As the political pundits begin their summer of pontification on whether former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton will or won't seek the White House in 2016, the issue of how she would fare in rural America is a fair question should she run for president.
If Clinton were to run, could she compete in rural states and even flip red turf like Arkansas, Kentucky and West Virginia (states she won in the 2008 Democratic primaries) to her electoral vote column?
Clinton's 2000 U.S. Senate race in New York provides a template for a winning rural strategy, says Denise W. King, a former chair of the New York Democratic Rural Conference (DRC), an organization that works for Democrats in the Empire State's 41 upstate counties. "The only thing I can go by is what we did in [New York] where clearly there was an understanding by the Senate campaign that increasing Democratic performance in the rural areas was key to insuring that she would win the state," recalled King, of Elmira, N.Y.
Noting that the DRC had already built an institutional foundation and played a key role in Sen. Charles Schumner's (D-N.Y.) 1998 election, King said that Clinton "was connecting with rural voters and she was really engaging them," and that Clinton kicked off that campaign in rural Davenport on the farm of former Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D). In defeating Republican nominee Rick Lazio, Clinton carried the rural counties of Cayuga, Franklin, Rensselaer and St. Lawrence, proving that the first rule of winning rural is showing up.
During her 2008 campaign, Clinton created a Rural Americans for Hillary committee that was co-chaired by Joy Philippi, a Bruning, Neb., hog farmer who had been the immediate past president of the National Pork Producers Council (NPPC). Some on the left criticized the naming of Philippi because the NPPC had opposed rules on country of origin labeling for meat and stronger regulations on confined animal feeding operations, or CAFOs. As the battle for the Iowa caucuses played out, Obama came out for tougher Environmental Protection Agency rules and fines for CAFOs that polluted air and water supplies.
While Clinton travels the nation on her new book tour, Ready for Hillary, the super-PAC that has raised millions promoting her presidential bid, has been slow to embrace any rural outreach. As of December 2013, Ready for Hillary had hired staff positions dedicated to young Americans, LGBT, black Americans, Latinos and a women's office in addition to field directors for the Midwest/Mid-Atlantic and Northeast.
In an emailed statement, Adam Parkhomenko, Ready for Hillary's executive director, said "We will have a rural effort that will be launching in the near future and we will have a member of our team that is dedicated to being the point of contact on that effort. In the course of our hiring we brought on staff that would take more than one constituency and that has always been on the list. We are not hiring additional staff or consultants this year."
King, who led the push to create the Democratic National Committee's Rural Council and served as its first chair, said Ready for Hillary's unwillingness to specifically communicate with voters in small towns and rural communities was a mistake. "Engaging rural voters makes a positive difference, so why not; they are the salt of the earth. You can't just pigeonhole rural voters, and to ignore them makes no sense. By not doing an outreach, you're disenfranchising people."
Still King and others believe that if Clinton runs, she will learn from the mistakes of her 2008 fight with Obama where she was out-organized in rural caucus states like Maine and North Dakota and will devote more resources to contesting votes in the boondocks. "Obama had a rural effort going here, and she didn't," said Melina Fox of Greensburg, Ind., who served on Obama's Agriculture and Rural Policy Committee and played a key role in helping him win Indiana and turning the Hoosier State blue that fall.
Fox, a two-time congressional candidate and a former presidential appointee at the Department of Agriculture's Farm Service Agency under former President Bill Clinton, who counts Susan B. Anthony as one of her ancestors, said even in east-central Indiana she hears a rising chorus of female voices expressing support for electing one of their own. "I've even had Republican women and independents tell me they would vote for Hillary, and everyone wants a woman president around here," Fox said.
Barron is president of MLB Research Associates, a political consulting and rural strategy firm in Chesterfield, Mass.