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On October 24 the Trump-Pence bus rolled into the small town of Athens, Tennessee. No Trump. No Pence. Still, 100 supporters turned out for free barbecue and a chance to have pictures made in front of the vehicle.
Democrats have a progressively hard time talking to rural voters: no communications channels, no cultural connection, no common vision. And that made a critical difference in 2016 when rural turned out and urban votes declined.
Democrats seem to say, “Rural America, vote your pocketbooks,” or “Vote for us because our policies make your life better.” But that kind of electoral transaction rarely happens. That is what Larry Bartels at the Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions calls the “folklore of democracy.” And it is only that – a story we tell ourselves about self-government. People vote their identity. They vote their culture, their church, their family, their neighborhood. Politics today is about creating, maintaining, and expressing social identity. And so just as wealthy families in Marin County, California, or Fairfax County, Virginia, don’t vote for candidates who pledge to lower their income taxes, voters in hardscrabble places like Hudspeth County, Texas, and McDowell County, West Virginia, don’t vote for candidates who offer more health care or job training.
As Americans sort themselves into communities of race, class, education levels, and likeminded sensibilities, elections become cultural events, group experiences: “How will people like me vote?” (The Bush campaign in 2004 was built around the idea that the election would be about identity, not policy.) The Trump campaign took advantage of cultural identification in building their “us-against-the-elites, us-against-the-press, us-against-the-world” community. Most of his voters were not convinced Hillary was going to confiscate their guns or that Trump was going to breathe life back into necrotic coalmines and steel mills. But they saw more of themselves in that storytelling community, comprised of hunters, miners, and millhands – part of an iconic America where folks like them were still valued.
Not so long ago rural was solidly Democratic. Bill Clinton won rural twice. In 2008 Barack Obama lost the rural vote in battleground states by just 7 points, and won in an electoral landslide sweeping in a Democrat House and Senate behind him. And in 2008 Obama performed better with white rural voters than John Kerry did in 2004 or Al Gore did in 2000.
In 2016 Donald Trump won the presidency by hanging on to Republican strongholds while building rural and small city majorities in key Electoral College swing states, margins that were not offset by Democrat urban turnout. Trump had almost no organized ground game or get-out-the-vote operation. He was outspent 2 to 1. He did not even ride his own bus. Yet a third of the 700 counties that voted for Obama in both 2008 and 2012 flipped to Trump in 2016. And though Trump lost the popular vote by approximately 2.9 million, his election redrew the political map so that now one third of Democrats in the House of Representatives are from three coastal states and only 16 Democrat governors remain. Democrats are packed into the central counties in urban areas of a million or more. They have gerrymandered themselves so that the party with the most presidential votes is in both a federalistic and geographic stranglehold.
What happened in 2016 was foreshadowed precisely in the 2014 Congressional elections when Democrats gained ground in metropolitan counties of over 1 million population, but lost support in every other geographic classification and with Black, Latino, and Asian voters as well.
Democrats have relied on a “demographics-is-destiny” approach that seeks to take advantage of increasing urbanization, increasing racial diversity, and increasing education levels for party growth while moving away from traditional constituencies like rural and white blue-collar voters. One goal of this plan has been to turn dynamically changing states like Texas, Mississippi, North Carolina, and Georgia into blue states in short fashion. But the hemorrhaging of blue-collar white voters keeps pushing the timeframe back. Another Democrat goal of 2016 was to use Donald Trump’s charged rhetoric against Mexican immigrants to win over wavering Republican states. However, half of Latino voters reside either in California, a reliably blue state, or Texas, a reliably red one. Latino votes did not flip any state to the Democrats.
The urban vote was down 6.2% for the Democrats and African-American, Latino, and Asian votes were 5 to 6% off of 2012 totals. And though Trump’s support among white voters was 1 point less than Mitt Romney’s 59%, where Trump got his votes was critical. Part of the explanation, we learn from Politico, was that Clinton headquarters in Brooklyn had just one strategist for rural America, and that part of the campaign was not active until the final two weeks.
The long-term “demographics-is-destiny” strategy may win the day in years to come, but at what cost getting there? And why would a party that is spending unprecedented resources on polling, advertising, micro-targeting, get-out-the-vote operations, policy development, and media training not also make a respectful, culturally measured, transparent play for the rural vote? Spring for some barbecue. Share a story. Linger.
Democrats don’t have to win all the small towns and medium cities to change the trajectory of national elections. Those are won in the margins and over time. The Democrats began as an agrarian party. In the 20th century the party embraced principles from Midwestern progressives and small-town Southern civil rights struggles. The Democrats can still be the party of inclusion and include all the people and the places.
Dee Davis is the publisher of the Daily Yonder and president of the Center for Rural Strategies. @iamflyrock