Presidential Campaign

Post mortem: The Democrats forgot about rural America

Trump sign in rural Midwest
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There is no simple answer about what happened last Tuesday. There are thousands of pieces of information needed by those of us who analyze politics before we can be more certain of the “why.”

I have never analyzed a presidential election as much as I did the Trump-Clinton race of 2016.

Also, I have never been so wrong.

{mosads}I’m not an outlier. Most, if not all, of the analysts from both parties and those nonaligned analysts I admire also got it wrong. So where did we go wrong? One or two trends are beginning to emerge.


The first hints came election night from North Carolina. I had followed North Carolina closely for months. Not only was it an important swing state, one I was quite familiar with — having done 15 campaigns in the Tar Heel State — but, like its neighbor, Virginia, it was poised to be the next southern state to go from red to blue.

 President Obama carried North Carolina once and came very close to doing so in his re-election campaign. It’s urban centers, specifically Raleigh, Charlotte and Durham, have grown dramatically. Its suburbs have attracted tens of thousands of northerners. And economic drivers like the Research Triangle have drawn high tech, pharmaceutical and medical research companies.

Once an agricultural state led by tobacco and a political machine headed by conservative icon Senator Jesse Helms, North Carolina has been changing, perhaps faster than any other state. Yes, it’s still a conservative, pro-military state with huge bases like Fort Bragg. But its urban centers and growing corporate muscle have propelled a growing and diverse economy.

When independent political surveys of a state like North Carolina, (with an average of 700 to 1,000 respondents) are analyzed there are enough respondents from the urban and suburban centers to draw fairly accurate political conclusions. Not so the small rural counties that formed the backbone of the Republican base in the state.

Back to election night 2016: voter turnout was not high. Turnout in North Carolina was 4.6 million in 2016, slightly more than 4.450 million in 2012 and the 4.35 million in 2008. Given the state’s population growth, 2016 turnout was comparatively low. Clinton did as well as President Obama in both his elections in the urban and suburban areas, beating Trump by as many votes as Obama beat McCain or Romney.

It does appear that there was a falloff in black voting but Clinton still beat Trump with over 90 percent of the black vote. That left the state’s rural counties to explain why Clinton lost. Turnout in rural North Carolina, with a few exceptions, had not increased over 2004 or 2008, but Trump’s margins over Clinton in most rural counties were much higher than McCain’s or Romney’s over Obama.

The rural counties of the state showed little or no population growth over the past decade and in some cases rural counties lost population. Younger people, especially those who left home for college educations, did not return. Other young voters left for larger counties where good paying jobs were being created.

What rural voters remained were too old to leave home and did not possess the skills to compete for newly created jobs in, for example, the Research Triangle. Along came Donald Trump with his populist anti-trade/illegal immigrant message. It was not hard to convince these voters that trade deals cut by Democrats and establishment Republicans was a prime reason their jobs were going overseas.

What jobs remained, according to Trump, were being taken by low-wage illegal immigrants. This wasn’t a tough sell. For Hillary Clinton, both arguments cost her dearly. Not only had her husband supported deals like NAFTA, but also she and her party were now leading the fight to let illegal workers stay in the U.S.

In this year’s political climate, the Democrats were at an extreme disadvantage. Not only were they part of the establishment that rural North Carolina voters detested, but it appeared that Clinton and the Democrats refused to even acknowledge the problem. Clinton had no plan to help these voters and Donald Trump did, or at least appeared to.

Alone, these rural counties were barely a blip on pollsters’ screens, but together, voting to give one candidate lopsided margins, they became an important voting bloc. The Democrats either missed them or considered them too few to matter.

Democrats, for years the champions of voters like those in rural North Carolina who needed some government help, were now getting huge contributions from Wall Street bankers who were the beneficiaries of trade deals, and in the process were getting obscenely rich.

In the 1990’s The Democratic Party began to cozy up to their long-time enemies: Wall Street Bankers. They took their money and relaxed their regulations until the Great Recession forced the Democrats via Dodd-Frank to re-regulate the banks. By then it was too late. Rural voters believed the Democrats traded millions in campaign cash at their expense. Along came a guy named Trump to give these voters a political voice.

On Tuesday, that voice came back to haunt the Democrats.

Bob Beckel is a political analyst for CNN; he was campaign manager for Walter Mondale in 1984.


The views of Contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill

Tags 2016 presidential election Charlotte Democrat Party Donald Trump Durham Hillary Clinton Main Street North Carolina Populism Raleigh Republican Party Research Triangle Rural voters United States

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