For Progressives In Rural America, After Decades of Drought, Conditions Are Right For A Good Green Year
Since the election of Donald Trump, I’ve read every post-mortem report I can find on rural voters in the 2016 election. Inevitably—almost without fail—every analysis misses the complexities and nuances that I saw on the ground in my town of Larchwood, Iowa—a town of 800 people in the rural northwest corner of the state.
In the 2016 election, over 80% of my neighbors voted for Donald Trump. In a county of approximately 11,000 people, I knew maybe 20 active Democrats. I served as the chair for the county Democrats and organized our county’s caucus. Prior to 2016, I was heavily active in GOTV efforts during President Obama’s second term, and even helped organize a 2016 presidential caucus forum with the Des Moines Register.
And it was from this perch that I watched the rural Trump wave wash out small towns like mine.
Most of the Beltway missed the slow motion Trump non-metro landslide, but it was decades in the making. Now, three years later, it seems that every K Street consultant has a strategy for winning back rural and small town voters. But much of the Beltway is still missing the important lessons many local rural leaders learned during the 2016 election cycle.
And as the 2017, 2018, and now 2019 election cycles have shown, grassroots groups are already laying the foundation for the early stages of a movement for rural revival. In just three short years after the election of Donald Trump, these grassroots groups have proven that progressive investments in small metro and non metro communities work.
These recent victories—led by grassroots groups in rural America—tell me that the conditions are right for a historic civic, cultural, and political shift in communities outside major metro areas. Local rural leaders are taking a stand and fighting for their communities like never before and foundations and civic organizations are once again investing in their efforts.
Just this week, RuralOrganizing.org launched our 2020 National Campaign in Sioux Center, Iowa—just a short drive from Larchwood. We picked Sioux Center because we believed that the local community embodies our fight for a rural America that is empowered, thriving, and equitable.
While living in Iowa, I spent five years, from 2011 to 2016, volunteering with a local grassroots group based out of Sioux Center. The pro-immigrant work this group is doing is on par with any major city organization based on the coasts. They’re ending unlawful detainers, stopping deportations, and fighting for humane policy solutions at the federal level.
But unlike major cities on the coasts, Sioux County is conservative. Very conservative. 82% of the community voted for Trump in 2016 and 73% voted for Steve King in 2018. And Sioux Center is small. It’s only about 7,500 in the entire town. But the majority of people living in Sioux Center know that in small towns and rural communities—whether we’re White, Black, or Brown, tenth generation or newcomer—we look out for each other.
That’s why over 100 people turned out in Sioux Center this week to attend our Launch Party and listen to Che Apalache, a bluegrass band with amazing Latin American musicians (and lyrics about building bridges, tearing down walls, and fighting for rural undocumented immigrants), and The Ruralists, a local group that embodies the best thing about small town living—a deeply rooted belief that rural people are at our best when we look out for each other.
Gatherings like this have me convinced that we are on the brink of a sea change in communities like Sioux Center. And that’s not just good news for rural America. Because rural voters have an outweighed impact on our politics, that's good news for all of America.
In Politics, Location Matters
It’s hard to overstate the rural bias in our political system. Republicans haven’t won the national popular vote since 2004 and the total number of Republican presidential voters has only increased by about a million people since then. Democrats, however, had 7 million more presidential voters in 2016 than they did in 2004. Donald Trump won the White House, not because Republicans dramatically increased their number of voters, but rather because, over the last two decades, they changed the location of their voters. In other words, they leveraged the power of the rural bias in the Electoral College.
There was a time when the rural electoral bias affected both parties equally. Not that long ago, Republicans and Democrats equally engaged small town and rural communities. But in recent years, Progressives have deemphasized rural organizing and embraced the idea that politics is downstream of mainstream pop culture. It’s an idea adapted from the Right commonly referred to as the “Breitbart Doctrine.” But while pop culture has an undeniable impact on our politics, culture change doesn’t break evenly across the country. And without a focus on “rural culture” (like Che Apalache and the Ruralists) many rural voters have felt left behind.
Today, the Republican Party has become disproportionately rural and the Democratic Party disproportionately urban which means a red vote now has more clout than a blue one. This is why President Trump entered the White House as the most unpopular President on record having lost the popular vote by a greater margin than any president in US history.
Until the rural bias in the U.S. system of politics and governance is corrected, rural and small town voters will have a disproportionate impact on our national politics. And while mainstream culture will continue moving forward, without strategic organizing that engages and mobilizes voters in small towns and rural communities, our politics won’t follow.
