Nuts & Bolts—Inside a Democratic campaign: Knowing less than nothing about rural America

Nuts & Bolts—Inside a Democratic campaign: Knowing less than nothing about rural America

Welcome to Nuts & Bolts, a guide to Democratic campaigns. I’ve helped write this series for years, using information from campaign managers, finance directors, field directors, trainers, and staff, responding to questions from Daily Kos Community and Staff members, and addressing issues that are sent to me via kosmail through Daily Kos.

Recently, the Washington Post ran an analysis on why rural voters trend Republican. Part of their assessment is that rural voters believe that they are overlooked, receive fewer benefits, and are taken advantage of, and that because of these factors, they turn further and further to the Republican party, which plants this message and brings those voters into the fold. Over the last several years, I’ve written about rural organizing efforts in Kansas, Utah, Texas, and elsewhere that face trying to hit turnout numbers in counties where the goal is not to win that county or district but to contain the bleeding. If a county can be held at a 60/40 margin instead of an 80/20, Republicans simply could not survive the incoming votes from metro communities. Reading The Washington Post analysis, however, we need to recognize that when someone who has not lived in, or organized within rural communities makes claims about what drives rural voting, monumental mistakes can be made that lead to conclusions that can best be summed up with a shoulder shrug. So, how, exactly, can we talk to rural voters as we move forward?

Democratic voters in rural communities are some of your most loyal supporters

During the recent Vote No campaign in Kansas, I knew things would be an incredible night the moment small counties began to come in. As these small county results came in it was obvious that Democratic voters had turned out. They had turned out in one of the most difficult elections for their community I can remember. I sat at a county fair in Atchison, Kansas, where the number of voters was relatively small, and women sat in the stands with “Vote No” signs below them. These were farmers, ranchers, and women who wore their beliefs out in public. These, in many cases, are the most loyal Democratic voters we will ever have.

I hate to say this, but it is relatively easy to vote Democratic in a city or metro where you will rarely face pushback from someone who can directly confront you. In a rural community the pushback can be immediate and not at all friendly. You wear your politics on your sleeve. So those voters who back you? They will go out and get you every vote possible they can bring to the polls. That doesn’t mean you will win their county, it just means that if you provide them with targets that are possible, and candidates who can inspire, they will work as hard as any campaign field director can ask.

We also make the mistake of assuming all rural communities are white-only. This is not true. More than 24% of rural communities are non-white, and they are voters we need in order to win elections. 

The big mistake the Washington Post and most outsiders make

In their article, the Washington Post makes this statement:

Political scientist Katherine Cramer defines rural resentment as focused on three things. First concerns redistribution, or the belief that rural areas don’t receive their fair share of government resources and benefits. Second is representation, or the perception that most politicians ignore rural residents. And third, a sense of being culturally overlooked, that rural lifestyles and cultures don’t get the same respect as those of urban and suburban communities.

There is a mistake made within this analysis that can only be made by someone who has lived in and still is directly connected to rural communities. When we look only from the outside in, the assessment is to believe that “rural resentment” actually is about any of these factors. When it comes to practice, rural resentment does not look anything like this, and you can tell it when you look at state legislatures. When you ask rural communities who overwhelmingly elect Republican state legislatures, often in Republican majority state governments, they don’t say they receive poor representation. In fact, even though Republican leadership in their state most often comes out of the metros because of caucus voter strength to get them that position, a Republican speaker of the house in any midwestern state is more than welcome in almost any rural farm district. So, do the rural Republicans feel as though they are not being represented? In my experience, in numerous states, I seldom hear people say they are not represented. Instead, they often blame other states, not their own. I like my legislator, I just don’t like yours.  

How have Republicans encouraged this thought process?

Republicans have used a mix of racism, stigma, and strawmen to create villains to blame for all of your problems. Did your crop fail to come in? Blame Nancy Pelosi. You hear that more people in the city are getting welfare, and you attack them, even if it means that their funds come right back to American farms who need that bill to pass, and need those funds to survive. Republicans use this by framing cities and metros in ways that are often code words for a more racist or more secular community, and one they feel disconnected from, and, therefore, unwilling to want to help.

Fox News makes a living using statements meant to confuse their own viewers into feeling as though major cities are burned to the ground and run as though they are post-apocalyptic nightmare worlds. I know of a few places that, if I asked, I might be able to find more than a few people that would tell me every night in Portland antifa burns buildings and gets high while keeping police officers locked into bunkers out of fear. There is almost no reasonable Democratic feedback that says something like: “Thank you to XYZ major city for being one of the top consumers of American poultry. Buy American, our farmers thank you.” We need reminder campaigns every day with our friends that continue the dialogue that we are all in this together. Even during a direct campaign, we can point out successes by identifying how well-supported our rural areas are by the consumption of a product that comes through urban areas.

Rural communities have reasons to complain; they lose hospitals and resources, often because Republicans refuse to expand Medicaid or provide infrastructure improvements. Before we go on the attack, we can build the discussion by finding common ground.

I have seen campaigns accomplish exactly this by going into communities and paying attention and listening. The rural-urban divide exists most often through the lens of television producers who want it to exist. It can be overcome by supporting the people who live there, and when we recognize the power of their support, we can win a lot of statewide races that are otherwise off the table.

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