Barack Obama gave some support to mining firms in Nevada. Did that turn off city voters? This is the Liberty Pit copper mine near Ruth, Nevada.
Photo: WordRidden

Republicans won the last two presidential elections when they pulled an overwhelming majority of votes out of rural America. It took a while, but Democrats eventually realized they were losing rural America and so the party has begun to concentrate on votes outside the cities.

Sen. Harry Reid of Nevada, the Democratic Senate leader, has been thumping the rural drum, urging his party to return to the countryside. Here is Reid on the PBS television show The News Hour:

“If you look at what happened in the last elections, we lost three Senate seats, and we lost the presidency by a very close vote. And I give the reason for that is that we did so poorly in rural America. We did very poorly in rural America. That’s too bad. Nevada is an example. Ninety-one percent of the registered voters are in Reno and Las Vegas. Kerry carried that list—two counties, add them together, he did well enough to win the state. But 9 percent, rural Nevada, went heavily against John Kerry. And that’s the way it was all over the country.”

Dennis Myers, a reporter for the Reno News and Review, has examined Reid’s claim, that Democrats need to concentrate on rural communities, and he makes the argument that the senator is wrong — that a rural strategy isn’t working for Democrats even in Reid’s home state. And the reason the rural strategy may not succeed, Myers theorizes, may be that by catering to rural voters, Democrats could turn off their city constituencies.

Reid has been insistent on the need to court the rural vote, Myers found. Here is the Nevada senator in the online magazine Salon:

“I said that we lost the election because we did not campaign in rural America. Las Vegas—70 percent of the people live here in Las Vegas. Twenty percent live in Reno. Ten percent live in the 15 rural counties. So you would think that if John Kerry did well in the two counties, he’d win the election. He did, but he lost. Why? Because of the rural counties. You go to Douglas County, 94 percent turnout, he lost that two and a half to one. Lowest turnout in any of the 15 counties, 84 percent. He lost them all about the same as in Douglas County. So he lost the election in Nevada by 2 percent. They talk about the turnout not being [good], the long lines in Cleveland or wherever it was. There was simply nothing in rural Ohio. It was the same in Ohio as everywhere.”

And here’s Reid in USA Today:

“Rural Nevada beat John Kerry. I believe where the Kerry presidential bid failed was in not selling itself to rural America.”

Reid is correct that the rural-urban gap in presidential voting has been extraordinarily large in the past two elections. Kerry won urban Nevada by 16,000 votes (a margin built in Las Vegas), but lost the state by more than 21,000 votes.

Myers, however, doesn’t buy Reid’s strategy of concentrating on rural communities and for proof he revisits the Nevada governor’s race in 2006, where Democratic nominee Dina Titus lost to Republican Jim Gibbons. Titus spent time in the state’s smaller counties. “She addressed rural issues,” Myers wrote. “She allocated resources and staffers.” And….?

Dina Titus says if she had it to do over, she would have campaigned more in the cities, less in rural.
Photo: Emily’s List

“If I had it to do over again, I would attend the obligatory events in rural Nevada, like the parades and the cowboy poetry event, and spend the rest of my time in the urban areas,” Titus said.

The rural strategy didn’t pay off for Titus. She built a 23,424 vote margin in Las Vegas, but she lost every other county. Even Reid built most of his lead in his 2004 re-election campaign in Las Vegas.

Myers’ question runs deeper than tactics. “Can a candidate successfully make a rural/urban trade-off on issues?” Myers asks. “Reid talks about the need for Democrats to ‘campaign in rural America,’ but a mere physical presence isn’t enough. There are issues to be addressed. Is it possible to cultivate rural voters without disaffecting urban voters?”

In Nevada, Myers writes, Democratic nominee Barack Obama worked the rural parts of the state hard. He released a “Plan for Rural Nevada.” As part of his campaign, according to Myers, Obama talked about the Mining Law of 1872 in a way that made it sound like he supported the mining firms located in the rural counties. The 1872 mining law is controversial. Mining firms say the law is essential to future mineral extraction. Environmentalists see the 1872 law as a give-away to corporations.

Obama won the small counties in his primary against Hillary Clinton, Myers wrote, but he lost nearby exurban counties. “This suggests that by aligning himself with interests like the mining industry, he was alienating urban voters with strong environmental feelings,” according to Myers.

“It’s difficult, I think,” says James Richardson, a former Washoe County Democratic chair and public opinion pollster. “Because, you know, [in] the urban areas you’re going to find a lot more people that call themselves environmentalists or have those kind of sympathies. They accept, whether it’s true or not, that the miners will just rape the state, and they don’t want to pay any clean up, and they’re taking resources out of the state without paying adequate taxes and all that sort of thing.”

It’s a problem for Obama, and not just in Nevada. In his acceptance speech Thursday night, the Democratic nominee said he supported “clean coal technology.” Those are soothing words to the coal industry in southern Illinois, the West and Appalachia. But to environmental groups, “clean coal” is code for pollution, greenhouse gasses and more coal strip mining.

Reid contends that Democrats can win rural votes by addressing issues that transcend geography, such as health care and access to broadband.

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