There is some truth to the stereotype. Rural voters as a whole have certainly trended Republican in the past several decades. That’s clear through voter data and the vast landscape of conservative red on electoral maps documenting county results or congressional representation. And while there are important exceptions to the rule—the Black Belt of the Southeast, the Mississippi River Valley, the Rio Grande Valley, Native American Tribal areas, New England —the core fact remains that Democrats continue to have a “rural problem.”
If Democrats want to win in a post-Donald Trump political landscape, they need to learn from this election’s events quickly. This begins with an understanding that rural voters do hold outsized political power even though we make up a comparatively smaller proportion of the population of most states. That means “showing up in rural” early and often is the minimum it takes to gain any notion of respect in our communities.
In Pennsylvania, Democratic U. S. Senate candidate John Fetterman campaigned in every county of the state while lifting rural people and rural issues throughout his campaign. Fetterman was able to flip a seat to the Democrats in a year of expected Republican gains. According to analysis from the Daily Yonder, Fetterman increased his support in rural counties by 2% compared with President Biden’s 2020 Pennsylvania victory. This marginal increase in rural support was one of the keys to Fetterman’s win.
Fetterman’s victory highlights another key ingredient for Democratic campaign success in rural: Embracing a working-class populist agenda. This approach includes leaning into progressive policies and messages popular with rural working-class voters, like fair wages, the right to repair your stuff and holding corporations accountable for price gouging.
Pre-election polling of rural voters has some clear guidance on rural voter opinions. The 2022 Midterm Election Voter Poll (RuralOrganizing.org was a partner in this election day poll) found, for instance, that one of the most overwhelmingly popular issues among rural voters is closing tax loopholes and requiring all corporations with more than $1 billion in profit to pay a 15% tax. Eighty-one percent of rural and small town voters support this position.
A similar finding was made in October in a Daily Yonder rural voter poll conducted by Democratic pollster Celinda Lake.
“A solid majority of rural America is populist economically. … We need to start talking about corporate greed. We need to start talking about how to make this economy work better for working families, including rural working families, and how price gauging is unacceptable,” Lake said.
In an election where voters across the country were overwhelmingly focused on inflation and rising prices for gas and groceries, the obvious response is a focus on addressing record corporate profits, price gouging, and monopoly control of the economy. Some Democratic candidates simply tried to sweep these real-life inflation concerns under the rug. This was a lost opportunity to distinguish themselves from elected Republicans who consistently carry the political water for corporations and CEOs as part of their political brand.
Contrasting positions on corporate power could express itself in other ways in elections as well. In rural Iowa, as an example, two of the most critical issues on the ground are carbon-dioxide pipelines and industrial livestock facilities. Overwhelming local opposition to both in rural Iowa is found throughout the state. Rather than take advantage of this political opportunity, Democrats have been too timid to oppose these corporate projects. Seen as failing to respond to local concerns, Democrats continue to lose ground in rural Iowa, including a loss this week by Iowa’s last remaining federal member of Congress (Democrat Representative Cindy Axne).
Poll-tested issues with overwhelming popularity among rural voters go beyond taxing the rich and corporate accountability. Those same polls indicate majority rural voter support for Democratic prescription drug price reductions, pardoning people for marijuana possession, and the clean energy provisions of the Inflation Reduction Act. With these rural voter opinions in mind, it’s no surprise that ballot initiatives passed expanding Medicaid in South Dakota and legalizing marijuana in Missouri.
While showing up and focusing on a populist agenda is part of the recipe for success, modern-day politics are dominated by a national narrative. Rural Democrats can’t simply run to help “Coastal Liberals” control the House of Representatives or win the White House. National Democrat leaders need to look in the mirror and ask whether having a Senate leader from the Wall Street state or a Harvard educated McKinsey consultant presidential candidate helps shape a “party of the working class” persona.
Don’t get us wrong. We aren’t saying these folks should be disqualified because of where they come from or where they went to school. We are saying that these national leaders often want to have it both ways. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack is a prime example of a national leader who greatly impacts rural communities. He often does the bidding of his Big Ag cronies in direct opposition to President Biden’s message, including handing out multi-million dollar grants to multinational corporations like Tyson Foods. Rural Democratic candidates rarely have the resources to overcome that trust gap like John Fetterman did.
If Democrats truly want to increase their competitiveness in rural America, they should start now by putting working people at the center of their narrative while supporting bold, popular policies that would allow those people to live a good life. If they combined that approach with a significantly more robust ground game they might just have a chance at further increasing their rural margins in 2024.
Bryce Oates is a writer who lives in Western North Carolina. Jake Davis works as an entrepreneur, farmer, consultant, and policy adviser.