Democrats face a five-alarm fire in rural America, but no engines have been dispatched to extinguish the flames. Much of the party’s elite—ensconced in urban enclaves—doesn’t see the blaze.
Over the past two decades, Democrats have hemorrhaged support in the countryside. As recently as 1996, President Bill Clinton carried more than 1,100 rural counties in his reelection bid—about half the nation’s total. In 2008, Barack Obama’s haul of rural counties plummeted to 455 while he cruised to an easy win nationally. By 2020, a Democratic pulse could barely be detected in rural America. Joe Biden only won 194 rural counties. The collapse continues. Last year, Glenn Youngkin carried Virginia’s 20 least populous counties by 27 points on average in his gubernatorial bid, a 12-point improvement for the GOP over 2017. Meanwhile, polling this spring showed Republicans enjoying a 34-point advantage in rural areas on the generic congressional ballot.
Democrats’ toxic brand in rural America might be tolerable, at least as a purely political matter, if it were balanced with superior strengths elsewhere. But that’s not the case. While Democrats dominate the nation’s urban centers, they’re not dominant enough to carry many statewide races such as governor or secretary of state. To be sure, acres don’t vote. Only people do. However, geography plays an outsized role in our political system that can overcome aggregate population advantages. (See Senate, U.S.)
Geographic polarization, or the “urban-rural divide,” is arguably the most defining feature of American politics. While one can point to other fissures—education, race, ethnicity, religion, and so on—they tend to map rather cleanly onto the population densities of our communities. Without greater competitiveness in rural areas, the Democrats will strain to develop a working majority in the U.S. Senate, hold the House, and carry the Electoral College. Democrats hold a trifecta now, but it’s tenuous because the party has given up on competing in rural America.
The big story of Democrats’ country collapse is that it’s self-inflicted. There has been no infusion of cash, no new commitment from the DNC or the state parties to mobilize and organize in rural areas, and no sense of urgency. Building the oft-remarked coalition of the ascendant—educated suburbanites, single women, Hispanics, Blacks, and other minorities—has taken precedence, and with some cause. These are generally voters prone to choosing Democrats, so getting them to turn out is far easier than changing the minds of rural whites. But the coalition of the ascendant is fraying. Hispanics and, to a lesser degree, Blacks have shown a new receptivity to Republicans, while, ominously for Democrats, Youngkin fared quite well with affluent suburbanites and Asian Americans.
A handful of Democratic strategists and politicians with roots in the heartland have been trying to ring the alarm. For instance, Senator Jon Tester’s memoir, Grounded: A Senator’s Lessons on Winning Back Rural America, details how he balances his day job in Washington with running a farm in rural Montana, and offers his party a series of “lessons on winning back rural America” that include showing up and actually campaigning hard in rural areas. Similarly, Illinois Representative Cheri Bustos and her political adviser, Robin Johnson, have written a series of reports concerning the “ground game” of Democrats who have been successful in rural and working-class districts that Trump carried.
The latest entry in this burgeoning genre comes from a Democratic state senator from Maine, Chloe Maxmin, and her campaign manager, Canyon Woodward. (Maxmin has decided not to run for a second term. She had previously served one term in the Maine House.)
In Dirt Road Revival, the authors offer what they consider a “tough-love letter” to their party. The book provides a good overview of how the Democratic abandonment of rural America has been bad for the party and the country. Maxmin and Woodward chronicle the decision by Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid, following the 2010 midterm disaster, to disband working groups dedicated to rural politics. They chart how Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign neglected rural voters and review Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer’s myopic attempt to rationalize the problem by proclaiming that “for every blue-collar Democrat we lose in western Pennsylvania, we will pick up two moderate Republicans in the suburbs in Philadelphia, and you can repeat that in Ohio and Illinois and Wisconsin.”
Yet there are significant blind spots in Dirt Road Revival that limit its effectiveness both in comprehending the scope of the Democratic problem in rural America and offering solutions on how to overcome it.
Maxmin isn’t an ideal messenger. For starters, she is a genuine daughter of the East Coast elite (for example, her late father was, at one time, the CEO of Volvo-UK and, before that, Laura Ashley). She got her degree at Harvard, where her mother is professor emerita at the business school. Her pedigree is impressive but doesn’t lend her much dirt road credibility.
How did a progressive twentysomething born to affluent parents from outside her district win in rural Maine? Her success in a conservative, Republican state legislative district is presented as a model for Democrats, yet, as the Maine political insider Andy O’Brien has detailed, Maxmin’s district may be a challenge for Democrats but it is far from hostile. As recently as 2016, another Democrat held the seat. The authors play up the rurality of her district. Still, in many ways, it resembles Jackson, Wyoming—with significant pockets of affluent types drawn by the natural beauty and recreational interests. The district exemplifies the rural gentrification driven by wealthy newcomers (including Maxmin’s parents) booming in New England and elsewhere. Yet such areas do not reflect the vast majority of rural America, where Dollar Generals outnumber Starbucks. Dirt Road Revival’s lessons might not travel in rural settings beyond recreational, resort, and retirement communities.
