to vote."
That day, about 50 volunteers spoke with nearly 3,000 people and registered about 100 of them to vote. November 2nd will reveal just what sort of impact they had on West Virginia.