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Rural Democrats: Party Ignored Us, Suffered the Consequences

Strategists say candidates need to emphasize broadband internet for all, consider advertising in rural newspapers, radio

Rep. Tim Walz of Minnesota’s largely rural 1st District was thought of as a sure bet for re-election but he only scraped by his Republican challenger by less than a percentage point. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Rep. Tim Walz of Minnesota’s largely rural 1st District was thought of as a sure bet for re-election but he only scraped by his Republican challenger by less than a percentage point. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Democrats in rural America have a blunt message for the rest of their party: We saw the electoral disaster coming — and it’s your fault.

Strategists and party officials say their warnings about the party’s lackluster outreach to rural voters went unheeded by Democratic leaders for years, culminating in this month’s shock defeat to Donald Trump. A presidential candidate who actually performed poorly in many cities and suburbs nonetheless scored an upset victory because of a surge in support from small towns and rural areas.

To these old Democratic political hands — many of whom hail from well outside the cities where most party professionals live — the outcome would have been preventable if the party had developed and sustained an effort to win over these voters. Instead, they say a Democratic Party that focused on only the urban and suburban vote either ignored rural America entirely or badly mishandled the outreach it did undertake.

“The Democratic Party ceded rural America to the Republicans quite some time ago,” said Vickie Rock, a member of the Nevada State Democratic Central Committee from rural Humboldt County. “They invested nothing, they built no bench. They don’t even send out signs anymore, which is a staple of rural politics. 

“All Trump had to do was peel off a small percentage of urban votes, and he was going to win,” Rock said. “Because he already had, in his back pocket, rural America.”

Most of these rural strategists are now hatching plans to undo the damage, convinced that a handful of simple steps would go a long way toward winning votes. One longtime rural Democratic strategist from Massachusetts, Matt Barron, is trying to organize a conference call with New York Sen. Charles E. Schumer, the incoming Senate Democratic leader, to talk about outreach strategies.   

Some Democratic officials in rural areas are plotting runs for leadership in state parties, while other gurus say they will take it upon themselves to train a new generation of rural-friendly operatives. These kinds of efforts won’t solve the problem alone, the strategists readily acknowledge, but would at least help the party begin to understand how much ground it must make up.

“They’re not campaigning here,” said Barron, who lives in a small town in western Massachusetts. “They’re not showing up. And they’re not addressing stuff that’s important to us.”

Steep deficit

Democrats face a steep deficit in this part of the country: Trump won 62 percent of the rural vote, according to the presidential race’s exit poll data, a terrible showing, evident in battleground states like Pennsylvania, that cost Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton the election. 

In Clearfield County, for instance, a sparsely populated area in western Pennsylvania wedged between Pittsburgh and Harrisburg, Clinton won just 24 percent of the vote — 11 points less than President Barack Obama’s 35 percent in 2012.

The effect was palpable down ballot, too: Some rural Democratic lawmakers considered sure bets for re-election, including Rep. Tim Walz of Minnesota’s 1st District, instead barely avoided shock defeats.  

Democratic strategists like Barron say many in their party mistakenly see rural America as only one type of voter: white people who work on farms. That oversimplification, they say, misses the fact that many black and Latinos also live outside of cities, and that many who work there do so in industries other than agriculture.

These nonwhite voters might have cost Clinton the most: She performed poorly in rural counties populated mostly by Hispanic voters, too, as The Washington Post’s political science blog Monkey Page tabulated in a recent post. That weak showing likely accounts for why Clinton did worse than Obama with Latino voters, according to exit polls, despite Trump’s racist rhetoric about Latino immigrants.

Pro tip: show up

Democratic officials have a variety of ideas for reaching out to rural voters: Emphasize funding for broadband internet infrastructure, advertise in cheap, rural newspapers, and talk about the need to change the status quo in Washington.

But more than anything, these strategists say the Democratic Party simply needs to show up. According to some strategists, the party didn’t even bother to organize a voter outreach effort in rural America, they say, much less send candidates to hold rallies there.

“People just love it when you show up,” said Ted Sadler, a Democratic political hand from rural Georgia. “But for us, there was zero Democratic action in the 8th Congressional District.” (The district sits in the heavily rural south central part of the state.)

In Georgia, Sadler said the party was instead obsessed with driving up turnout in Atlanta and its surrounding suburbs at the expense of Democratic-friendly areas in other parts of the state. It was a common refrain among the Democratic strategists interviewed for this story, all of whom said they saw a party that believed it no longer needed rural votes to win elections.

When Democratic officials did show up, Sadler and others said they were ill-equipped for the nuances of a campaign in rural America.

“When they do show up, it’s 22-year-old kids from the Ivy League,” Sadler said. “And they’re telling you what do, as opposed to stopping and listening.”

To these strategists, the Democratic Party has become captive by a set of city-dwelling political professionals who personally don’t understand the important differences of urban versus rural campaigns. It’s a blindness that led them to dismiss the results of successive midterm elections, electoral wipeouts that many Democrats believed was mostly a consequence of the party’s urban base failing to turn out.

“The brilliant ones at top know better,” said Nancy Larson, a member of the Minnesota Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party. “And they come down and say, ‘This is what you do, this is what you say, this is what you have your candidates do, and don’t stray from this.’”

Larson added: “They talk about the messages that worked in very urban areas, where you have a million people or more. But they don’t know how to talk about ordinary people.”

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