Looking at the Pennsylvania electoral map in the newspaper Wednesday, one thing jumped out.
Elk County voted for Barack Obama.
On cursory glance, it seems like some kind of mistake, since Elk County is deep in the heart of Pennsyltucky, up in the mountains where the men are men and the elk are very afraid.
Just about every other blue county could be explained. Philadelphia and its suburbs, that was expected. The Scranton/Wilkes-Barre area and the Lehigh Valley, expected. Pittsburgh, expected. Cambria County, home of Democratic U.S. Rep. John Murtha, expected, even though Murtha tried very hard to blow it by calling his own constituents bigots. Lawrence County, expected, mostly because it's essentially a suburb of blue-collar Youngstown, Ohio, the corroded buckle on the Rust Belt.
But Elk County?
Elk County isn't the middle of nowhere, but you can see it from there. Call it West Nowhere.
Elk County is nestled in among those counties York County residents visit to shoot deer and tear around on snowmobiles. It's up in that area of the state that's northwest of State College and isn't Erie.
When Murtha spoke about redneck Pennsyltucky, he was including Elk County in that region.
The county isn't just mostly white. It's whiter than Mitt Romney. Its population, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, is 98.96 percent white.
And it went for a black Democrat?
How'd that happen?
"I don't have an explanation," said Dan Straub, president of Straub Brewery in St. Marys.
St. Marys is just east of Ridgway, which is just down the road from Johnsonburg. Hope that helps.
If anyone would have an explanation, it'd be Straub. His family has been brewing beer in Elk County since 1872.
The rest of the industry in the county is manufacturing based, he said. They have a big Sylvania light bulb plant - which has been losing jobs to cheaper labor overseas. They have a few powder metal plants that make gears for Maytag washers, made largely in Mexico and China, and parts for American auto manufacturers, which, you have heard, are having a hard time selling cars. The county is also home to plants that make carbon rods for what's left of the steel industry in this country.
In short, the main industries in Elk County are dying industries.
"I think the economy had a lot to do with it," Straub said. "We've had tough times up here, and people are fed up with us losing jobs."
The economy in Elk County was turning sour before Wall Street started melting down and before the world's financial system had a stroke. Things were bad enough there that people there were able to set aside whatever prejudices they might have had and vote for a black Democrat.
"We're very rural, if you know what I mean," Straub said.
So rural that lifetime membership in the National Rifle Association is considered a birthright. The NRA endorsed John McCain, apparently mostly out of Republican loyalty. Obama's voting record on gun rights is similar to McCain's, and Obama has said he agrees with the recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling that struck down the District of Columbia handgun ban, saying he believes the Second Amendment is "a personal right."
Still, Elk County sportsmen - and just about everybody in Elk County is a sportsman - set aside whatever concerns they had about gun rights to vote for Obama.
"I think people were more concerned about having jobs than anything," Straub said.
The county has an independent streak, though. Usually, Straub said, Republicans dominate. But recently, Democrats have increased registration. Still, the county sent its Democratic state representative packing, mostly because of the pay raise and pension nonsense.
"People up here pay attention to things," he said.
Paying attention is important in Elk County, he said.
"It's not unusual to wake up and see an elk in your backyard," he said. "They're sort of tame - they're used to being around people - but if they're in rut, you have to watch out. There's nothing like seeing an animal that can weigh up to 2,000 pounds with a rack six-feet wide and four-feet high in your yard. That gets your attention."
Kimberly Frey, the county director of elections, said yeah, they have a lot of Elk in Elk County.
And she gave an explanation for Obama's success there, sort of, that went beyond the economy or just this race.
Elk County, she said, has voted for the successful presidential candidate since 1968. She checked the records, and going back to Richard Nixon, the winner of the presidential race has carried Elk County. That means in 2000 and 2004, she said, George Bush carried the county, and this year, voters turned to Obama.
"Don't ask me why," she said. "I don't have a clue as to why."
She's pretty sure it has nothing to do with the elk.
Mike Argento's column appears Mondays and Fridays in Living and Sundays in Viewpoints. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or 771-2046. Read more Argento columns at www.inyork.com/ydr - click on the opinion section - or visit his blog at www.mikeargento.com.
The Straub Brewery is one of the major attractions in Elk County, known throughout the world as the home of the Eternal Tap. They have the Eternal Flame on the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and at JFK's gravesite. But only Straub has the Eternal Tap, where anybody, over the age of 21, of course, can visit and get a cold beer, on the house.