Why politicians and pollsters need to spend more time in Rural America

Farm Forum

Nov. 8 has come and gone and we have a new president-elect getting ready to take office on Jan. 20. But many Democrats are still doing some soul searching, trying to figure out how they spent so much time and money and still lost in so many ways.

Granted, not all of the ballots have officially been counted and Hillary Clinton appears poised to win the popular vote count by over two million votes. But her campaign strategy failed to put her over the top in several of the so-called swing states and she lost the Electoral College vote.

Consider these facts:

• Trump voters came out in droves in 26 states, most of which usually vote Republican with the exception of Iowa and Ohio. Voters in both of those states went for President Obama in both 2008 and 2012.

• Although the vote count is not yet final in Michigan, Trump appears to have also carried Florida, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Michigan. Obama won all four states in 2012. And even more surprising, Wisconsin had not voted for a Republican president since 1984. Pennsylvania and Michigan had not voted for a Republican president since 1988.

• The GOP also kept control of the U.S. Senate and House. And on the state level, Republicans increased their control of governorships, from 31 to 33 states, and picked up five state House chambers and two state Senate chambers. All in all, Nov. 8 was a big night for the GOP.

The fact that Donald Trump won was not a huge surprise to many farmers and ranchers who were ready to give him their votes. In fact, our nationwide poll of farmers and ranchers in October indicated that he was a clear favorite over Hillary Clinton by a 37 percent margin.

But we also know that farmers and ranchers make up less than two percent of the population. So for Donald Trump to win, he needed not only farmers and ranchers to show up, but he needed a lot of their rural neighbors and small-town citizens – both Republicans and Democrats. And that they did, turning a handful of traditionally democratic “blue” states to red.

So what happened?

It seems obvious that millions of voters wanted something different than what they currently have in the White House and what they believed Hillary Clinton would deliver.

National Farmers Union President Roger Johnson told Agri-Pulse that Trump’s anti-trade message resonated with many of his members and even though both Trump and Clinton opposed major trade deals, they believed that Trump would stand tall and defend his position, while Clinton would change course.

Johnson said he knew of NFU members – who have long supported Democratic candidates – that voted for Trump because of his stance on trade.

“That’s largely, I believe, the reason he was elected,” Johnson said.

But for millions of people on the East and West Coasts and a few urban areas in between, there’s been a lot of head scratching going on. Was it an issue like trade, was it the economy, was it the fact that Clinton referred to Trump supporters as a “basket of deplorables” during her campaign?

Most major media broadcasters looked stunned as election returns came in across the country and probably said the word “rural” more than ever before on national television. All of a sudden, political pundits and the national media discovered that something different must be happening in “flyover” country. And unfortunately, few Democrats or journalists had taken time to notice during the campaign.

Luxury issues

University of Maryland political scientist James Gimpel says the polarization between rural and urban voters has been growing, in part because of the rural hostility toward the “Obama/Clinton rhetoric on the rural economy, pipelines, environmental protection and climate change.

Gimpel says he doesn’t buy the theory that Trump stirred up racism in the nation’s heartland.

“I don’t think rural residents are any more racist than other sectors of the population,” he said.

In states where coal is produced, like West Virginia, Kentucky, and Wyoming, the percentage of GOP voters “shot through the roof,” Gimpel said. “It was not so much about Trump as a candidate but that she had to be stopped. And he was the lesser of two evils.”

There is a sense that the Democrat’s environmental policy is a “luxury” issue for the rich, Gimpel said.

“The folks on the coast have the luxury of worrying about things that might never happen and the folks in the middle of the country need to put food on the table and support their families every day.”

Need to rebuild bridges?

Former Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman, a democrat who represented Kansas in the U.S. Congress for 18 years, is encouraging fellow Democrats to build bridges back to rural America and work on a 50-state strategy – similar to the one proposed by former Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean in 2005.

“The simple fact is the national Democratic Party and the presidential campaign didn’t prioritize visiting rural America or talk about rural issues. This is notwithstanding the fact that Secretary Vilsack has been a forceful leader on these issues and the USDA team has performed in outstanding fashion during the past eight years,” Glickman wrote in an opinion piece.

“A big reason Secretary Clinton lost, and Democrats are reeling, having lost many seats across federal, state and local governments over the last eight years, is because of the neglect of rural America by the Party,” Glickman wrote. “The result this time was a reduced number of votes in rural counties of Wisconsin, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Michigan, which may have been the electoral difference in each state.

Glickman says the bulk of Democrats’ 50-state strategy must be a “real effort to visit small towns and rural America more frequently, listen to their concerns, and make them part of the political process. Millions of people live in smaller communities and rural America; they have been and remain an important part of our national political process.”