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Here Is How Left-Leaning Rural Voters Think Progressives Can Engage Swing Voters in Their Communities

Progressives aren’t connecting with rural voters and we know why.

For the last several decades, agricultural policies have dominated rural politics, despite the fact that most rural Americans work in schools, hospitals, or as caregivers—not on the farm. More than 22% of rural Americans are employed in education and health services industries, while only 9% work on farms.

So what's the solution? We need to do a better job of listening to rural voters. No high paid political consultants know rural communities better than the people who live there. That’s why we’re asking our rural left-leaning members to help us better understand how progressives can better engage rural voters.

About Our Campaign

RuralOrganizing.org is working to leverage local rural insights for engaging rural swing voters. During the month of July 2018, we solicited feedback from rural voters in all 50 states. In total, 597 people responded to our survey. The respondents skewed heavily white and female -- a critical demographic this election cycle. Because the majority of our members are "left-leaning," the respondents also skewed heavily toward liberal/progressive and Democratic.

We define "rural" using rural-urban continuum codes developed by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). This classification scheme distinguishes metropolitan (metro) counties by the population size, and nonmetropolitan (non-metro) counties by degree of urbanization and adjacency to a metro area or areas. 

The questions in our survey centered around a hypothetical ad campaign for engaging rural swing voters. We asked our members to help create the perfect advertisement for getting rural voters in their community to support progressive candidates and issues. As part of the survey, we asked our members about the issues they would focus on, what their messages would be, and who they would have deliver the messages.

Interestingly, the rural progressives in our survey demonstrated strong support for "rural resentment" messages so often cited among Trump voters. But rather than focusing on issue like race, rural resentment among progressive centered around feelings that their communities are being left behind in the new economy, and desire for real policy solutions specific to small towns.

In addition to statements like "The widening gap between the rich and families struggling to make ends meet is hurting America," rural progressives want to focus on the uniquely rural elements of the economy that are impacting them. And the key issue where they want to see us use this framing is healthcare -- across the board, our respondents are saying that healthcare is the biggest issue impacting their communities.

The next step in our campaign is to test these insights from our rural members with a national, representative survey of rural voters and to share that data with the public. We're asking our members to help fund this part of our work, so if you'd like to make a donation to help support our national survey, please click here.

Top Issues Impacting Rural Communities

When we asked our members to identify the top issues for engaging rural swing voters in their communities, healthcare, protecting the "rural way of life," employment, and income inequality where the top issues they identified.

Images of Rurality

We also asked our members, "What image best captures your community?" The top issue they responded to was a picture of a farm among corn fields followed by an image of people hiking in nature. A picture of blighted buildings was also often selected.

Spokespeople in Rural Communities

We also asked our members to identify trusted spokespeople in their communities who are influential with swing voters. Farmers, parents or grandparents, small business owners, healthcare workers, and teachers were most often selected.

The Wealth Gap in Rural Communities

By far, the messages that rural left-leaning voters responded to most strongly centered around the growing divide between the haves and have nots. In total, 97.5% of respondents agreed that the widening gap between the rich and families struggling to make ends meet is hurting America.

While there are likely many reasons for the strong responses to messages centered on income inequality, our survey identified a few specifically rural factors that may give the responses some context. For example, our rural members strongly feel that small towns and rural communities are losing ground in the economy.

They also agree (91.5%) that most politicians favor larger metropolitan areas, but that we need policies that address problems in rural America too.

As a result, important programs, like rural education, are deprioritized among the political class.

Respondents also agreed that rural business don't get the same kind of support as businesses in rural communities.

Putting rural Americans at a disadvantage.

Practical Solutions for Rebuilding Rural America

The rural voters in our survey helped outline a few practical, rural-specific solutions that progressives should champion to help rebuild rural America. For example, they agreed that only a few large factories and farms get most of the federal funding to support rural America.

However, respondents strongly supported policies that invest more in helping small businesses and bringing technology to rural areas so they can be more connected to the economy.

Respondents also overwhelming supported investing in small businesses and schools in order to create stronger communities so young people can choose to stay and make a life for themselves in the communities in which they grew up. 

Conclusion and Recommendations

Based on the feedback provided in this survey, our team developed two variations of ads that progressives could create for engaging rural swing voters. Next, we will test these ads with a national, representative survey of rural voters and share that data with the public. If you'd like to make a donation to help support our national survey, please click here.

AD #1

Spokesperson: Farmer
Issue: Healthcare
Imagery: Agriculture
Frame: Income inequality/Rural Resentment


As a child, I helped my dad work the land.

Now that I'm running the farm, everything has changed. I know that I feed the world, but sometimes I worry about how I will feed my family.

The rising cost of healthcare alone is enough to put our family out of business.

But instead of fighting for us, Republicans are taking the side of their big donors who run big businesses in the big cities.

They want to privatize our healthcare system, squeeze out locally operated clinics, and profit from our higher premiums leaving me and my neighbors driving further for our healthcare and paying more.

We need leaders that stand with small town folks. That’s why I’m using my vote to elect candidates who will fight for medicare for all and help small towns like mine keep our clinics open and our healthcare prices down.

AD #2

Spokesperson: Grandparent/Business Owner
Issue: Income Inequality
Imagery: Nature
Frame: Protecting the "Rural Way of Life"

I built my business in a small town for a reason. I love our way of life here. We look out for our neighbors and take care of each other.

But small towns are losing ground in our economy and the widening gap between the rich and poor is hurting America.

If we’re going to save our small towns and rural communities we need to make sure young people can choose to stay and make a life for themselves here.

But instead of investing in our local businesses and bringing technology to rural areas so we can be connected to the economy, Republicans are giving away tax breaks to the wealthy who pocket the profits and send jobs overseas.

That’s why I vote for candidates who prioritize small businesses and investments in education instead of those that want to give  billion dollar give-a-ways to the rich.

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