Political polls and analysis tell us that rural voters will be a crucial bloc in the 2020 presidential election. In that regard, the recently wrapped major party conventions presented an important opportunity for the campaigns to make their case to rural voters.
While viewers knew the conventions wouldn’t look the same because of the coronavirus pandemic, the substance of the conventions remained stubbornly familiar; for all the changes in venue and presentation, the high-profile speakers largely elided rural concerns, and much of the broader convention programming relied on recycled rhetoric that’s long been used to court rural favor. Despite these shortcomings, rural people and places were given some unique opportunities to tell their stories.
Rural Makes the Roll Call
Democrats were the first to show what a convention could be in the coronavirus era. One of the most well-received adaptations was the roll call vote to award delegates and formally nominate Joe Biden as the party’s candidate. In many ways, this is the primary order of business for a major party convention, and it was the main showcase of rural matters during the Democrats’ 2020 gathering.
While previous Democratic roll calls, and even this year’s Republican version, were confined to the convention floor, the 2020 Democratic roll call featured video messages from across America, spotlighting the diverse people and places that make up the country.
The Kansas delegation was one of many awarding their votes from a prairie or farm field, saying, “Joe Biden will make sure rural communities remain a great place to live, work, and raise a family for years to come.” Montana’s delegation was led by a rural college student, flanked by cows on her family’s ranch. She spotlighted rural broadband by describing her journey home to finish the semester virtually. “Without reliable internet, there’s no remote learning, no virtual doctors’ appointments, and just try starting a small business,” she said. “Rural broadband can be a game-changer for rural communities like mine, and Joe Biden has a plan to make it happen.”
Elsewhere, Nebraska spotlighted meatpacking workers, and for Indiana and Minnesota, former presidential candidates Pete Buttigieg and Amy Klobuchar both mentioned rural in their remarks, with the latter standing before the Mississippi River and describing Biden’s ability to bridge divides, between “our urban, rural, and suburban communities.”
Going Past Primetime for a Rural Deep Dive
Beyond the roll call, rural had a limited role in the rest of the Democrats’ primetime programming. However, the daytime functions of the convention did feature some prominent rural activity. The party held a livestream meeting of its Rural Council, giving a steady stream of candidates and party leaders the chance to offer their take on rural policy issues, and the importance of rural voters.
Nevada Lieutenant Governor Kate Marshall started the meeting with a call-to-arms of sorts. “If we learned anything in 2016, we learned that we need rural voters. We need to listen to rural voters, and we need their voices,” she said. “If you get blown out in rural, you’re losing, it’s as simple as that. In Nevada, I have always needed rural voters to pull me over the finish line.”
Marshall was the first of many speakers who focused on the underappreciated diversity of rural communities as well. She highlighted rural Latinos in particular, recognizing the essential work they do across the country. “In rural communities, [they] are essential community members, long before essential workers became a term of art,” she noted. “They are the people who provide food, deliver products, they have been essential for a long time.”
Next, U.S. Representative Cheri Bustos from Illinois went on the attack, highlighting how the Trump administration’s policies have hurt critical parts of rural life, including farms, rural hospitals, and the U.S. Postal Service. “Democrats can win in rural places, period,” she concluded. “We hear many people talk about returning to normal. For many in rural America, that status quo isn’t good enough.”
A number of U.S. Senate candidates got a chance to talk about how they’re competing for rural votes in critical elections that will decide the balance of power in the chamber. Jaime Harrison, running against incumbent Senator Lindsey Graham in South Carolina, again underscored rural diversity, emphasizing the African American experience in the rural South.
“I think of myself as a dirt-road Democrat. I grew up on a dirt road,” he said. “I understand the challenges, I understand the tremendous opportunities that come with growing up in a rural community.” Harrison told stories about campaigning on those dirt roads, talking to voters about improving long-neglected rural infrastructure, and turning words into action for rural communities.
Other senators featured included Jon Tester of Montana, Debbie Stabenow of Michigan, and Doug Jones of Alabama, plus Mike Espy, a former Secretary of Agriculture and now candidate seeking a Senate seat in Mississippi.
All told, the speakers covered a broad range of issues, giving equal attention to rural hospitals and healthcare, agriculture and trade, energy and environmental policy, as well as infrastructure, broadband internet, and economic development. Paradoxically, however, at a socially-distanced virtual convention, one of the unifying themes across all the conversations was the importance of simply showing up.
Senator Tester was the main carrier of this message on old-school retail politicking, encouraging the party to show up, “not just once, but every chance you can.” He said Democrats have to talk directly to rural America, and “show up more than we ever have before.”
Senator Stabenow concurred and underscored the importance of human connection. “It’s a lot harder to paint horns on all of us, when you’re sitting in someone’s living room, or in the VFW hall, or on the farm. It’s harder to be scared of someone who’s sitting on a bale of hay telling you about what’s going on with their family,” she explained. “ It’s just too easy to put labels on us. People in rural communities hear it every day and are willing to believe. We have to work harder to work past that and talk as people.”
U.S. House Representative Cindy Axne of Iowa acknowledged, “We’ve got a lot to do to win the hearts and minds of the people in rural America.”
But going back to the message of their leadoff speaker, Lieutenant Governor Marshall of Nevada, Democrats see a clear payoff if they succeed: “Our rural voters in this country will be our firewall,” she remarked.
