Half of the United States’ population lives in just 10 states. That means half of the United States share the same 20 senators. The other half get 80.
Yet despite the critical role small states play in the Senate, in recent years Democrats have all but abandoned them. As a result, voters in these communities have gone on to elect Donald Trump as president, and their senators confirmed Brett Kavanaugh on the Supreme Court. And this year, these voters were critical in determining control of the Senate.
With the midterm elections behind us, Democrats won back the House but lost senators, three from rural states. Some might blame Democrats’ struggle in the Senate on a tough electoral map. Without a doubt, the Senate map in 2018 was one of the worst for any party in recent history, but the Senate outlook for 2020 is only slightly better.
In 2020 there are 21 Republican Senate seats up, but only three are in states Trump either lost or won by 5 points or less, meaning Democrats will likely be underdogs everywhere but Colorado. Democrats will also have to defend Doug Jones in Alabama and unseat Republican senators like Joni Ernst in Iowa, David Perdue in Georgia, and Thom Tillis in North Carolina.
Bottom line: to be competitive in these states, Democrats must appeal to rural voters.
New national polling commissioned this fall by the progressive group RuralOrganizing.org and conducted by online polling firm YouGov sheds light on how Democrats can win again in small towns and rural communities — and challenges three critical stereotypes many Democrats hold about American.
Stereotype #1: Rural People Oppose Progressive Policies
Without a doubt, rural voters lean right: two-thirds of rural residents (68%) consider themselves to be conservative or moderate, over 50 percent (52%) approve of Donald Trump’s job performance, and when it comes to generic House candidates, Republicans hold a 10 point margin (43-33).
However, polling also strongly suggests that small-town folks feel the system is rigged for the powerful and wealthy, and a clear majority (77%) of rural residents think Congress is giving tax breaks to the wealthy instead of investing in rural areas.
Over 75% think politicians blame new immigrants or people of color to divide and distract from the real source of our problems instead of delivering for working people.
Two out of three (67%) support offering free tuition to local community colleges and trade schools, and a similar number (64%) want Medicare to cover all Americans. Over half (54%) back an increase of the minimum wage to $15 an hour, and only 38 percent support outlawing abortions.
But despite the popularity of progressive policies among small town voters, a majority of rural Americans (55%) don’t think Democrats are fighting for their community.
Stereotype #2: Rural Voters Are White Voters
Since the election of Donald Trump, many pundits and professional Democrats have “white washed” rural America.
But the fact is immigrants are revitalizing small towns and rural communities across the country while African American voters across the rural South and Native Americans in the Great Plains have long been critical members of the Democratic coalition.
Roughly one in five (19%) rural residents in the United States are people of color.
Republicans understand that rural voters of color are critical to deciding control of the House; that’s why they target voter suppression efforts on indigenous voters in North Dakota, Latinos in southwest Kansas, and Black voters across the rural South.
Progressives and Democrats should invest in rural communities of color and engage these voters with authentic policy solutions to the unique challenges they face.
Stereotype #3: Most Rural People Work on Farms
Yes, many people in rural America feel a strong connection to nature and the land, but only 8 percent of rural Americans earn more than a quarter of their total income working on farms or in agriculture.
Agriculture policies—especially the Farm Bill—affect rural America, but recent polling shows rural Americans are more concerned about fighting for small town ways of life than engaging in big ag politics. Nearly every participant (94%) said the rural and small-town way of life is worth fighting for, and over 90 percent (93%) agreed that while most politicians favor larger metropolitan areas, but we need policies that address problems in rural America too.
Even so, “Over 90 percent of rural Americans think we should invest in small, local businesses and protect rural schools from closing, ” and over 85 percent think we should “protect hunting and fishing habitats through smart land management policies.”
Similarly, eighty percent of rural Americans want to pass policies that support rural grocery stores, pharmacies, and clinics, and three out of four rural residents want individuals with drug addictions sent to rehabilitation centers instead of prisons.
Where’s the disconnect? Democrats tend to engage rural voters in one of two ways: They either outright ignore them, or they try to look more like Republicans.
But progressive policies are significantly more popular than the Democratic party in small towns and rural communities and running as a Democrat with Republican policies is the worst way to engage rural voters.
Rural Americans want rural-specific solutions to rural-specific problems and the policies they support come straight from the progressive platform. Democrats should lean into them.
In order to win again in rural communities, Democrats should embrace populist, pro-democratic messages that reject big money in politics, call out race-baiting strategies of division, expand access to programs like Medicare and Medicaid, and favor small businesses over major corporations.
Matt Hildreth is the founder and board-chair of RuralOrganizing.org, a national network of over 40,000 progressive rural Americans. He’s based in Columbus, Ohio.