Listen, Democrats. There is a Way to Win Rural Voters

The data and party officials like Bill Hogseth are pointing the way forward.

Wisconsin’s Dunn County is in the central part of the state, over 96 percent white, and represented by Democrat Ron Kind in Congress. Not far from Eau Claire, the rural area voted for Barack Obama twice, but in 2016 Donald Trump won it with 52 percent to 41 percent, a 2,000-vote advantage over Hillary Clinton. In 2020, running against Joe Biden, Trump carried Dunn County 56-42, giving him a 3,300-vote edge.

It was a disappointing result for Bill Hogseth, the chair of the county’s Democratic Party, who was motivated to get into politics in response to Trump’s 2016 upset. In a piece for Politico Magazine, Hogseth explains why he was unsuccessful in improving the Democrats’ numbers despite leading an energetic organizing effort by local party members. It boils down to rural voters’ perception, Hogseth argues, that the national Democratic Party doesn’t take their struggles seriously enough to warrant their support.

It didn’t have to be this way. When the Democrats picked up 40 seats and regained control of the House in the 2018 midterms, the main story was how suburban districts changed hands. Still, there were signs of encouragement in that 174 of 199 districts retained by the Republican Party moved to the left. An examination by the Brookings Institute found that counties with Republican attributes–as measured by race, age, and education–showed the most significant midterm percentage shift to the Democrats, even though few of those counties’ seats flipped. In Wisconsin’s 3rd congressional district, Ron Kind was reelected by a comfortable 61,000-vote in 2018. In 2020, with Trump back on the ballot, Kind’s margin narrowed to 10,000, showing the fragility of those midterm gains.

In other words, back in 2018, the GOP saw the most slippage in rural areas. While this rural surge helped the Democrats gain control of six state legislative chambers, it had almost no immediate effect in Congress and little staying power for 2020.

In 2020. Biden made more progress with white men on a national level than any other group. That’s what Brookings found in the Edison Research exit polls anyway, with college-educated white men moving 11 points in Biden’s direction and non-college-educated white men shifting by a smaller but still substantial margin of six points.

In Dunn County, however,  Hogseth saw “more flags in support of the president flying from more flagpoles and pickup trucks.” His explanation and his proposed solutions closely track what I wrote in my 2017 magazine piece: How to Win Rural Voters Without Losing Liberal Values. Rural voters are keenly aware of how monopolies are squeezing the life out of their local economies, and disappointed in the Democrats’ response. To win more rural support, the left has to take antitrust enforcement much more seriously.

Here is how Hogseth describes the problem.

Rural voters appreciated Obama’s repeated campaign promises to challenge the rise of agribusiness monopolies. But as president, he allowed for the continued consolidation of corporate power in the food system. His Department of Agriculture balked when it came time to enforce anti-monopoly rules such as those in the Packers and Stockyard Act, and failed to enforce Country of Origin Labeling, which would have allowed independent farmers and ranchers to better compete within the consolidated meat industry. The Obama Justice Department and Federal Trade Commission presided over a series of corporate mergers in the food and agriculture sectors, including the Kraft-Heinz and JBS-Cargill mergers. Taken together, these moves signaled that his administration did not have the backs of family farmers.

It’s not just agricultural consolidation that concerns rural voters. As Hogseth notes, “the small-town economy increasingly is dominated by large corporations” that provide low-wage retail jobs. The solution is to do something about this–and communicate it, so voters know that the Democrats, not the Republicans, are fighting the big interests.

For Democrats to start telling a story that resonates, they need to show a willingness to fight for rural people, and not just by proposing a “rural plan” or showing up on a farm for a photo op…A big step forward for Democrats would be to champion antitrust enforcement and challenge the anticompetitive practices of the gigantic agribusiness firms that squeeze our communities. In his rural plan, Biden pledged to “strengthen antitrust enforcement,” but the term doesn’t appear until the 35th bullet point. For rural voters, antitrust enforcement is a top priority

Whenever I write about these issues, I’m told by some liberals that these voters are unreachable or even “deplorable.” I’m lectured that they don’t care about something as dull as antitrust policy. Yet, my experience is just the opposite. In 2017, when I interviewed Tom Perriello during his unsuccessful primary campaign for Virginia governor, he emphasized that anti-monopoly policy resonates in rural areas:

What will often happen to me on a given day is that I will start the day out in a red county, where people are talking to me about consolidation and automation, and then end the day inside the Beltway talking to people who say, “Tom, you sound like a think tank, that kind of thing will never go down with those people out there.”

As he put it, “I actually think in many ways the challenge is people inside the Beltway having too low of an opinion about the sophistication and knowledge of people outside the Beltway.”

Yet, Hogseth insists, “for rural voters, antitrust enforcement is a top priority.” Leaders in the national Democratic Party should accept this local testimony as more reliable than their remote impressions.

In both the 2018 midterms and the 2020 elections, we’ve seen evidence that non-college educated whites are not wedded to the Republicans and there are plenty of votes to be had in rural areas. The Democrats have practical and moral reasons to fight for them.

Rural voters turn to right-wing populism, which is dangerous, when they don’t see the left fighting for them. From Dunn County, Hogseth says Democratic neglect leaves “an opening for other stories to be told to fill the vacuum—stories that villainize and divide us along racial, geographic and partisan lines.”

The left should always fight for people who are struggling, no matter their race, religion or location. This will make life easier for Dunn County Democrats like Hogseth and Rep. Kind, and it will help the party win back more legislatures, and statewide races.

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Martin Longman

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