Democrat Heidi Heitkamp speaks during a 2018 hearing of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs back in 2018. Heitkamp, a Democrat, represented North Dakota for one term. In 2019 she formed One Country with another one-term Democratic senator, Joe Donnelly of Indiana. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

Democrats don’t need to win a majority of rural voters to retake the White House and improve their numbers in Congress. But they do need to do a lot better with rural voters than they did in the last presidential election, says former North Dakota Senator Heidi Heitkamp.

Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton lost rural voters by more than 30 points in 2016. In swing states like Pennsylvania, where she lost statewide by less than 1%, her drubbing in rural counties was critical to Donald Trump’s Electoral College victory.

Heitkamp says making rural counties a little more competitive will yield big results for Democrats, whose base support tends to be in larger urban areas. The way to gain rural support is to listen, show up, and frame national issues in ways that speak to rural voters’ values, she said. 

Senator Heitkamp spoke to the Daily Yonder via a video call last week. The Daily Yonder’s Dee Davis, publisher, and Tim Marema, editor, were on the call.

We started the conversation by asking Heitkamp to comment on the social-media study sponsored by One Country, the 501(c)4 nonprofit she founded to help Democrats communicate with rural America. The study, which has been released weekly since mid-March, shows that about half of the political comments posted by rural residents in six swing states criticize Trump over his handling of the Covid-19 pandemic.

The interview has been edited for length and clarity.


Tim Marema: Part of the premise of One Country is that Democrats need to engage with rural voters and that they can engage with rural voters. Do you think your social-media study confirms that hypothesis?

Heidi Heitkamp: I think that when there is engagement, you see a reaction. What we see is, I think, a kind of path forward for responding to concerns and worries that people have about what is going on in light of Covid. You see that there isn’t meat at the grocery store. That’s something that showed up in the [social media] narrative again. So when people walk into the local grocery store and they drive by a herd of cows on the way in to the grocery store, and then they can’t buy beef, that seems to be kind of a failure of leadership. And Democrats can use these attitudes and what people are concerned about to be responding in a way that addresses the kind of fix we need to the problem.

So now this has driven the discussion about concentration in meat packing. And who owns meat packing? The largest meat packer for beef in the country is owned by a Brazilian company, and Smithfield is owned by the Chinese. And so I think that those are the kinds of things when I see it popping up, that people are concerned about – what they can buy at the grocery store. That’s an opportunity for a Democratic candidate in one of those swing districts to talk about what they need to do to respond to that, whether it is amping up some of the USDA regulation or whether it is breaking up some of these large packers, whether it is building more opportunities for local beef processing organizations, which the regulations are incredibly difficult to expand. So that’s just an example of why this data is important.

Marema: Do you think social media and other forms of digital communication are going to play a more important role in the election than they have in the past?

Heitkamp: Well, I think we are not yet at that spot where the single most important tool is not a 30 second television [commercial]. … So running ads on Fox News is going to be critically important. I don’t want to discount that. But I think that one of the things about social media is activation. How enthusiastic will you be to get out there and vote in a time of pandemic? 

The single most important thing that I can say you should take from this study is that when you get your rural Democrat base activated, it drives the narrative. And it will in fact, result in greater turnout. 

I just spent time talking to rural members of Congress who represent these rural districts, spent an hour and a half with them, kind of saying, “How are you going to do this? What are you hearing? What are your concerns?” 

And each one of them obviously have a different concern because they represent different districts. Some of them are concerned about what’s happening with the oil and gas industry, some of them are concerned about what’s happening in agriculture and with meat packing and farmers. 

And so I think that the single greatest lesson we take from this is that following this news, you can see that an engagement with Democrat voters in rural America helps drive a narrative that can help drive some boats home. Now understand that it’s never been the goal of One Country to win rural America for the Democratic party. Maybe those days are gone since FDR. I mean, it’s never been a big Democrat base. But it’s to win back Trump-Obama voters [people who voted for Obama in 2012 and Trump in 2016].

Dee Davis: The intriguing thing to me about the social media study is that people who are particularly interested in switching sides need to go through a process of asking permission. You kind of test the waters. It seems in some ways that the social media study might be showing us a little of this asking for permission about who to vote for and what’s permissible in the community.

Heitkamp: Yeah. I couldn’t agree more. I think that’s exactly right. And my advice, I don’t know if they’ll take it, is to get away from the white paper and make it about a values choice. So, the example that I gave was, we had massive flooding in Iowa last year that I don’t think this has been that big of a problem this year, but the tax bill that Joni Ernst voted for gave the five largest financial institutions, what, $32 billion of tax relief, but you can’t get a levy bill. That’s a values choice. I said, you’ve got to make it about values choices, and you aren’t going to win the hardcore pro-life, evangelical vote. You’re just not going to win it. 

The one issue that I think will continue, and you saw it again in this survey, it illustrates is immigration. You saw that the spike up and, “Yep. He’s doing the right thing, shutting down the border.” And so that’s why Trump is going to spend a lot of time talking about the border because it will energize his base to get out there and defend him. And so, to me, the more you can make this about a choice, a values choice, and not just about, “We’ve got the best plan for America.” 

