HONOLULU — U.S. farmers overwhelmingly support a Republican to be the next president, despite a strong farm economy during President Barack Obama's administration, according to a Reuters survey released on Wednesday.
The farmers give a slight edge to Mitt Romney over Rick Santorum as the best person to take on Obama and the Democrats in the November elections.
Almost 75 percent of farmers and ranchers intend to vote for a Republican as president, according to a random survey of 462 farmers and ranchers at the American Farm Bureau Federation's annual meeting this week in Honolulu.
While traditionally socially and fiscally conservative, only 3.5 percent of the group said they would back Obama. Some 20 percent said they were still undecided, however.
"Barack Obama is leading the country to possible destruction," Danny Mills of Accomack County, Va., said, explaining that he believes government borrowing and spending got out of control under President George W. Bush but that Obama has not done enough to rein it in.
"This is totally unsustainable," he said.
In 2008 when Reuters conducted a similar poll at the convention, both parties were still going through the nomination process. But Obama and Hillary Clinton each garnered support of only 5 percent. Republicans Mike Huckabee got 30 percent and John McCain, the eventual nominee, came in at 29 percent.
Obama faces a tough re-election in a weak economy and would-be Republican challengers have attacked his job-creating capability.
The farm economy, however, has been booming thanks to high crop prices and strong demand globally.
The government said on Friday the U.S. economy added 200,000 jobs in December and the unemployment rate fell to 8.5 percent, but Republicans say huge spending efforts such as the 2009 stimulus package have not turned the economy around fast enough.
In the race to challenge Obama, 30.5 percent of the 367 farmers who said they voted or will vote in a Republican primary this year backed Romney. Santorum, who lost last week's Iowa primary to Romney by just eight votes, came in second in the farm survey with 25.9 percent.
Romney, the former Massachusetts governor, swept Tuesday's New Hampshire primary, solidifying his front-runner status. Farmers at the conference expressed admiration for Santorum and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich but said they viewed Romney as the inevitable winner.
"He's probably the last guy standing," said Gale Koelling of Illinois, who said he planned to vote for Romney. He said he likes Santorum but doubts the former Pennsylvania senator will last long past New Hampshire.
Santorum, Gingrich, Texas Gov. Rick Perry and others hope a strong showing in the upcoming South Carolina primary will keep their candidacies alive.
Gingrich finished third in the farm survey, with 18.8 percent, followed by Perry with 9.3 percent and Rep. Ron Paul with 6 percent.
Farmers in the survey also said they thought Republicans should control the U.S. Congress, although participants did not echo the anti-incumbent sentiment that has been talked about in the lead-up to November.
About 77 percent of farmers said they think Republicans should control Congress. Fourteen percent said they did not know who should have power and 5 percent said they would prefer that Democrats run Congress.
Republicans won power in the House in 2010 mid-term elections strongly influenced by tea party activity and anger at Obama over the economy and health reform. The party now has set its sights on the U.S. Senate, which Democrats control by a narrow margin, in 2012.
"Republicans did a horrible job when they had control, but I think they're the lesser of two evils," said Mills, the Virginia farmer. "I think the entire spending structure of the government is going to have to be addressed."
The tea party and Occupy Wall Street movements, coupled with abysmally low approval ratings for Congress in 2011, have led experts to predict voters could throw incumbents out of office.
The failure of the deficit-reducing "supercommittee" and a stalemate on a payroll tax cut hurt voters' opinion of Congress.
Farmers in the survey did not support this prediction, with 56.1 percent of survey participants saying they plan to vote for their current representatives to return to Congress. Twenty-five percent said they would not vote for incumbents, and 19 percent did not know or did not respond to the question.
"I don't think, as a whole, politicians are doing that bad a job," said Shawn Harding of Chocowinity, N.C., even though he said he has never voted for his congressman, Democrat G.K. Butterfield, and will not vote for him in November.
"The American people think they can just go up there and snap their fingers and create jobs, and it just doesn't work like that," Harding said.
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