Another reason to question the replicability of the Maxmin model: She underperformed Joe Biden. Perhaps a rural Democrat in Maine can win by pulling fewer votes than the party’s presidential nominee, but that’s not a formula for success in Wisconsin or Pennsylvania. If Democrats want a rural resurgence, they’ll need their down-ballot candidates to outperform the top of the ticket.
Presenting her victory as a contemporary version of “It’s the economy, stupid”—an obvious problem with an obvious solution—underplays the challenge facing Democrats. If Maxmin’s district accurately reflected rural America, it wouldn’t be much of a problem.
The nationalization of American politics and news media consumption is a big part of the Democrats’ rural problem. Perhaps the most critical step the party could take in rural areas is to return the focus to local, place-based considerations. (See Johnson in the Washington Monthly, “How Democrats Can Win in White Working-Class Districts.”) A one-size-fits-all playbook is a plan for failure; it runs up the numbers in our largest cities and outlying suburbs but flops in the country. Rural Democrats must recast the narrative.
Equally important, party elites need to allow rural candidates to run their way. This means giving candidates the space to build their brands in a way that comports with their districts. Moreover, the nomadic hoard of volunteers and consultants needs to adapt to rural terrain. Frequently, there is a significant cultural divide between campaign staff and volunteers—to say nothing of activists—and rural voters. But for the voters Democrats have been hemorrhaging, the issues that galvanize many progressives—climate change, identity politics, gun safety—can be downright poisonous. The issues that fire up the younger, better-educated types who often staff campaigns have, at best, an indirect effect on improving the economic standing of lower-middle-class rural voters.
Of course, progressives care about such things as working-class wages, but when they do, it’s often down their list of priorities. Still, others find it distasteful to solicit voters they regard as racist, misogynistic, and so on. Rural Democrats need the leeway to court rural voters by distancing themselves from progressive urban priorities.
Localized campaigns offer the best hope for breaking out of the nationalization trap. Political psychology research suggests that emphasizing local issues of particular significance to voters’ districts is Democrats’ best shot at resonating with rural voters. It allows candidates to connect with voters based on a shared love of place, building trust and allowing Democratic candidates to get beyond the contentious national political conversation.
Local media sources can also help, as they are more trusted than their national counterparts. Their presence effectively mitigates partisan polarization—which Democrats desperately need in rural areas. Of course, the nationwide decline of local news and the proliferation of “news deserts” make this more difficult in many regions than it used to be.
As Bustos and Johnson have detailed in their report on Democrats’ standing in rural and working-class areas, local volunteers are far superior to staff who parachute in, because they understand the cultural milieu. Local staffers understand which issues are essential in the community, and they are likely to know which voters might be persuadable.
Identifying issues that resonate in a particular place but aren’t linked with one of the parties is especially helpful. Taking steps to rein in Big Agriculture’s monopolization of the food production industry is one example as is protecting worker safety, ensuring clean water, and more by pushing back on legal maneuvering by corporations to dismantle sensible regulations. Until recent bipartisan efforts led by Tester, relatively little effort had been made at the national level. Another example that would likely resonate is wildfire prevention.
Adopting a local lens makes it evident that rather than leaning on politicized terms like “climate change,” candidates should focus on good-paying and reliable jobs that both stem the rural exodus and conserve pristine land. Knowing how to talk about race is also important; most rural areas are, after all, much whiter than America as a whole, and they contain an outsized share of the country’s poorest and sickest. As a result, finger-wagging about white privilege is not well received by farmers and miners who don’t feel especially privileged. Reaching rural citizens requires recasting the discussion away from divisive “group”-oriented themes toward more inclusive and crosscutting ones, such as class dynamics.
A good test case for this approach may be taking shape in Montana’s newly created 1st congressional district. Home to the state’s two college towns, a traditional stronghold of organized labor, and a pair of Native American reservations, this is the kind of district that Democrats won not long ago. But they have seen their support erode considerably in the communities that make up MT-1 in recent years. According to FiveThirtyEight’s partisan lean metric, the district is +10 Republican. Sabato’s Crystal Ball and The Cook Political Report with Amy Walter both rate the seat as “likely Republican.” Democrats will need to be competitive in these kinds of districts again if they want to pass legislation in Congress and not just hold gavels.
And running up the score in liberal Missoula, Butte, and Bozeman isn’t going to get the job done; Democrats will need to improve their margins in rural counties as well. Monica Tranel won the Democratic nomination in MT-1 by emphasizing the local. For the most part, she avoided national partisan discourse, focusing on her local roots and the key issues facing her district. In Montana’s other house district, Mark Sweeney, who, along with Tester, represented what it means to be an effective rural Democrat, was running a place-based campaign until he died unexpectedly in May during his campaign. Learning from Sweeney’s much-beloved authenticity and careful attention to his district will give Democrats a chance in Montana and other rural venues. If Tranel runs a place-based general election campaign—addressing issues such as gentrification—the contest could prove more competitive than prognosticators anticipate.
And let’s not forget that this is a democratic problem, not just a Democratic one. Lacking party competition undercuts accountability in government, decreases representative quality, and reduces empathy for those who live differently. It’s not just crucial for Democrats to find a way to disrupt the density divide. It’s also vital for the well-being of the American polity.
Author: Robert Saldin and Karl Munis