Campaigns courting rural voters
Editor’s note: The Agri-Pulse team covered rural issues at both the Republican and Democratic conventions as part of their Rural Route to the White House series. The following reports were written by Editor Sara Wyant and Senior Editor Philip Brasher.
Attendance at the Democratic Convention’s Rural Council meeting last week might have been small, but powerful in perspective.
“You are the most important people at this gathering this week,” Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D- N.D., told a crowd of about 60 people sitting in the Philadelphia Convention Center to listen to rural advocates. “Hillary Clinton cannot lose Rural America by 90 to 10 (percent) and become the next president of the U.S.”
Heitkamp was one of a number of speakers, including Montana Senator Jon Tester, former North Dakota Rep. Earl Pomeroy, former USDA Deputy Sec. Kathleen Merrigan, National Farmers Union President Roger Johnson and others who made the case over the two-hour session that Hillary Clinton was the best bet for Rural America. And they repeatedly made the case that Democrats need to do a better job getting that message out.
Heitkamp acknowledged that much of the traditionally “blue” sections of Rural America have turned “red” in recent years and she’s not exactly sure why.
“It’s hard work convincing people that the Democrat party is the party that represents rural America. And it’s hard for me to understand why it’s hard,” she added. “We can tell you right off the bat these are the things we’ve done,” including passing a farm bill, providing crucial rural service and health care. But she also noted that “some of the regulations sometimes go too far…”
In many ways, the session provided a perfect backdrop for Democrats to rethink some of their rural outreach. Consultant Doug Hattaway discussed a “narrative project” at the Democratic National Committee that’s designed to “change the way we are talking about being Democrats” by offering a toolkit “to help you talk to friends and coworkers.”
“We’re the party that works for everybody and makes the economy and government work for every American, not just the powerful and privileged special interests like Donald Trump,” he added, before handing out a brochure called, “What does it mean to be a Democrat?” While the blue brochure doesn’t include the world “rural” it focuses on strengths from “honest, hard-working people from all walks of life.
Hattaway said that the DNC surveyed over 3,000 voters and nine out of ten said that was an important message that they wanted to hear. And they compared it against the GOP messages that were developed after Republicans lost their last presidential race and conducted their “autopsy.” He said they tested the messages against GOP messages and “beat them by 12 points.”
Trevor Dean, a volunteer leading the “Rural for Hillary” coalition, says that rural voters will be impressed the more they know about her track record on rural issues as both a Senator representing New York and a Secretary of State, focused on world hunger and food security.
Some of it will involve getting farmers to talk to farmers or rural mayors to talk to other mayors. “We want everyone in Rural America to understand that Sec. Clinton is looking out for them.”
Trump adviser: Campaign needs to ‘energize’ farm support
Donald Trump’s campaign is betting that it can win agribusiness support and run up margins in rural areas by tapping into anger about federal regulations and land management issues. At the same time, the campaign is walking a fine line on trade and immigration, trying to assure producers that Trump understands their concerns about his attacks on trade agreements and illegal immigration without being seen as flip-flopping on the two issues the campaign feels are vital to winning the Rust Belt states he must carry this fall.
Key to carrying out that strategy is the agricultural advisory team and policy statement that the campaign will release soon, according to Sam Clovis, a senior policy adviser to Trump and national campaign co-chairman. Clovis said the agribusiness effort is part of a broader coalition-building effort aimed at building grass-roots support and raising money for the campaign.
The campaign is trying to “make sure we’re able to energize farmers and ranchers across the country and all of the people who support the ag industry, to make sure we have the opportunity to get people to energize the voter base in this particular area,” Clovis said in an interview with Agri-Pulse on the sidelines of the GOP convention in Cleveland.
About 15 agribusiness leaders participated in a conference call just before the GOP convention with Clovis and Charles W. Herbster, who is chairing the effort. Herbster, a Trump contributor, has an Angus breeding operation and farm in Nebraska and owns the Conklin Co., a network marketing company involved in agronomic services and other products.
In a separate interview with Agri-Pulse, Herbster said that signing up for the team will also give producers a chance to provide input to Trump on farm policy. Clovis says that formation of the agribusiness advisory team will “make sure that people understand that no decisions …related to farming, ranching and land management” will be made without considering the impact on them.
The Trump campaign believes that producers will recognize that they have no alternative to Trump on regulatory issues and that may offset concerns they may have about him on trade, immigration or other matters. “When you look at Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton on balance, the choice becomes very clear very quickly,” Clovis said. “Who’s a person that understands business? There’s not a farmer in the United States that isn’t a premier business person because every farm is a business.”
Clovis went on: The “modern farmer wants government out of his life. He wants regulations that make sense, or he wants to have a business and run a business without having to fight the EPA, the IRS … and we have a way of doing that. If Hillary Clinton is elected that’s not going to happen.”
Trump made clear at the convention, if it wasn’t already, that he’s going to keep attacking U.S. trade policy all the way to November. His acceptance speech in Cleveland on July 21 included an extended attack on the Trans-Pacific Partnership and the North American Free Trade Agreement.
Clovis said he understands that farmers and agribusiness companies are nervous about Trump’s opposition to TPP and his threat to impose stiff duties on China, a critical market for U.S. soybeans in particular.
“What they ought to be nervous about is the fact that we have countries that we’re trading with who do not play by the rules. All we have ever said from the start of our campaign is that we want everybody to play by the rules. If you have a country that is manipulating currency or if they are committing unfair trade practices or they are manipulating prices because of their purchases … that’s not good for the farmers.”