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By campaigning everywhere and delivering for rural voters, Democrats closed margins and stopped the Red Wave...for now.

For the past decade, has been the rural and small-town voice in the room, asserting that Democrats need to lose less in rural communities while improving urban margins, need to deliver for rural voters, and prioritize sustained investment in rural civic infrastructure and perennial organizing efforts.

In 2022, candidates like John Fetterman in Pennsylvania and Marie Glusenkamp-Perez in the Washington 3rd congressional district closed rural margins and turned out the Democratic base in major cities with an economic populist agenda and authenticity that could reach across the aisle. With abortion access on the ballot in many rural (& red!) states, Beltway pundits learned what rural progressives have known for a while: rural voters do not believe abortion should be illegal.

And finally, looking towards the future, rural voters will continue to have a massive impact on the Senate and Supreme court, with 70% of the US population living in 15 states by 2040. Democrats desperately need a red-state strategy, and in order to inoculate against this wing of the GOP, Democrats must isolate and weaponize the vulnerabilities of Republican election-denier candidates and emphasize election denial as a core tenet of the Republican party.

In 2022, Democrats who utilized a both/and strategy when courting rural voters won their races.

Candidates who embraced abortion access and progressive economic populism but refrained from xenophobic and racist messaging toward minority constituencies fared better in their races than the Democratic candidates that touted Republican tropes and talking points.


Following our extensive post-2020 election research, including polling of rural voters, we knew that candidates could improve the Democratic brand in rural communities by embracing “boldly progressive, proudly rural” messaging and policies, letting rural Americans know who is really fighting for small-town and rural communities, and including racial justice as an essential component of their platform.


Marie GluesenKamp Perez (WA-03)

In a recent interview with MSNBC, Glusenkamp-Perez said that “rural voices are critical to America” and rural voters “want Congress with a little bit of grease under their nails who get stuff done.” Glusenkamp leveraged the discourse about inflation to drive a narrative about how large companies are outsourcing jobs but did not blame the Democratic party or immigrants.

“Gluesenkamp Perez said inflation is the top issue affecting voters in Washington, but she stopped short of criticizing President Joe Biden or Democratic leadership for rising costs. The forces that have created this inflation have been coming down the road for decades; look at American manufacturing; look at our jobs numbers, we have been relying on other countries for cheap goods and offshoring our jobs. That’s a huge problem.”

Gabe Vasquez (NM-02)

Vasquez ousted Republican incumbent Yvette Harrell by doubling down on support for labor rights and corporations paying their fair share of taxes. He also championed immigration reform, including support for DREAMERS after having “lived on both sides of the border.”

“Across my district, people are dealing with the rising costs of goods and inflation. I’m running for Congress to support not only antipoverty programs but also to be a congressperson who will champion jobs, a fair day’s work with a fair day's pay, reducing inequality from Republican policies from the Trump administration, investing in rural broadband in native and sovereign communities, taking advantage of state legalization of marijuana.”

Angie Craig (MN-02)

Rep. Craig clinched her third term this month, shaving off Republican votes by running on her record as a rural prosperity champion and running up metro margins by making abortion access a focal point of her campaign. Rep. Craig was the House sponsor of’s Rural Prosperity Act in addition to sitting on the Rural Broadband Task Force and Rural Health Advisory Council. Throughout her campaign, she also drew a stark contrast between her abortion position and her opponents, which she believed drove youth turnout in her district: “The kids hit it out of the park."'


John Fetterman (PA-Senate)

Running on a “workers, wages, weed” platform, Fetterman traveled to the reddest counties in the state with an economic populist message; he prioritized local media by publishing op-eds in rural newspapers elevating his love for the Pennsylvania Farm Show, and he doubled down on fighting for the rural way of life by committing. to "right-to-repair" legislation for Pennsylvania farmers. He also leveraged his wife’s undocumented history to draw a connection to his support for immigrant communities. 

“Mr. Fetterman’s biggest gains were in deep-red counties dominated by white working-class voters. He didn’t win these places outright, but he drove up the margins for a Democrat by three, four or five points compared with Mr. Biden. Pennsylvania elections are about margins, and he cut into the margins Republicans had across the counties that they usually control,” said Christopher Borick, a political scientist and pollster at Muhlenberg College in Allentown, Pa. “He got a lot of looks from voters who aren’t very open to looking at Democrats right now."

Josh Shapiro (PA-Gov) Shapiro won by a margin of 56.4 to 41.8 - over 780,000 votes. According to the AP, Shapiro ”cut losses in rural and exurban stretches where former President Donald Trump is popular.” After his victory, Shapiro appeared on CNN’s State of the Union. When Dana Bash asked him, ‘What is your message to other Democrats on how to reach those who they have lost and be competitive in rural America in particular?’ Shapiro explained his strategy, “Well, look, I can just tell you what we did.  We showed up. And we treated people with respect. And we spoke to them about practical things that would improve their lives. We ignored the noise coming out of Washington, D.C., and instead focused on the good people of Washington County, Pennsylvania. I think it's just a matter of showing up, treating people with respect, and showing them how you're going to make their lives better, helping them understand how you can actually build a bridge between the parties to kind of take down the temperature and get real things done.” The video of the interview is here.

