Over the last year, I’ve read every Democratic post-mortem report I can find on rural voters in the 2016 election. I still haven’t found one that captures what I saw living in a town of 800 people in rural northwest Iowa during the election of Donald Trump so I decided to write my own.
Northwest Iowa, where I lived and worked for five years in the lead up to the 2016 election, is the definition of “Trump Country.” In a county of approximately 11,000 people, I knew maybe 20 active Democrats. During the 2016 election, over 80% of my neighbors voted Republican.
I served as the chair for the county Democrats and organized our county’s caucus. I was heavily active in the 2012 congressional race in Iowa’s Fourth District, turned out the vote for Obama’s second term, and helped organize a presidential caucus forum with the Des Moines Register.
Donald Trump’s 2016 historic performance in rural America was devastating. He won a higher percentage of the vote in rural communities (62 percent) than any Republican presidential candidate in modern times. In total, 592 counties shifted at least 20 points toward the Republican presidential nominee an of those counties, 88 percent had under 50,000 residents.
Most Democrats missed Trump’s rural landslide until it was too late. But the election of Donald Trump was decades in the making and those of us in rural America saw the writing on the wall years ago.
So what can Democrats learn from 2016? Here are my three reasons why Democrats are losing rural voters and one thing you can do about it.
One: Rural Swing Voters Support Populist Candidates
Whether it was the Farmer Union halls of the Northern Plains or the Progressive Farmers and Household Union of America organizing African-American sharecroppers in the South -- or the United Farm Workers organizing migrant farm workers in the fields of the West, progressive populism has been deeply ingrained into the fabric of rural communities.
Small town folks know well that the system is rigged for the powerful and wealthy and running as the establishment candidate is a horrible strategy for rural America. In rural communities and small towns across America, the system isn’t working. Nearly 7 in 10 rural Americans fear their small town life may be dying, yet 90% say this way of life is worth fighting for.
That’s why Bernie Sanders performed better than Clinton in many rural areas during the primary and Trump ran in the Rust Belt like a union Democrat railing against failed trade deals and offshoring of American manufacturing.
Only the party of the new deal and the fair deal can create a vision big enough for rebuilding post-industrial communities and abandoned company towns. Yet, the Clinton campaign chose to play it safe and Democrats lost rural voters because they dreamed too small and rans as the status quo establishment.
Two: “Rural” Is An Identity, Not Just A Geography
A brilliant, long time rural advocate once told me, “Rural people need a message of equality that includes, not blames, them.” She understood that incidences of poverty are greatest in America’s rural areas and central cities.
Approximately 16.3 percent of the rural and small town population, live in poverty. Large cities have a similar poverty rate of 17.3 percent. She knew that the same structures that lead to urban poverty also take advantage of rural folks and that fighting these structures is a fight that unites us as progressives.
And when I say “rural” folks, I’m not just talking about “White” folks. Many professional Democrats use race and geography interchangeably, but rural doesn't equal white. Even the smartest consultants often seem to forget this.
The Native American community is a political powerhouse across the plains and rural black voters have been critical across the south for generations.
Between 1990 and 2000, the immigrant population grew faster in non metro, or rural, counties (76 percent growth) than in metro counties (58 percent). The US Citizen Children of these immigrants are now of voting age. In the years to come, Latinos will be key to rebuilding the Democratic Party in small-town America.
However, the Democratic Party has all but ignored these populations and they’ll continue to lose outside of urban areas until they start listening to and engaging these rural voters of color.
Rural and progressive is not an oxymoron, we need to lean into policies and candidates that are boldy progressive and proudly rural. This truer, more inclusive rural identity is an identity that needs to be better understood and welcomed in the progressive community.
Three: Relationships Are Still The Foundation for Politics In Small Towns and Rural Communities
In small towns and rural communities across the country, authentic relationships are the foundation for community change. Tip O’Neal famously said, “All politics are local.” But rural folks know that their politics are personal. And these personal relationships have been forgotten in the age of big data.
It’s starting to seem like the more campaigns rely on impersonal micro-targeting techniques over authentic relationship building, the more they lose in rural communities.
Anyone that has canvassed doors in rural or urban communities knows that the Democratic data infrastructure is a joke. Reports even suggest that rust-belt canvassers for Clinton knew their data was turning out the wrong voters and a faulty turnout algorithm at the Clinton campaign HQ failed to recognize the importance of rural voters in Rust Belt states especially Michigan and Wisconsin.
This problem isn’t new. In 2014, the Daily Beast learned that the DSCC and their campaign consultants used faulty data in Iowa to suggest that the Bruce Braley campaign should focus on persuasion, talking undecided voters into supporting Democratic candidates, rather than turning out its base voters. As a result, more than 60 percent of voters in their targeted group who actually turned out on Election Day supported Republican candidates. The Braley campaign went on to be named one of the worst campaigns of 2014.
But consultants charge a premium for their campaign services and they convince candidates to invest in them, not boots on the ground. As a result, Democrats have given up field organizing for advertising because they’re convinced that consultants can provide some sort of silver bullet.
At the end of a campaign, the consultants walk away with a loss and a big check and no long-term power is built locally. The party’s investment in the community is short term and extractive. This cycle repeats every two years.
The Solution: The Progressive Grassroots Will Save The Democratic Party in Rural America
Democrats aren't losing rural voters because they have the wrong message. They're losing rural voters because they're not talking to them.
A few weeks after the 2016 election, RuralOrganizing.org asked our 40,000 rural grassroots members to diagnose Democratic failures in their communities. In total, we heard from 615 progressive rural activists from all 50 states.
Over 37 percent of our membership said Democratic or Progressive candidates don't prioritize or invest in rural communities and 22.5 percent said Progressives don't know how to talk to rural communities. Only 11 percent said progressive values were at odds with rural values.
If we’re going to win back rural communities, we need to run reformers fighting to fix the rigged system who understand strong community-based progressive values.
This is what RuralOrganizing.org is all about. Our approach is to empower and equip rural leaders to identify challenges and solutions in their communities, develop positive political agendas that prioritize their best interests, and mobilize support for legislation and candidates that will deliver sustainable change in their own communities and across the nation.
Over the last several months, we've been testing a new model of rural advocacy and the results have been outstanding! In just one year, our small, informal group of volunteers who care about rural America grew to a network of over 40,000 rural activists in all 50 states that generated over 150,000 digital actions in 2017 alone.
All of our work until now has been volunteer based, but in order to take our work to the next level and file the legal documents to make RuralOrganizing.org official, we need to raise $5,000 over the next 30 days.
We have big plans for the 2018 election cycle, and we’re not waiting for the Democratic establishment to invest in rural America and they’re not waiting for expert consultants to figure this out.
I hope you will join with us.
Matt Hildreth is the founder of RuralOrganizing.org, a network of over 40,000 rural progressive activists fighting for a rural America that is empowered, thriving, and equitable.