The Key to a Real Democratic Landslide: Better Rural Performance

If the party focuses too narrowly on the suburbs, they’ll leave some important states on the table.

Within a week of the 2016 election, I began warning the Democrats against writing off small towns and rural areas in favor of a purely urban and suburban strategy. The Democrats didn’t listen and wound up being rewarded in the 2018 midterms when Trump’s style and policies caused his suburban support to crater more than his rural support could ever hope to rise.

If we were to rerun the 2016 election, Trump would still dominate in his areas of strength, but he’d lose badly. Of course, we can’t rerun the last election. This time, Trump is the incumbent and he’s very well-funded. His new opponent attracts and excites a different profile of the electorate than his old one. And we now have four years of Trump’s performance to weigh, which will have more impact than any other factor.

Yet, it remains the case that Trump’s rural strength gives him a chance to win in some states where he ought to lose. Ron Brownstein explains that the Democrats are in a decent position to make major gains in state legislative races, which is particularly important in this cycle, just as it was in 2010, because all the federal congressional districts will be redrawn with new census data before the 2022 midterms. But the Democrats hope to achieve this by pursuing their suburban advantage:

Even if Trump holds states such as Georgia, Texas, and Arizona by maximizing his rural performance, Democrats could still get a huge boost in down-ballot races if Biden routs the president in the growing urban and suburban areas. Biden’s performance in big metros is “the whole ball game,” Vicky Hausman, the founder and co-CEO of Forward Majority, a Democratic group that tries to flip state chambers, told me. “Trump can run up the score in the rural areas, and it doesn’t impact our path to the majority through the suburbs.”

It’s not true Trump’s rural performance will have no impact in legislative races. There are still some Democrats serving in rural districts, and many contested seats are a mix of suburban and exurban. But the easiest pickings for Democrats are purely suburban seats, and the most likely path to winning mixed seats is to run up their margins in the suburban portion of the districts. Therefore, the strategy makes sense if the goal is to win control of state legislative chambers.

Yet, it would be a shame for Joe Biden to lose states like Georgia, Texas, and Arizona because he came out on the wrong end of a rural/suburban polarization. Admittedly, this would represent a shift from 2016, when this polarization cost Clinton Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin, and the presidency. Biden probably doesn’t need Texas and Georgia to win, and he probably doesn’t need Arizona either. However, if the election were to shift back in Trump’s direction, the same states that won the president the election in 2016 could come back into play.

So, there would be a lot of benefit if Biden could make some rural inroads. Not only would he secure the states he must win, but he’d start hauling in key states that Republicans must win. And, yes, this would increase the number of state legislative seats the Democrats carry, possibly allowing them to have more say in how new congressional seats are set up for the next decade. It would help them win U.S. Senate races not only in Texas, Georgia, and Arizona, but also in Alaska, Montana, Kansas, and Iowa.

I’m of the opinion that a narrow Biden win will be a tremendous relief to everyone, but that only a sweeping national condemnation of Trumpism and the Republican Party can put us on the right course. We need the Republicans and their financiers to get the message that their brand of politics is no longer viable or worth pursuing. We have to get past an equally divided and hopelessly polarized nation, and the Democrats need enough power to tackle the major challenges we face.

Therefore, the Democrats should be wary about pursuing a strategy based solely on the ripest fruit. A geographically split country is going to remain a politically divided country. A Democratic Texas would put a swift end to that state of affairs, but winning in places like Georgia and Kansas would also get us a long way toward that goal.

Everything Trump is doing is in the service of maximizing this division because he knows he needs overwhelming rural support, but the Democrats have many good arguments to take to these areas of the country, from the impact of Trump’s trade wars to his handling of the coronavirus and rural healthcare.

Biden should be ambitious and resist running a campaign premised on winning the rural/suburban split that Clinton lost.

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Martin Longman

Martin Longman is the web editor for the Washington Monthly. See all his writing at ProgressPond.com