It’s axiomatic that Democrats can’t win the rural vote, which makes it difficult for a Democrat presidential candidate to take key swing states like North Carolina, Wisconsin and Iowa. And rural states in the Midwest and south seem to have given Republicans an enduring edge in the Senate.
Yahoo Finance recently asked Montana Gov. Steve Bullock, a Democrat who’s in his second term in an otherwise red state, why Democrats bomb with rural voters. “We don’t even show up in those areas,” he said. “You don't necessarily have to say, okay, I'm going to win all of rural America. But you have to be able to get the votes out of it that we need, ultimately, to win. And you can't just do that by ignoring these areas.”
Bullock is running for president, and on paper he ought to be a strong contender. Trump won Montana by 20 percentage points in 2016, yet in the same year Bullock beat his Republican opponent by 4 points. That means he has already won some Trump voters, which is what Democrats need to take back the White House next year. Yet Bullock lacks the name recognition of a front-runner and his centrist policies alienate left-leaning Democrats who back Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren. He didn’t qualify for the latest Democratic debate.
Bullock’s strength among rural voters in his home state isn’t an anomaly. Up until 2009, rural voters were about evenly split between Democrats and Republicans. Today, however, Republicans have a 16-point advantage in rural areas, according to Pew Research. Many rural voters, who tend to be white Christians, see the Democratic party as urban elitists obsessed with multicultural causes foreign to them. Barack Obama didn’t help when, at a 2008 fundraiser in San Francisco, he patronized small-town Americans as “bitter” people who “cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them.”
The urban-rural gap
One difference between urban and rural voters is that many big cities have growing populations fueling growing economies, while the majority of rural areas are losing population. But rural residents aren’t ready to write off their communities. “Just like in urban areas,” Bullock says, “folks are saying, I want to be able to stay in my community, have a decent living.”
The urban-rural gap comes through in some of the Democrats’ policy priorities. Sanders and Warren, for instance, favor free college for most or all students, along with forgiveness of student debt. Many rural voters are unimpressed. “When over two-thirds of Americans don't even have a two-year degree,” Bullock says, “if all we're talking about is free college, then they're saying, what are you doing for my lives?”
There ought to be opportunities for Democratic gains in at least some rural areas. Trump’s trade war has hurt farmers who are losing access to China and other foreign markets. Twenty percent of rural hospitals are at risk of closing, a problem that will get worse if the Trump administration succeeds in a lawsuit meant to kill the Affordable Care Act. Rural voters may be even more exposed than urbanites to rising health care costs, since there are fewer big companies offering coverage in those areas.
Despite his gaffe in San Francisco, Obama showed up in Montana and other rural states while campaigning in 2008. He lost Montana by 2 points, but did win Iowa, Indiana, Wisconsin, Ohio, Pennsylvania and North Carolina. In 2016, Hillary Clinton focused less on rural areas, and paid the price. She didn’t even visit Wisconsin, assuming it would fall her way. It didn’t. The next Democratic nominee should probably get out a little bit more.
Rick Newman is the author of four books, including “Rebounders: How Winners Pivot from Setback to Success.” Follow him on Twitter: @rickjnewman. Confidential tip line: firstname.lastname@example.org. Encrypted communication available. Click here to get Rick’s stories by email.