Concluding the Rural Council meeting, Democratic Party Chair Tom Perez agreed while summing it up. “We can win, we will win, and we will win on the strength of what we do in rural America,” Perez argued. “That’s the formula here in Wisconsin, in Michigan, in Pennsylvania, all across America … we can continue to make progress in rural America, [and we] have to continue to make those investments.”
The GOP: Forgotten “Flyover Country” and “Contempt for Middle America”
Like the Democrats, the Republicans’ highest-profile speakers made limited mention of rural issues in their headlining speeches, but the convention’s themes played heavily on rural-inflected rhetoric and imagery. Calling back to the president’s 2016 campaign, the programming contrasted the Trump administration’s “fight for the forgotten men and women” with the Democrats’ “coastal elitism” and “radical left-ism.”
The most prominent deliverers of this message were the president’s son Eric Trump and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. Democrats like Joe Biden have “mocked these people in the flyover states in which they lived,” argued the younger Trump. “To our farmers, who work dawn to dusk to keep our plates full, my father will fight for you.”
Senator McConnell, meanwhile, drew on his Kentucky roots to strike a similar tone, “As the only leader in Washington not from either New York or California, I consider it my responsibility to look out for middle America. This election is incredibly consequential for middle America,” he contended. “Today’s Democrat party [sic] doesn’t want to improve life for middle America. They’d prefer that all of us in flyover country keep quiet and let them decide how we should live our lives.”
Deeper down the program, Iowa Governor Kim Reynolds lifted up her home state as an exemplar of the nation, “one big small-town” where people work hard and neighbors take care of one another. U.S. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy of California said the Republicans would prevail “because President Trump introduced a Marshall Plan for Main Street.”
A series of video segments aired between speeches illustrated this same supposed divide visually. Bucolic footage of fields and farm equipment paired with American flags and sweeping music would eventually give way to footage of fires, violence, and large protest groups in cities, paired with dark claims about chaos and lawlessness. Talking heads in videos spoke of once-bustling small towns coming back and factories once again making products in the USA. Similarly, Vice President Pence introduced a series of uplifting video interviews with Trump supporters set against the backdrop of the Boyhood Home of Abraham Lincoln in Spencer County, part of “Frontier Indiana.”
This was one of many frequent mentions of President Lincoln, and other leaders from the early days of the nation, and the Republican party. Throughout, the convention was cloaked heavily in traditional patriotic imagery and language of this sort. It presented American iconography at every turn, drawing a clear line between those icons and a notion of rural America, at once romanticized and valorized but also under siege and depending upon Trump’s leadership.
Rural Voices Take the Stage
During convention week, the Republican party made headlines for not updating its party platform during this year’s affairs, instead retaining the 2016 document and expressing general support for President Trump’s agenda.
So it’s perhaps unsurprising that on matters of policy, Republicans went to a familiar playbook. They positioned themselves as supporters of industry and liberty in rural communities while painting the environmental and economic agenda of Democrats as out-of-touch and an existential threat to rural life.
Typical for any incumbent president’s convention, they also shared various achievements of the Trump administration to-date. On both fronts, the convention reportedly prided itself on bringing forward “real Americans” to deliver the message and support their argument. Many of these speakers came from rural areas.
Amy Ford, a small-town nurse from Williamson, West Virginia, celebrated the Trump administration’s efforts to improve access to telehealth services. Jason Joyce, an eighth-generation fisherman from Swans Island, Maine, described the improving fortunes of Maine’s lobster fishing industry under President Trump. Chris Peterson, a dairy farmer from Grantsburg, Wisconsin, championed the president’s trade and agricultural policy. And Ryan Holets, a police officer from New Mexico recounted the administration’s investments to fight the opioid crisis in rural America.
Other homespun speakers featured on stage and in videos included a small business owner from Montana who received a Paycheck Protection Program loan, “forgotten” and former cattle ranchers, and a pair of officials from rural Minnesota, a logging industry leader and a small-town mayor.
One of the most striking moments came from Natalie Harp, a cancer survivor who benefited from the Trump administration’s Right to Try policies. She invoked the classic film “It’s a Wonderful Life,” boldly casting President Trump as the small-town hero George Bailey and Democrats like Hillary Clinton as akin to the villainous big-city financial tycoon and real estate developer Mr. Potter. “Without [Trump], we’d all be living in Pottersville,” she reckoned.
Taken together, these remarks burnished the vision of President Trump, a New York City real estate developer himself, as a small-town hero. Robert Vlaisavljevich, that aforementioned Minnesota mayor, outlined how Trump’s action on foreign steel rescued his iron mining town. “We lost thousands of jobs, we lost a generation of young people who had to leave the area to find a livelihood, worst of all, we lost hope,” he said. “Four years later, the Iron Range is roaring back to life, and we have one man to thank, President Donald Trump.”
Conventions Wrapped, the Campaign Continues
After two straight weeks of party conventions, each one offering an opposing agenda for America’s future, there’s one common message both sides proclaimed in unison: This is the most important election in America’s history. As both the Republicans and Democrats told it, the survival of the nation and its rural communities is at stake.
It’s a time-worn political talking point, but it carries some extra credence this time around, with 2020 seeing historic levels of disruption and tumult. Rural Americans, battered by a pandemic that is laying bare a long list of stubborn disparities, would probably agree to this much, no matter their political loyalties: Whoever wins, there’s a lot of work to do, and things can and ought to get better.