Democrats Must Do Better in Rural America

Democrats Must Do Better in Rural America

Democrats Must Do Better in Rural America

If this midterm was a success for Democrats, it is a retreat from what they ought to expect.


Like most progressives, we are relieved that a strong turnout of the Democratic base prevented catastrophe on election night and even led to flipping a couple of state legislatures blue. But while Democrats and liberals might be celebrating, most places in this country—and more than half of the population—still voted against us.

According to the AP/NORC VoteCast Survey, Democratic support among rural and working-class voters continued to fall in 2022, the latter by seven points compared to 2018. Among working-class voters of color, the decline was even bigger, dropping 12 points across that same period, In North Carolina, the state Supreme Court is now entirely Republican. In more than 40 small towns and rural communities in Virginia, North Carolina, Ohio, and elsewhere, local governments are passing “pro-life sanctuary” resolutions that proclaim that life begins at conception and pledge to prohibit abortions, in defiance of state law.

If this midterm was a success for Democrats, it is a retreat from what they ought to expect. Success for the Party of the People can’t merely mean that they barely hold on to a tie in the Senate or lose the House of Representatives by only a few seats. This vision of success is far too modest to meet the enormous challenges our nation faces. As Sheri Berman, a political scientist at Barnard College, wrote in the November issue of Persuasion, “If Democrats want to strengthen their own hands before the 2024 election, they need to think carefully about how they can convince a majority of voters that they have viable solutions to the problems that concern them most.”

For Democrats to do more than hang on by their fingernails in 2024 and beyond, it’s essential that they expand their base to include rural and working-class voters of all races. The Rural Urban Bridge Initiative (RUBI), which we cofounded, is one of a growing network of groups working to reach, understand, and engage rural voters. One important tool for doing that is our just-released report, “Can Democrats Succeed in Rural America? A Review of Strategies and Practices that Work.” It distills best practices from interviews with 50 Democratic candidates who ran for state or federal office in rural districts between 2016 and 2020.

Rural races are different from urban and suburban races; running competitively in them requires a different approach in both style and substance. Two-thirds of rural voters hold Democrats in low esteem and are profoundly antagonized by liberal elites who scorn the “rubes of flyover country.” Though Democrats’ rural deficit runs deep, it’s important to remember that as recently as 2008, Barack Obama garnered 43 percent of rural votes. And this cycle, John Fetterman’s consistent presence in rural places produced a two-and-a-half-point improvement over the 2020 presidential race—enough for him to win statewide in Pennsylvania.

Can Democrats Succeed in Rural America?” describes more than a dozen strategies used by rural candidates and office holders, four of which we highlight here.

First, candidates must have local credibility. Whether through generational ties to the area or long-standing community involvement and problem solving, Democrats fare better when they have local roots and are fluent in the concerns and values of the people living there. This means being able to connect state or national issues to specific local realities, and responding to the everyday concerns of people, without regard to party affiliation. For example, Chloe Maxmin, a progressive who won rural seats in the Maine House and then Senate, suspended much of her campaign activities in the spring of 2020 to help provide essential services to sick and elderly residents.

Second, candidates put local concerns and issues first, rather than trying to mobilize people around their own—or their party’s—policy agenda. These local concerns vary, though they almost always include “kitchen table” issues like jobs and health care. Making local concerns central to a campaign does not mean ignoring or adopting conservative positions on critically important national issues. Rather, it means respecting voters enough to put their priorities at the center of the campaign. In so doing, candidates sometimes find meaningful ways to tackle state and national issues by drawing upon local experience, as when a candidate in rural Appalachia stood up for local businesses by fighting the outrageous subsidies used to recruit big box competitors.

Third, candidates and campaigns seek people where they are, rather than strictly following the advice to “go where the votes are.” Canvassing and phone-banking strategies typically focus on people who vote regularly and lean Democrat. By contrast, many of our study’s successful candidates reached out to people usually overlooked by campaigns. In big districts, where comprehensive canvassing may not be possible, candidates routinely “showed up” in even the most out-of-the-way places, joining community events or hosting town hall meetings. While campaign consultants might view this strategy as inefficient, New Rural Project’s work in predominantly Black rural communities in North Carolina is modeling an approach that builds trust and activates people who’ve disengaged, especially when done year-round.

Fourth, successful candidates listen more and talk less. Genuine listening entails more than a slight pause before rattling off your talking points. It requires respect for the experiences, values, and choices of the people with whom candidates are engaging. When effective rural candidates do speak, they do so with humility and respect for other points of view, steering clear of partisan talking points or jargon. They talk like a neighbor, not an activist, with clear, concise language and concrete examples rather than policy abstractions.

A candidate for the state legislature in rural Minnesota recounted spending significant time listening to the concerns of a young man he’d met canvassing. A short while later, the candidate met him again at a local Farm Bureau meeting, during which the man said, “You know, I know you’re a Democrat, but I’m going to vote for you, because I know that you care. And I know that you’ll do something positive.” Voters are more apt to vote for the candidate who respects them than one who chastises them for “voting against their own interests.”

Underlying these and other characteristics of effective rural candidates are two simple elements: an unwavering commitment to people who have been discarded by our political and economic systems, and a genuine respect for people across race, class, place, and ideology. These twin virtues equip candidates to seek solutions from the community level up, rather than imposing one-size-fits-all policies handed down by political and financial elites. For Democrats to begin rebuilding trust among rural voters, which they must do to win a durable governing majority, these elements must be embraced at the core of their campaigns, politics, and policies. Our report offers a concrete playbook and tested strategies to do just that.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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