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In 2016 President Donald Trump enjoyed a 2 to 1 margin of victory among rural voters, but he’s unlikely to repeat that performance this year, according to Republican and Democratic pollsters who spoke Monday as part of Rural Assembly Everywhere.

A majority of rural voters still plan to vote for the president, but probably not by margins big enough to overcome Democratic advantages with their urban base, they said.

“We’re seeing the rural vote still voting very much Republican and for Trump, but not by the kinds of margins that we saw [in 2016],” said Celinda Lake of the Democratic polling firm Lake Research Partners. “The more you narrow that gap, the more the cities and suburbia can make up the difference” for Democrats, she said.

Republican Ed Goeas of the Tarrance Group said Lake may be underestimating how well Democratic nominee Joe Biden will do with rural voters.

“Celinda says [Democrats] are going to close the gap,” he said. “They may close the gap even more than she thinks because of lack of turnout in rural areas.”

Two thirds of rural voters approve of the job the president is doing, Lake said. But he gets lower marks for how he has handled the pandemic and for his leadership style.

Rural voters “don’t trust Trump on Covid very much,” Lake said. “They think he should have a plan, that he should listen to the science more.” She said the president’s handling of the pandemic has hurt him with rural women voters, especially in areas with high Covid-19 infection rates.

Women also have a bigger problem with Trump’s combative leadership style.

“Rural voters tend to be very respectful of each other and value that,” Lake said. “The style that the president often has, particularly for rural women and senior citizens, is not a very good one.”

Biden is doing better with senior citizens than any Democrat in recent years, Lake said. “[Democrats] have a good shot at tying or slightly winning seniors,” she said. “And that impacts the rural vote as well, because a lot of those seniors live in the rural areas.”

Goeas said some senior citizens find the president lacking on issues of character. “The incivility, the ugliness — many of those older people have moved away from him for that reason,” he said.

Goeas said Trump’s use of a commercial accusing Biden of senility was a big misstep. “Older people did not react well to those thoughts,” he said. “We all have senior moments, and making fun of that is not something that we particularly like to see, whether they are someone from the other side or not, politically.”

The panel on rural voters was part of the first day of the weeklong Rural Assembly Everywhere. The online conference resumes at 2 p.m. Tuesday, October 27. (The event is free, and registration is still open.)

The conversation was facilitated by Republican strategist Bill Greener.

Lake and Goeas touched on numerous other topics and answered questions from participants:

  • Because Trump’s 2016 win was a surprise, people distrust 2020 polling, Goeas said. But the two elections are very different. The 2016 electorate disliked both Trump and Democratic nominee Hillary Rodham Clinton, and many didn’t make up their minds until the week before Election Day. National polls were accurate on the popular vote, but because state polls were few in the final week, they didn’t pick up on last-minute decisions that went in Trump’s favor. Undecided voters are not as numerous this year.
  • Whether an anti-Trump sentiment moves down ballot to key Senate campaigns depends on individual states. Lake and Goeas said Republican Senate candidates can outperform the president based on local issues.
  • Senate candidates from both parties are making a stronger play for rural voters this campaign season.
  • Healthcare is a big issue for Senate candidates. Goeas said the key issue for voters is rural hospitals.
  • Goeas said that Trump did not deliver as promised on improving rural infrastructure and that this could hurt the president with younger voters.
  • Republicans could have done more to emphasize how the president’s tax plan helped small businesses, including farms.
  • Rural voters generally favor greater regulation of multinational corporations and anticompetitive practices. Neither party has addressed these concerns in a way that gains traction with voters. Goeas said any campaign to create greater corporate controls would have major challenges matching the funding resources that would fight such regulation.
  • Rural acceptance of proposals like the Green New Deal would take major campaigns to brand and define the proposals. “If you define it as clean energy investment in renewables, etc., it’s very, very popular,” Lake said. “If you say you’re going to do away with cows, it’s very unpopular. It really depends on how you define it.”