Laura Kelly (KS-Gov)

After opening an Office of Rural Prosperity in 2020, Governor Laura Kelly has utilized her influence and position to support rural programming such as funding community arts programs, expanding rural housing development opportunities, and a rural freight technology project: her track record paid off as she outperformed the most in rural western Kansas getting over twice the vote share of the Democratic House candidates. In addition to riding the coattails of the abortion referendum victory, Gov. Kelly challenged her opponent’s inflation accusations by blaming the extreme Republican policies and saying that she’d cut taxes….on food sales, diapers, and women’s hygiene products.

“People realize you can go too far and policies can be too extreme,” Kelly said in an interview. “And that’s not what the mainstream wants.”


Despite multiple outlets listing Ohio’s Senate race as one of the unexpectedly closer races this cycle, Rep. Tim Ryan decided early on to make America’s dependence on China a focal point of his campaign despite backlash and outcries from Asian-American representative groups in Ohio. Although he did meet with workers from AAMP (Asian American Midwest Progressives) after his May primary win, he doubled down on his China rhetoric, including wearing shirts that read “Portsmouth vs. China.” AMMP and its progressive partners across the state, including those with large operational field programs, did not prioritize the Senate race as they did other races due to Ryan’s flippant comments about student debt cancellation and his continued support of the border security

Instead of pointing the finger at corruption, billionaires, and corporations, he decidedly elevated China as the villain.  From AAMP’s post-election statement: “Centering the use of nationalist, fear-mongering rhetoric only pushes conflicted voters to the right and shifts blame away from the policymakers and U.S. corporations which have engaged in union-busting and allowed prices to skyrocket 

Despite the call for Democrats to focus solely on “inflation and jobs,” candidates who also focused on abortion and protecting democracy made gains with rural voters.

In 2022’s national election exit poll sponsored by progressive organizations, including, 40% of rural voters were deeply concerned with extremism and white nationalism with half of the rural and small-town voters supporting passing a federal law to guarantee access to abortion nationwide. Although inflation and the economy were motivating factors, abortion access and the threat of a national abortion ban drove Democratic turn-out, especially for new and late-deciding Democratic voters: winning candidates leveraged both issues taking advantage of the national political climate. 

Gretchen Whitmer (MI-Gov)

With being the target of a far-right militia kidnapping and as the Governor in a state with abortion on the ballot, Governor Whitmer made her race a referendum on extremism and abortion economics with her “Save abortion to save the economy campaign” slogan. She repeatedly labeled Jan. 6th as an act of “domestic terrorism” and doubled down on Trump’s violent-inciting rhetoric and its generation of domestic terrorist activity like the foiled kidnapping plot of the Governor. Finally, Governor Whitmer articulated how the price of parenthood is inherently an economic issue, especially for people who can become pregnant.

“But for Whitmer, the choice between abortion and the economy was a false one. On the contrary, women’s reproductive health and their state’s economic future were inextricably linked – if you take away the former, you jeopardize the latter.Clearly, the message hit home for voters: Whitmer won in a landslide against an anti-abortion extremist, racking up double-digit margins in a state that famously swung red back in 2016. Moreover, while about a quarter of voters nationwide ranked abortion as their top issue, that number was 45% in Michigan – a higher share than those who cited inflation in the state.”

Rep. Marcy Kaptur (OH-9)

As the longest-serving woman in the House of Representatives and having voted for President Biden’s seminal legislation, Rep. Kaptur was a high priority for the NRCC as they sought to add to their “Red Wave” congressional margins.  Running against a January 6th participant and openly QANON supporter J.R. Majewski, and in more red and rural district post-redistricting, Rep. Kaptur ran digital ads and commercials calling Majewski and extreme Republicans threats to our democracy. The incumbent, although having a record of siding with Catholic organizations on abortion restrictions and previously calling herself a “pro-life” Democrat,  Rep. Kaptur asserted that abortion access is a “freedom” and campaigned aggressively on reproductive and abortion rights.

“I think people want that decision to be made freely, within the confines of their own family, and they don’t want politicians or Washington taking away their freedom.”

Far-right election deniers will continue to shape Republican politics, especially in red and rural states: Democrats should leverage this weakness for 2024.

With the 2024 Senate map less sympathetic to Democrats, the Party needs to exploit GOP candidate vulnerability, gain control of the “election security” narrative, and double down on “election denial” as a core component of the Republican party. 

