In Rural Areas, Showing Up to Challenge Caricatures Is Critical for Democrats

Pat Rynard is a former Democratic campaign staffer who is the founder of Iowa Starting Line, a website “devoted to bringing readers breaking news, in-depth analysis, and general coverage of Iowa Caucus and Iowa political news.” He recently wrote a piece titled, “What Many Democrats Still Don’t Get About Rural Campaigning.” To the extent that it is possible for Democrats to reduce the margins by which Republicans are winning elections in rural areas, this is a guy who is positioned to provide some helpful advice.

Rynard says that the conventional wisdom is wrong when it suggests that Democrats don’t talk enough about the issues that matter to rural voters. He zeroes in on the campaign of Fred Hubbell, the Democratic nominee who lost the race for governor in 2018.

I was at events in small towns where I heard Hubbell talk about rural hospital closures, small town housing problems, mental health services, consolidating school districts and job training programs. By the end of the campaign (really, by the end of the primary), Hubbell was quite well-versed in rural issues and spoke about them often there.

The problem that Rynard identifies is that such a strategy fails to make a personal connection with voters, which is the most significant hurdle Democrats need to overcome.

The even bigger problem here relates back to something that was repeated time and time again from Democratic candidates during the primary: that voters in rural and urban areas actually care about the same issues. That’s the biggest load of bullshit I heard during 2018, and I heard it a lot.

A more accurate description would be that the same issues that impact voters in urban areas also impact voters in rural areas. What voters in both places care about and vote on is lightyears apart. That’s something that Democrats simply have not been able to understand…The roadblock to Democrats with the rural vote comes down more to a cultural issue and trust.

Rynard notes that he’s not talking about “cultural issues” in reference to things like abortion or gay marriage. It has more to do with how Democrats are perceived. That is the same argument Andrew Levison made here at the Washington Monthly last August.

[I]t is now necessary to seriously consider the opposite possibility: that class resentment is so powerful and deeply entrenched that Democratic plans and proposals never get seriously considered by white working-class and small-town/red-state voters in the first place. They are, instead, dismissed at the outset because they come from a party that is perceived to represent groups and interests that are deeply alien and antagonistic. The Affordable Care Act, for example, was never seriously examined by white working-class Republican voters. Its provisions were wildly caricatured (“Death Panels”) and the measure described as quite literally a sinister socialist conspiracy simply because Obama and the Democrats had proposed it.

When it comes to identifying the source of the mistrust, Rynard notes the decline of small-town newspapers and “a rural populace that increasingly gets its news from social media.” Levison goes into more detail to describe the “three-level conservative ideological cocoon.” The first two levels include (1) conservative national media (ie, Fox News), and (2) the take-over of local media sources by groups like Sinclair News. The third level is perhaps the least recognized.

Finally, and most importantly, it is the network of personal relationships between neighbors and friends that works to validate and confirm the broader messages. Casual conversations with friends, Facebook messages and e-mails from relatives, and jokes passed among co-workers all reinforce the sense that Democrats are the “other” and lead people who once supported Democrats to mute their views, creating what sociologists call a “spiral of silence.”  The result makes support for the Republican Party seem not just dominant but unanimous.

Rynard’s advice to Democrats is that, within those networks of personal relationships, the important thing is to just show up.

In any given rural county, you can find an enclave of like-minded liberals and stick to that safe place to campaign. But you’re missing out on actually winning over people who might be sitting around the VFW down the street (including some folks who were voting for Democrats not too many years ago). Those are the people who need to see you in person (and will tell their friends about it when they do) to get past the cultural mistrust they have these days of Democrats…

The point of all this is actually getting yourself in front of skeptical voters so that the caricatures they see of Democrats in the ads and on social media seem a little less real in their mind. Having a strong set of rural policy ideas is still very important and can help Democrats with their credibility. But unless you get your shoe in the door to where they’ll actually listen to you, none of that matters.

Here’s what is most interesting about Rynard’s advice: the social networks Levison described as the third level of the cocoon can be turned into a tool that works for Democrats.

Also, yes, you’ll never get face time with all the voters in rural Iowa that you need, but word spreads in these close-knit communities when you show up in the places that matter and where people talk. Doing enough of that could get some of these counties that Democrats are losing by 30 points down to a more respectable 10 or 15 points, enough to pull off a statewide victory.

Rynard demonstrates that he knows what he’s talking about when, instead of suggesting that Democrats can win in deeply red rural counties, he reminds us that losing by less might be enough to ensure victory in statewide races. The most important step in making that happen is for Democrats to simply show up.

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Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly. Follow her on Twitter @Smartypants60.