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Davis: Do you fear that there will be an onslaught of values advertising that will not be based in reality? 

Heitkamp: There needs to be a truth squad out there, but you aren’t going to get a truth squad if you’re not monitoring what people are seeing.

And so to me, the impact of this kind of social listening is that you are on top of it immediately. We were just talking beforehand about, I expected we would see more China conspiracy stuff in the social media. We haven’t seen it yet. Now, Trump hasn’t really tapped it up. And the Democrats have been pretty good about reminding you of what he said about China. So I think that that narrative isn’t working for them. And so that’s another really important point from the survey is that the conspiracy stuff hasn’t taken off, in this kind of rural listening, the way that the Republicans would hope that conspiracy stuff would take off. Now, do they blame China? Sure they blame China, but right now, they aren’t blaming Democrats for what China did. And that’s a narrative that Trump’s going to drive home because it somehow excuses his lack of leadership.

And, my point is, I think that we’re all missing the counter narrative, which is, “OK, well, China lied.” Call the fire department, everybody knows China lies. Why didn’t you protect us again? No, seriously. Why didn’t you protect us against China’s lie? You were duped. He had intelligence reports saying China lied and was lying, but he was saying he’s got it under control. And so I think we need to turn that narrative on its head. It was his job, but you don’t see it in the social media yet. And I think we will see that playing a major role as we go forward. 

Davis: In 2016 I think it’s 52.5% of white women voted for Trump. Now we’re seeing this huge gender gap. What do you see there?

Heitkamp: I think that women here are more inclined to believe that Trump is a bad example for their kids. So I think you see it here. I would say that what I look to is the intensity right? Movement and intensity. Hardcore “We’re with Trump.” Not willing to say “I made a mistake” yet. Not willing to say it out loud, but I don’t think this is a guy that represents what I think is a leader. I don’t think Trump’s going to win North Dakota by 36 points again. Now, will he win it by 25? Yeah. Probably. Will he win white women here? Yeah. Probably, but not at the same level. And so I kind of watched this, and I think if he loses 10 to 12 points in North Dakota, you’re going to swing in these other swing districts.

This whole plan is really to figure out how we’re going to turn some margins, so that we have an opportunity to win in places like Montana. We got a great candidate in Montana [Governor Steve Bullock], but if rural areas vote against him 80/20, he can’t win. We’ve got to figure out with a great candidate who understands rural America, to me, that’s the race to watch in terms of narrative and dialogue because if he doesn’t win … He’s already won in Montana once. Right? Here’s a guy, we got a perfect candidate. We’ve got to demonstrate that we can win back some of those rural voters because he already has. Right? He’s already won there. In a federal race, can we win back rural voters? Montana is going to be great, and I love Steve. I think he’s a great candidate and we’re going to do everything that we can to help him.

Davis: The Senate races are tightening up a lot. This is going to be intriguing to see just how that breaks and how rural voters are determined. In Kentucky this past year, we saw a Democrat with the governorship and certainly the odds were against him.

Heitkamp: Governor Andy Beshear was able to out-perform Hillary Clinton in rural Kentucky. 

Davis: He didn’t quite win all the counties, but he was flat in a bunch of counties where Trump had won big.

Heitkamp: Well, there are a couple other issues. North Dakota is a coal state. We produce a lot of energy from mainly the rural co-ops. A lot of the investor owners have moved away from coal. But what’s interesting is we’ve got a major coal-fired power plant that is slated now to shut down in two years, taking about 700 jobs away from the economy.

Obviously, they bought the [Trump] line that “I alone can fix coal country” and my point is, we should be saying, “This is a failure of Donald Trump. He promised he would re-energize coal. It’s Donald Trump’s fault.” Right? 

The other big industry in rural America, ethanol is in big, big trouble and those are a lot of jobs and I don’t know what the number is in Iowa, but a third of all the corn we grow in North Dakota goes into producing steel.

It’s a huge part of the corn market in North Dakota and all these plants are shutting down. They can’t compete. Whether they blame Trump for the collapse of energy prices or how that all shapes out, but he was already giving these huge waivers to the refining industry and that was a huge factor in losing jobs. Healthcare, another job creator in rural America. My God, if we can’t do better in rural America under these conditions, then abandon all hope.

This is just my take, but there are a lot of traditional [political consulting] firms that work with Democrats, and they always advertise the same way with the same television stations and put the same ads on for the same audiences that are already decided. It’s trickier for them to figure out how to get a message out to rural America. The question is, in this moment before the issues and the culture of the election is decided, who’s going to step up?

This is the stuff that drives me crazy, is that there should be a ton of opportunities for us to get our message out because these are places where they will run your content, right? The local newspaper will run a letter to the editor. The local newspaper will take out a newspaper ad. That’s why the social media stuff is so important is just to soften it up, to knead the bread, but somebody needs to put it in the oven. 

As I said, you’re not going to get those hardcore evangelical, pro-life voters. You’re not going to get them to vote for Democrats. If they hate gay marriage, they’re not voting for a Democrat. But if they’re concerned about personal liberties, if they’re concerned about healthcare, if they’re concerned about the high cost of prescription drugs, if we can make those the issues, then I think we’ve got an opportunity, but we’ve got to drive it home.

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