According to’s new analysis highlighting the election-denier and conspiracy candidate trends this cycle, candidates demonstrated a series of election security policy objectives; they ran for top-of-ticket and down-ballot races, especially in red states where they can steer the party’s direction; within the Republican party,  there is limited election denier intra-party debate; and finally, Democrats have few pickup opportunities in election denier districts barring a significant effort to appeal to rural voters who currently support Republicans. 

To inoculate against election-denier narratives, which will be pervasive in 2024, Democrats should isolate and weaponize the vulnerabilities of Republican election-denier candidates and emphasize election denial as a core tenet of the Republican party. Finally, Democrats need to go on offense regarding “election security” discourse, especially in an off-year, to set the narrative for 2024.

Ahead of 2024, continued rural field experimentation & research are needed to identify organizing and communications gaps.

We know what tactics work for contacting voters (and winning elections!) in urban cores might be varied or not as effective in rural and small-town communities. In 2022, ran an experimental communications and field experiment in Ohio, layering multiple modes of direct voter contact in our three target counties. Although we’re still analyzing the results, our qualitative evidence suggests, for example, that there is no replacement for local-to-local door knocking and that electoral “cold SMS” is not an effective turn-out tactic for rural and small-town turn-out. We hope Democratic institutions and donors will prioritize the experiments and research necessary to test best practices for engaging rural voters. Below are some examples of our innovative approaches to understanding rural voters and communities.


After the success of our 2020 rural organizer exit interviews, plans to capture again, analyze, and share the lessons learned by rural civic and electoral leaders from the 2022 campaign cycle. This effort ensures key lessons learned by rural organizers on the front lines of the 2022 election cycle are documented and recorded to inform 2024 efforts. 

Historically, these organizers and local candidates spend months accumulating valuable insights, but campaigns typically close up shop before collecting valuable feedback on tactics, platforms, and messaging from those who were actually on the ground talking to voters. Because these frontline insights never make it back to campaign leadership, critical real-world experiences are excluded from the post-election analysis and planning for the future. Instead, media pundits develop their own analyses, which political strategists then adopt and share with philanthropists. They, in turn, invest in plans that aren’t informed by those in the field on the front lines.

We plan to launch the exit interviews in December 2022 and debut our list of recommendations in early 2023: we recommend Democratic institutions and campaigns create space for debriefing and reflection, as what we learned from this cycle will be invaluable for 2024.


This year, Education Fund worked with three local Ohio organizations to conduct door-to-door community assessments called “Local Progress Surveys.”  This “front porch polling” utilized an innovative use of a drop-off/pick-up survey methodology, an approach that has been shown to reduce nonresponse bias and takes canvassing for community perspectives to a new level. Blending door-knocking and community-based research techniques, this approach empowers local leaders to develop the right questions for their neighborhoods, hear from a wider range of community members than can be reached by traditional canvassing techniques, and generate local solutions that respond to local needs.

Local progress reports defined a  holistic set of community perceptions, amplified the needs of ignored neighbors, and turned these community needs into a winning rural prosperity agenda that the local groups could utilize during an election year. We recommend that Democratic institutions embrace more community-driven strategies that build the capacity of local groups ahead of 2024.


In 2022, commissioned a national poll showing a candidate's pro-choice position was the most important issue tested among rural voters polled in 10 battleground states, even outpacing party ID (i.e., being a Republican), which came in second. Additionally, another key finding of the survey was the fact that for a Democratic candidate, an endorsement from a pro-choice organization boosted a candidate's appeal more than an endorsement from the Farm Bureau or a labor organization. We recommend that Democratic institutions continue to rethink their stereotypes about rural voters and design public opinion research that shifts the paradigm about rural voters and surfaces opportunities for improvement through progressive issues, messengers, and messages.


In 2021, conducted a five-state landscape analysis to assess rural power-building momentum and rural power building challenges in states with large rural populations that are critical to winning federal elections in 2022 and 2024. In all five states, we identified a set of rural issues and local leaders being under-prioritized by mainstream progressive powerbrokers at the state and national levels and provided recommendations as to how to reverse this trend by empowering these local leaders to design and implement solutions to their problems in ways that could be used to boost local support for progressive candidates. In 2022, we hope to build upon the intel in these landscape assessments by including new priority states and updating our 2021 landscape reports and civic directories. We recommend that Democratic institutions start mapping existing rural infrastructure, including rural civic leaders and organizations, in order to emerge leadership and opportunities for 2024.

Democrats should continue to deliver for and invest in rural and small-town communities to maintain their Senate majority in 2024.

Democrats must continue delivering for rural voters and communities by passing the “Rebuild America Act,” fully funding the RECOMPETE pilot program, and ensuring rural provisions in the Farm Bill are fully resourced. Additionally, Democrats must start, if not already, heavily investing in key Senate rural communities and organizations: this investment in organizing will pay off in marginal gains in battleground state rural counties. is already engaged in supporting local rural civic leaders in building informal leadership networks in these communities where 2024 candidates can tap into this existing infrastructure and leverage for their platforms, outreach, and messaging. 


