Executive Director of RuralOrganizing.org Matt Hildreth (Source: RuralOrganizing.org)

Since the 2016 election, big-city pundits and national progressive campaigns have provided no shortage of attempts to understand the politics of rural America. But according to activists at RuralOrganizing.org, they’re missing some crucial perspectives.

Progressive campaigns in rural areas don’t spend enough time talking to local organizers, says lead organizer at RuralOrganizing.org Kellon Patey in an online presentation.

The mistake has familiar consequences. When the insights of local organizers don’t make it back to campaign headquarters, it creates a vacuum often filled by media pundits and political strategists. According to RuralOrganizing’s public presentation on February 24th, in this cycle, no new knowledge is accumulated, and philanthropists are left to operate on inaccurate talking points. 

“Organizers, especially rural organizers, were confused about what their messaging was from their candidates and campaigns this past cycle,” said Anderson Clayton, organizer from Rocksboro, North Carolina. “We didn’t really have a rural message.”

“When you asked rural organizers what the policy topics were that were impacting rural people that their candidate was talking about, they couldn’t really tell you,” she said. 

After the 2020 election, RuralOrganizing.org set out to rectify this situation. Often, campaigns close up shop before gathering any wisdom from organizers on the ground, said Patey. 

Patey, alongside fellow organizers Blanca Soto and Anderson Clayton sought to fill this gap by speaking with local, rural organizers nationwide in an effort to consolidate their findings. 

“The reason we chose to embark on this campaign was to disrupt some business as usual campaign dynamics,” said Patey.

In an effort to center the voices of grassroots organizers, RuralOrganizing.org put together a report, outlining key takeaways from rural organizers in the 2020 election. 

Based on interviews with 70 rural organizers across 31 states, the report offers three key findings: off-year organizing is crucial, single-issue campaigns work, and local issues should get more airtime than national ones. 

From limited progressive faith organizations to declining labor unions, the infrastructure necessary to run successful progressive campaigns in rural areas is lacking, said Patey. “In rural communities there are far fewer political homes for progressives.” 

When campaigns deploy metro-centric mobilization strategies, said Patey, rural areas are left behind. “Rural campaigns are trying to build the plane while it’s taking off.”

“Campaigns are expected to do too much during election years,” stated the report. “Organizers are asked to both create civic infrastructure and mobilize voters. There simply isn’t enough time to do both successfully in one cycle.”

One critical method for building said infrastructure, according to RuralOrganizing’s interviewees, is forging single-issue campaigns. These campaigns should be focused on solving local problems identified by community members and communicated by local leaders. 

Too often campaigns rely on national strategists for messaging instead of forming local policy stances. “To be successful in rural communities, we must replace this dynamic between national strategists, elected officials, and consultants with a new feedback loop—one where candidates’ platforms are informed by local priorities,” the authors wrote. 

The report has specific, actionable recommendations for all progressive rural stakeholders, from philanthropic organizations, to national campaigns, to local candidates. 

One potential step for all progressive rural people, according to the authors: conduct your own exit interviews with activists in your community. “Everyone is excited to open an email titled ‘Interview Request.’”

Read the full report here.