Sen. Barack Obama campaigned in Emporia, Virginia, in mid-August.
Photo: Obama Campaign

We at the Yonder are well aware that the most fascinating news of the day is that cattle tend to point north/south when grazing. Researchers don’t know exactly why — maybe it’s to help even out body temperature — but two-thirds of most herds are oriented according to the N on the compass.

Democrats are not nearly so orderly. The party is gathered in Denver this week and they are, at this stage, pointed all directions. In particular, there is much discussion about how rural residents will vote. It’s an important question. Bill Clinton was the last Democrat to win a plurality of rural votes, and he was the last Democrat to win the presidency. Both Al Gore and John Kerry lost the election in overwhelmingly Republican votes outside the cities. Now it’s Barack Obama’s turn and the consensus is that he will have a hard time winning in most of rural America.

There are several stories out today about Democrats’ chances of winning again in rural communities. The Democratic keynote speaker, Mark Warner (former Virginia governor and now campaigning for the Senate), told The Politico that in order to win Virginia, Barack Obama must connect in the rural parts of the state. Warner was pleased that Obama had campaigned recently in Lynchburg, Emporia and Martinsville — that the last presidential candidate to come to Martinsville was Dwight Eisenhower. “There are some cultural connections that you’ve got to make, guns being one of them,” Warner advised.

Dallas Morning News writer Robert Garrett Tuesday asked if Obama could win in rural communities. The answer was a maybe, but probably not. “When all is said and done, I don’t think he’s going to spend too much time in rural areas,” said Seth McKee, a political scientist specializing in the rural vote. “In the South, it’s a double hurdle because culturally, John McCain would appear closer to rural voters and of course there’s the racial issue in the South. It’s tough sledding for him.”

Former Texas House Speaker Pete Laney, a Democrat and a Texas Panhandle cotton farmer, also had his doubts about Obama’s prospects among rural voters. “Some of it is going to depend on who McCain picks,” Laney told Garrett. “It’s going to depend on what kind of rural program that Obama’s going to have and what kind of rural program that McCain’s going to have.”

Former Virginia Gov. Douglas Wilder was more blunt. “I told him (Obama), ‘Go to the sticks,'” Wilder said. “People there want to see you, touch you, hear you.”

Barack Obama and convention keynoter Mark Warner at Patrick Henry Community College in Martinsville, Virginia, on August 20th.
Photo: Obama Campaign

Democratic rural strategist (and Yonder contributor) Dave “Mudcat” Saunders said Obama “needs to start talking about enforcing antitrust laws and leveling the playing field on trade treaties. I think if he does that, he’ll be OK.”

The Washington Post’s Alec MacGillis and Paul Kane survey the swing states and find, like Garrett, that Obama will have a rough time in rural communities:

“Jim Beasley, the commissioner of Ohio’s Department of Transportation, did not have high hopes for Obama in his area of southern Ohio. “Ahhh, well. Rural Ohio will be difficult,” he said. “Rural areas are difficult for him.'”

One worry among Democrats is that Obama has failed to consolidate support among Democratic voters. MacGillis and Kane note that a CNN-Opinion Research Corp. poll of registered voters released Sunday found that only two-thirds of those who voted for Sen. Hillary Clinton in the Democratic primary say they will support Sen. Obama. Clinton ran strongest in rural communities.

In Denver, the Telluride Daily Planet writer Reilly Capps attended the Democrats’ Rural Council. Capps reports that the hall for rural convention-goers was half empty. Todd Campbell, Rural Vote Director for the Obama campaign, said the candidate had opened 550 offices around the country.

Still, the question of race permeates all political discussions. Capps reports:

The polls swing back and forth, and a skeptical Denver newspaper reporter puts the central question delicately to a man from the North Dakota agriculture commission: “Just because he’s right on the farm bill, do you think that that overcomes the, uh, various, cultural differences? You are one of the whitest states in the America.”

Are economic times dire enough that rural voters will change their allegiances? Or will a long existing cultural divide keep a Democrat from winning western states?

“I think so,” replied the North Dakotan, Roger Johnson. “I think this is historic.”

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