Why Democratic policies outperform Democratic politicians in rural America

Why Democratic policies outperform Democratic politicians in rural America
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Even as the final tallies are still being counted, pundits are drawing conclusions about the 2018 midterm elections, and the emerging narrative relies heavily on well-worn stereotypes about small-town voters and simplistic understandings of the rural-urban divide.

These pundits miss one critical point: The Democratic platform consistently outperforms Democrats in red, rural states. Just look at the progressive ballot measures passed across the country this cycle.

In Missouri, where Attorney General Josh Hawley swept Sen. Claire McCaskillClaire Conner McCaskillThe Year Ahead: Tech braces for new scrutiny from Washington McCaskill: 'Too many embarrassing uncles' in the Senate FEC votes to allow lawmakers to use campaign funds for personal cybersecurity MORE in the state’s rural and exurban areas, voters increased their $7.85 minimum wage to $12 by 2023. Voters also approved ballot initiatives to end political redistricting, with 62 percent voting for the amendment, and they passed a constitutional amendment to allow medical cannabis by a similar two-to-one margin.

Deeply red Idaho, Nebraska, and Utah all passed ballot initiatives that will expand the public health insurance programs despite the fact that Democratic statewide candidates in those states lost by at least 20 points.

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And then there was Amendment 4 in Florida — the ballot measure to restore voting rights for most convicted felons upon completion of their sentences. Amendment 4 outperformed statewide Democrats in Florida by 14 points, with Sen. Bill NelsonClarence (Bill) William NelsonMcCaskill: 'Too many embarrassing uncles' in the Senate Bill Nelson uses farewell address to remind colleagues ‘no one person is above the law’ Coal supporter Manchin named top Dem on Senate Energy Committee MORE and Andrew Gillum receiving just under 50 percent and Amendment 4 earning 64 percent of the vote. 

Where’s the disconnect? Why are progressive policies significantly more popular than the Democratic candidates in small towns and rural communities?

New national polling commissioned this fall by RuralOrganizing.org and conducted by YouGov provides some helpful answers.

The polling showed that without a doubt, rural voters lean right: two-thirds of rural residents (68 percent) consider themselves to be conservative or moderate; 52 percent approved of Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpREAD: Transcript of James Comey's interview with House Republicans Klobuchar on 2020: ‘I do think you want voices from the Midwest’ Israel boycott fight roils Democrats in year-end spending debate MORE’s job performance at the time, and when it came to generic House candidates, Republicans held a ten point margin (43-33).

However, the results also strongly demonstrate that rural voters lean left on key progressive issues.

Small town folks feel the system is rigged for the powerful and wealthy, and a clear majority (77 percent) of rural Americans think Congress is giving tax breaks to the wealthy instead of investing in rural areas.

Two out of three (67 percent) support offering free tuition to local community colleges and trade schools, and a similar number (64 percent) want Medicare to cover all Americans. Over half (54 percent) back an increase of the minimum wage to $15 an hour. Only 38 percent support outlawing abortions.

Over 90 percent of rural Americans think we should invest in small, local businesses and protect rural schools from closing, and over 85 percent think we should “protect hunting and fishing habitats through smart land management policies.”

Similarly, 80 percent of rural Americans want to pass policies that support rural grocery stores, pharmacies, and clinics, and three out of four rural residents want individuals with drug addictions sent to rehabilitation centers instead of prisons.

But despite the popularity of progressive policies among small town voters, a majority of Rural Americans (55 percent) don’t think Democrats are fighting for their community. And that’s the key issue that rural voters want addressed. They want to know that a candidate is fighting for them, too.

Nearly every one of the 860 rural Americans we polled (94 percent) said the rural and small-town way of life is worth fighting for. The policies rural Americans are most concerned with focus on the immediate needs of their community, but 93 percent said most politicians favor larger metropolitan areas. These findings held true across every demographic in our survey including race and gender.

Democrats tend to engage rural voters in one of two ways. They either outright ignore them, or they try to look more like Republicans.

Rural Americans want rural-specific solutions to rural-specific problems, and the policies they support come straight from the progressive platform. Democrats should lean into them.

In order to win again in rural communities, Democrats should embrace populist, pro-democratic messages that reject big money in politics, call out race-baiting strategies of division, expand access to programs like Medicare and Medicaid, and favor small, local businesses over major corporations.

Matt Hildreth is the founder and board-chair of RuralOrganizing.org, a national network of over 40,000 progressive and proudly rural Americans. He’s based in Columbus, Ohio.