To be clear, when I say “rural culture,” I don’t just mean “White culture.” Since the election of Donald Trump, much of the political class has conflated "White voters” with rural voters, but rural does not mean white. Ben Goldfarb's 2018 "All the People All the Places" report shows that rural and small-town America is only 14% less diverse than the country as a whole and roughly one in five (19%) of rural residents in the United States are people of color.
The Native American community is a political powerhouse across the plains and rural Black voters have been critical across the south for generations. And between 1990 and 2000, the immigrant population grew faster in non metro, or rural, counties (76 percent growth) then in metro counties (58 percent).
Still, polling from RuralOrganizing.org, shows that even when accounting for the true diversity of small towns and rural communities, nine-out-of-ten rural Americans—across all demographics—think the rural and small-town way of life is worth fighting for. They also agree that most politicians favor larger metropolitan areas.
A brilliant, long-time rural advocate once told me, “Rural people need an equality narrative that includes, not blames, them.” Not only did she understand that incidences of poverty are greatest in America’s rural areas and central cities but also that rural is an identity, not simply a geography—and this identity is often shared across other demographic differences.
We reap what we sow. Rural voters are swing voters.
Winning back small town and rural voters is not an impossible task. These communities have a history of supporting progressive candidates like Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman, Tom Harkin, and Paul Wellstone. But as John Nichols wrote in the Nation during the summer of 2017, “The problem isn’t based in rural America, but in the negligence and ignorance of Democratic Party leaders.”
There’s no doubt about it, Donald Trump’s 2016 historic performance in rural America was devastating for progressives. 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.
But despite minimal progressive investments from the left during the 2018 midterm cycle, the political landscape in rural America is starting to change and Democrats are finally giving rural America the attention we deserve.
As Yair Ghitza recently indicated in his analysis of the Catalist voter registration database, rural areas became more Republican by about 11 points in margin from 2012–2016. But from 2016 to 2018, with just a small grassroots investment in strategic rural engagement, there was a major bounce-back in these same areas, which voted more Democratic by roughly 6 points.
In fact, Democratic gains in rural areas from 2016 to 2018 were actually larger in rural communities than the Democratic gains made in urban and suburban areas. These rural gains were missed by much of the mainstream election analysis because they weren’t enough to get over 50% and win seats. But heading into the 2020 cycle, these gains will be absolutely critical to maintain especially in Midwest battleground states that will ultimately decide the next presidential election.
However, it's not all good news. Recent polling suggest these 2018 swing voters might be trending back to voting for President Trump in 2020. Nearly two-thirds of those who voted for President Trump in 2016 but a Democrat in 2018 plan to vote for him again in 2020 which is why resources are needed now more than ever.
Conditions are right for a good green year.
The results of the 2018 election show that progressives aren't losing rural voters because they have the wrong message. Two-thirds of rural residents (68 percent) in the national representative survey consider themselves to be conservative or moderate. However, these same small town and rural residents overwhelmingly felt that the system is rigged for the powerful and wealthy, and a clear majority (77 percent) of rural Americans think Congress is giving tax breaks to the wealthy instead of investing in rural areas. Two out of three (67 percent) of those surveyed supported offering free tuition to local community colleges and trade schools, and a similar number (64 percent) want Medicare to cover all Americans.
Over half (54 percent) back an increase of the minimum wage to $15 an hour. Only 38 percent support outlawing abortions. Over 90 percent said we should invest in small, local businesses and protect rural schools from closing, and over 85 percent think we should “protect hunting and fishing habitats through smart land management policies.” Similarly, 80 percent of rural Americans want to pass policies that support rural grocery stores, pharmacies, and clinics, and three out of four rural residents want individuals with drug addictions sent to rehabilitation centers instead of prisons.
Progressives are losing rural voters because we're not talking to them. Despite the popularity of progressive policies among small town voters, a majority of rural Americans (55 percent) don’t think Democrats are fighting for their community. We left the fields fallow and now we’re reaping what we’ve sown.
However, while many progressive organizations and institutions withdrew over the last few decades from small metro and non metro areas, a loosely coordinated group of long-time rural leaders have been building strong roots and a solid foundation in their communities, despite a lack of resources and investments.
The 2018 and 2019 election cycles prove we have an immediate opportunity to help shape the future of small towns and rural communities for generations to come.
If we can build on this foundation, engage, and mobilize a new voter coalition made up of progressives, members of the New American Majority, and anti-Trump centrists, we can reshape the civic and political landscape of small towns and rural communities—not to mention the entire county—for generations to come.