Democrats plot new approach to win over rural voters

Democrats are homing in on a strategy they hope will bring new rural voters into the fold through hyperlocal economic messaging and by venturing into parts of the country they ignored in the run-up to the 2016 election.

There’s a coordinated effort among the House Democratic campaign arm, presidential candidates and liberal outside groups to address the party’s rural blind spot by finding new ways to speak to white working-class voters and rural black voters in key battleground states and districts in Michigan, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Iowa, Illinois and New York.

Democrats believe they’re making inroads with the white working-class voters in the Rust Belt who broke late for President Trump in 2016 through an ad campaign showcasing stories from disappointed voters who are local to the region.

But depressed turnout among African Americans also contributed to Hillary Clinton’s 2016 loss.

Democrats say they’re renewing their commitment to this critical voting bloc through rural outreach programs they hope will expand the party’s base of black voters, both in the “blue wall” states and in Southern states, such as South Carolina, Georgia and Mississippi, where rural black voters have not traditionally been a priority for either party.

“When one farm is a mile or two away from the next one, it’s not like you can do your traditional walking list,” said Rep. Cheri Bustos (D-Ill.), the chairwoman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC). “That is why we’ve had people on the ground going back to March of last year, because you’ve got to reach people, you have to talk to them and you’ve got to engage.”

Bustos’s district in Western Illinois is the kind of place where Democrats are hoping to make gains.

It’s a rural “pivot county” that went big for former President Obama in his two elections but swung to Trump in 2016. Despite that swing, Bustos won reelection in 2016 by more than 20 points.

Democrats credit Bustos’s electoral success to her commitment to forging a personal connection within the community.

She mingles with voters at “Supermarket Saturday” events and rings doorbells in towns such as Hamlet, which has a population of only 48 people. Eighty-five percent of voters in Illinois’s 17th District live in towns of 5,000 people or fewer, and 60 percent live in towns of 1,000 or fewer people.

Democrats see opportunities to replicate Bustos’s success in rural communities elsewhere through a three-pronged strategy: an effort to talk to rural voters to find out what issues are important to them instead of assuming the same national talking points will work, hyperlocal messaging focused on kitchen table issues  and a commitment from local leaders to spending time in the community — a combination of “high-tech, high-touch” campaigning.

“Rural voters in 2016 didn’t vote for us for a reason. There wasn’t enough outreach or effort to engage, and so there was a drop-off,” said Antjuan Seawright, a DCCC adviser who lives in rural Richland County in South Carolina, which is 46 percent black. “We realize the mistakes we made in the past, and we’re working diligently to win those voters back.”

The DCCC coordinated focus groups with black voters, met with minority-owned firms and launched programs to turn out rural black voters for a special election in North Carolina’s 9th District last year, nearly flipping a seat that has been in GOP hands for almost 60 years.

Rep. Antonio Delgado (D-N.Y.), who is of African American and Puerto Rican descent, won a district that is nearly 90 percent white by prioritizing agricultural issues and holding events in towns where many people voted for Trump.

Rep. Elissa Slotkin (D-N.Y.) sent out troops of volunteers called the “Snow Boots” to ask people in rural areas what they care about.

And Rep. Cindy Axne (D-Iowa), who narrowly won in a rural Trump pivot county in 2018, was rated by the Town Hall Project as Congress’s most accessible freshman on the strength of her scores of public events.

Axne’s home state of Iowa is a primary focus in the battle for rural voters, as the Democratic presidential contenders are in a pitched battle to win the caucuses there. About one-third of the state’s counties are pivot counties.

After the 2016 election, a group called Focus on Rural America held focus groups with voters in Iowa who went for Obama twice before casting a ballot for Trump. They found that the new Trump voters broke late, were frustrated by the status quo, didn’t feel Democrats gave them an adequate alternative to Trump, and didn’t like being called racists or misogynists for turning away from Democrats.

“They felt they were between a rock and a hard place,” said Jeff Link, a Democratic strategist in Iowa and co-founder of Focus on Rural America.

“They didn’t want to vote for Trump but felt they had no choice. Then they heard in media and from Clinton ads that if you vote for Trump you’re either a racist, a misogynist or you’re stupid. … We learned that if we don’t condescend and if we listen and embrace change against an incumbent president, we could win some of them back.”

Focus on Rural America has been coordinating with the Democratic presidential contenders to ensure they address the concerns of small-town voters through policy plans, speeches and visits to businesses that are specific to rural communities.

They say the Democratic primary has produced a renewed focus on rural-specific economic plans, such as how the health system impacts small hospitals, bolstering the education system in rural areas, addressing housing stock in rural communities, providing access to high speed internet and investing in infrastructure.

“Don’t come here and milk a cow. We see through that, and it’s as phony as can be,” said Patty Judge, the former lieutenant governor in Iowa and co-founder of Focus on Rural America. “Go into rural Iowa and go to a grain elevator. We’ve had 14 candidates go to ethanol plants … and 15 of them have drafted rural plans. It’s been a tremendous success.”

Democrats see the final piece of the puzzle as giving rural voters an opportunity to hear from their peers about why they should turn away from Trump.

The liberal super PAC American Bridge is plowing millions of dollars into polling, research and campaign ads in Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Michigan and Florida to win back the rural working-class voters who went for Trump in 2016.

The ads feature personal stories from rural individuals explaining how they had high hopes for Trump but have been let down by his policies. The goal is to create a “permission structure” for disappointed Trump voters to come back to the Democratic side.

“We’re working to find potential defectors and going door to door collecting stories and looking to recruit folks to go on camera to tell their stories, to talk about the manufacturing layoffs or farm closures they’ve experienced,” said Jeb Fain, the communications director for American Bridge. “It’s all about authenticity and the credibility of the messenger. Voters are more likely to take the message if it’s from someone nearby than a Washington super PAC.”

Tags Antonio Delgado Cheri Bustos Cindy Axne Donald Trump Elissa Slotkin Hillary Clinton

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