Progressive rural activists and candidates are heavily concerned with the lack of investment in local infrastructure. In 2021, convened a panel on this subject at 2021 Netroots Nation entitled “When Millions Are Spent, and No Infrastructure is Left Behind,” which included panelists Rep. Anna Eskamai from Florida, J.D. Scholten from Iowa, and Rep. Ricky Hurtado from North Carolina. All three are from states where massive expenditures are made by Democrats, yet there is little left behind to show for it. This sentiment was shared widely across our network in 2020 and featured in our exit interviews.

This cycle, we want to uplift two House districts where national Democrats either failed to spend or withdrew funding too soon. In Wisconsin’s Third District, Brad Pfaff lost by a 52-48 margin, much closer than expected but without much outside help. And, in Oregon’s Fifth District, Jamie McLeod-Skinner lost 51%-49% after the national Democrats pulled funding from her race. This is a pattern that needs to be broken if Democrats want to compete and win rural districts in 2024.

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This Bluegrass Music Video Highlights the Struggle of Rural Undocumented Youth

Che Apalache is a bluegrass band that knows what rural America is all about.

The band, featuring three powerhouse Latin American musicians (Franco Martino on guitar and Martin Bobrik on mandolin are from Argentina. Banjoist, Pau Barjau, is from Mexico.) and North Carolina native, Joe Troop, looks more like the true rural America than the simple cliches too often portrayed in the media.

Their most recent single from their latest album, “Rearrange My Heart," (produced by famed banjo player and cross-genre trailblazer Béla Fleck) features the story of Moisés Serrano, an openly undocumented and queer DACA recipient and community leader from North Carolina and weaves in elements of true stories of undocumented families in across the state who have been torn apart by deportation.

Watch "The Dreamer,' Che Apalache's latest music video here:

Since coming out as undocumented in 2010, Serrano has relentlessly pursued equality for his community through the sharing of his story. His advocacy has been filmed in the feature length documentary, Forbidden: Undocumented & Queer in Rural America.

Serrano wrote the script and crafted the story for the music video based on real life experiences. The video was shot in and around Hillsborough, North Carolina.

"The song, “The Dreamer”, is for the over one million undocumented youth and DACA recipients who have had to grow up learning how to live and love in a country that is actively trying to deport them," Serrano said. "The music video, The Dreamer is for the millions of undocumented and immigrant families affected by our racist immigration laws."

Recently, Felix Contreras from NPR’s Alt.Latino reviewed the video saying:

“While I was impressed by the song's very moving, real-life story of a DACA recipient from North Carolina ("a true son of the South"), I am moved beyond words by the new video. It's a powerful combination that must be shared.”

Director Matt Durning assembled a team of over 20 local film professionals to create the visually arresting music video, all of whom donated their time, resources, and talents to make the project a success. Two local families who were inspired by these stories were cast portray the young Serrano family in the video’s narrative sequences and all of them delivered shockingly powerful performances.

"For so many of us in the North Carolina film community, this project was an opportunity to use our craft to give back — to hopefully open some hearts and minds and help overcome the intense culture of intolerance that continues to threaten so many of our friends, neighbors and loved ones across the South," Durning said.

Along with the video, Serrano and Che Apalache are encouraging viewers who are moved by this story to take action and support organizations that help undocumented people in North Carolina.

"We hope this video will draw attention to the harsh realities faced by Latin American Immigrants in North Carolina. It is time for us all to stand up for their right to safety and well-being," the band said in a statement.

Che Apalache will perform at the launch party on November 11, 2019 in Sioux Center, Iowa.



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How Progressive Grassroots Organizing Will Save The Democratic Party in Rural America

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.


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.


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.


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.


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, 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 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 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, a network of over 40,000 rural progressive activists fighting for a rural America that is empowered, thriving, and equitable.


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The State of Rural America

The results of our 2017 survey are in, and the data provides a clear path forward for our work together. In February of 2017, we conducted a quantitative survey analysis of over 615 progressive rural activists from all 50 states. The goal of the study was to understand what rural organizers learned from the outcome of the 2016 election.

Here's a quick look at what we found. For the vast of majority of rural progressive activists we surveyed, access to quality employment was the number one issue facing their community.

  • Over 37% said Progressive candidates don't prioritize or invest in their communities
  • 22.5% said Progressives don't know how to talk to rural communities.

Rural progressives see conservatives engaging in their communities, but they don't see similar engagement from progressives. Rural progressive think Trump and Sanders both energized rural voters but Hillary Clinton did not. Rural progressives liked Sander's economic plans the most and they liked Obama's economic policies better than Clinton's.

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