In 2008, Barack Obama made major gains among rural swing state voters. All those gains are gone now, as Mitt Romney runs up advantages among rural voters similar to those gained by George W. Bush.
Republican Mitt Romney holds a substantial 14 percentage point lead over President Barack Obama among rural voters in nine swing states, according to a National Rural Assembly poll released today.
In 2008, Barack Obama narrowed what had become a wide Republican advantage in rural America. But four years later, the Democrat has lost his edge among rural voters.
Romney is leading President Obama by margins comparable to President George W. Bush’s lead over John Kerry at a similar time in the 2004 campaign. Without Romney’s strong standing among rural voters in these swing states, his campaign would be in deep trouble.
The poll (conducted September 15-18) found that 54 percent of rural voters in these important swing states favored Romney; 40 percent said they would vote for Obama.
Four years ago in the November election, these same voters barely favored Republican John McCain over Obama, 50 percent to 46.7 percent. (See the chart above for a breakdown of the rural vote since 2004. Comparison of the 2012 swing states with same state results from 2008 are at right.)
The poll questioned voters living in nonmetropolitan counties in the swing states of Colorado, Florida, Iowa, Nevada, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Ohio, Virginia and Wisconsin. The survey was conducted by Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research, a firm that works for Democratic candidates. Glen Bolger, a partner with Public Opinion Strategies, helped devise and interpret the poll. Bolger works with Republican candidates and advocacy groups, such as Restore Our Future and American Crossroads.
The poll was commissioned by the National Rural Assembly and the Center for Rural Strategies and it was paid for by the Carnegie Corporation of New York.
The poll shows that the rural areas of closely-contested swing states “are not much of a battleground,” Bolger said. “The challenge for the President is just not to get beat too badly in the rural areas…. This presages a very close election because as well as Obama did in the rural areas in 2008 he’s clearly not replicating that….”
Barack Obama did very well in rural America in 2008. He won 44 percent of the overall rural vote, compared to the 39.8 percent captured by John Kerry in 2004.
And in 13 rural swing states in the 2008 election, Obama pulled nearly even with McCain, losing the rural vote in these critical states by fewer than three points, 49.4 percent to 47 percent.
(NPR’s Howard Berkes reported on this poll, too. Here and read his report here.)
That advantage seems to have disappeared this year, however.
“Rural areas in this country are very tough for President Obama,” said Democratic pollster Anna Greenberg. “It was tough four years ago and they’re even tougher now. I think that that is obviously important in a very close presidential race because it’s really Mitt Romney’s geographic base.”
The falloff in support for Barack Obama in rural areas has been dramatic and deep. “What’s interesting is, it’s not just a surface level lead (for Romney),” said Bolger. “It goes deeper than that.”
The poll asked rural residents who they thought would do a better job in handling a number of issues. In all cases but one, respondents said Romney would “do a better job.” On most issues, Romney’s lead was in double digits. (To see the full poll, go here.)
For example, 54 percent said Romney would do a better job of “improving the economy,” compared to 37 percent for Obama. Fifty-three percent said Romney would do a better job as Commander in Chief, compared to 39 percent for Obama. Romney held a 6 point lead in who would best “meet the needs of the middle class” and an 11 point lead in who would represent “your views on taxes.”
Rural voters only thought Obama would do a better job than Romney in “addressing the needs and concerns of women,” where the president held a 5 point advantage.
Rural voters have a lower opinion of Barack Obama than they did four years ago, when a similar poll was taken in mid-September. At that time, Sen. John McCain led Obama 51 to 41 among rural voters in 13 swing states.
But rural voters were much more receptive to Barack Obama the candidate than they are to Obama the president. In September, 2008, Obama and McCain were tied on the question of which candidate would do better “dealing with issues facing rural areas.”
This September, however, Romney held a 10-point lead on the same question.
(The 2004 poll included all of the states as in this year’s version, except for North Carolina; and the 2004 poll also included New Mexico, Pennsylvania, Michigan and Missouri.)
“A lot has changed in four years,” said Republican consultant Bolger. Obama “has not delivered on his promise of hope and change.” Nor has he “ushered in a post-partisan era,” Bolger said.
“I think you’re seeing two things happening,” Bolger said. “One is people saying, ‘Look, this is a Chicago guy; he doesn’t completely represent our values. He doesn’t understand us. He accused us of being bitter, clinging to guns and religion four ago. So we took a chance on him. He disappointed us.’”
As a result, Bolger said rural residents are “going to back to their more traditional voting patterns.”
Greenberg said Republican criticism of President Obama as a big government Democrat “reinforces a kind of anti-government attitude in rural areas that is very profound.”
“I think this survey reinforces the overall geographic dynamics of elections in this country,” Greenberg said, “which is to say, big margins in urban areas for Democrats, contesting the suburbs and losing rural areas big.”
The Democratic consultant sees some advantages for Obama among these rural voters, particularly among women. “The fact that even in a socially conservative part of the country in rural areas people slightly prefer Obama on women’s issues, I find that incredibly interesting,” Greenberg said.
The polls showed, however, that most rural voters have made up their minds. Only four percent of those polled were either undecided or favored third-party candidates.
“It’s a really polarized electorate,” Bolger said. “People who are voting for Obama, they’re going to be hard to move just like people who are voting for Romney are hard to move. So I think it’s going to be very difficult for the president to chip away at Romney’s big rural advantage….Voters are really set in concrete.”
Who are these rural voters? Twelve percent said they were liberal and 46 percent described themselves as conservative.
More than half (53 percent) went to church at least weekly.
Over a third (38 percent) were college graduates.
One out of five received some income from farming. Only 7 percent received more than half their income from agriculture.
A third had a member of their family who had served in Iraq or Afghanistan, and 81 percent knew someone who had been deployed to these conflicts.
Ten percent knew an illegal immigrant.
Only 39 percent owned no guns (down from 47 percent four years ago). Nine percent owned 10 or more weapons.
Eighty-four percent of those interviewed said they were white; 6 percent said they were African-American; and 4 percent said they were Hispanic.