Speak Your Piece: Deciphering the Rural Vote

Rural voters favored Romney in this fall's presidential election, but Democrats picked up several Senate and Congressional seats in predominantly rural states and districts.

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Rural Americans left some interesting and confounding footprints across the electoral landscape of 2012 in races up and down the ballot. While the mainstream media and punditocracy likes to neatly categorize rural voters as Republican, the results paint a more nuanced picture.

Through many recent elections, the conventional wisdom had been that Republicans take rural folks for granted while Democrats ignore them. That pattern began to change a bit in 2006 and in 2008, when Obama won 7 percentage points more of the rural vote than John Kerry had in 2004. Obama’s rural gains came from executing a focused rural strategy and devoting resources to that effort.

However, Obama’s share of the 2012 rural vote dropped to 37% on November 6; he lost eight of the 10 most-rural states to Romney and 15 of the 19 states that are more than one-third rural to the former Massachusetts governor.

This is somewhat odd in that it can be argued that much of rural America has thrived during Obama’s first term. The agriculture and energy sectors are strong with net farm income up for most crops and commodities and increased domestic production of oil and gas creating booming economies from Texas up into the Great Plains. Obama has invested heavily in rural broadband and pushed through trade agreements with Korea, Colombia and Panama that he and others hope will expand exports.

Yet folks in the hinterlands were not happy with the president, according to pre-election polls. One survey by Agri-Pulse drives this point home with several perplexing data points. This poll of 319 likely farmers who cultivate at least 500 acres, found a 77% disapproval of Obama, with 78% saying they planned to vote for Romney. Get this: 46% of these farmers blamed the Democrats for failure to pass a new farm bill, only 19% saying Republicans were at fault. For the record, the Senate (controlled by Democrats) passed its farm bill back in June, while the GOP-run House has blocked action on a farm bill that passed the Agriculture Committee in mid-July.

Farmers polled by Agri-Pulse approved of Obama’s agriculture secretary Tom Vilsack though the president received a 77% disapproval rating. Shown here, Vilsack spoke at the Iowa State Fair in 2009.
Even though they disliked Obama, 50% of these producers strongly or somewhat approved of the job that Tom Vilsack has been doing as agriculture secretary. Other head scratchers included 47% who said that reducing the federal deficit was the most important issue for the new president to tackle. Do they remember that Bill Clinton left office with the first surplus since 1969, a surplus sundered as George W. Bush put two wars on the credit card and cut taxes for the most wealthy? Lastly, in this year of record drought and era of enormous forest fires, only 7% cited climate change as the biggest threat to the future of their farming operations. Go figure.

In the Appalachian coal counties, Romney appeared before hard-hat-clad miners promising to stop “Obama’s war on coal” ignoring the facts that both as a U.S. Senator and as president, Obama had championed coal (southern Illinois is coal country), much to the dismay of environmentalists, and that as Bay State governor, Romney had once pledged to shutter the Salem Harbor Power Plant, one of the state’s “Filthy Five” coal plants.

Daily Yonder/U.S. Census
This map shows more rural states in green: light green are above the national average in rural population, dark green have populations that are at least 50% rural.

As the political chattering class has breathlessly reminded us, the Republicans do have a demographic problem in their off-putting messaging to Hispanic, African-American, and Asian-American constituents, women and younger voters. As Sen. Susan Collins (the last surviving GOP moderate?) told the New York Times on November 7, “Republicans cannot win with just rural, white voters.” However, the other side of that coin is, can Democrats claim to be a viable national party by losing white voters (still 73% of the electorate), when Obama’s share of the white vote has shrunk from 43% in 2008 to 39% in 2012?

The Senate – Where Every State Has Some Rural

MT: In several races for the upper house, the influence of rural voters stands out. In Montana, Democrat Jon Tester narrowly held on to win a second term against Rep. Denny Rehberg in the nation’s seventh most-rural state. Tester, the Senate’s only farmer, has championed the needs of rural veterans, fought for preserving postal service for small towns and authored a key provision of the 2010 Food Safety Modernization Act that protected family farmers. His victory in Big Sky County against a flood of money from outside special interests and super PACs is heartwarming for all residents of this nation’s boondocks.

ND: Next door in North Dakota, Heidi Heitkamp appears to have held off freshman Republican Rep.  Rick Berg, to hold for the Democrats the open seat vacated by retiring Sen. Kent Conrad. This was a race that all the know-it-alls said would go to the GOP just because of the ruby red hue of the Peace Garden State, which Romney carried easily. But Berg was clearly hurt by the fact that House Speaker John Boehner and Majority Leader Eric Cantor chose not to bring the farm bill up for reauthorization before the 2008 law expired on September 30. Few states are as dependent of agriculture as North Dakota, and the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee cut TV spots hammering Berg for leaving his state’s farmers high and dry going into the next planting season; the farm bill issue surely had an effect here. This race is also significant because North Dakota does not have a deep bench of Democratic talent. Heitkamp should bring a strong dose of prairie populism to Washington in the Nonpartisan League tradition of ex-senators Byron Dorgan and Quentin Burdick.

MA: Massachusetts is only 9.4% rural but eyebrows were raised in October 2011 when consumer advocate Elizabeth Warren was quoted by AP as saying that she was “going for the hick vote here” and that “I think I’m in a new category, the elite hick.” Over the course of the next year, Warren proceeded to avoid rural precincts of the Commonwealth like the plague, never campaigning at any farms, sportsmen’s clubs, gun ranges or county fairs. Incumbent Republican Sen. Scott Brown by contrast was often seen in the cranberry-growing counties of southeastern Mass. and made numerous forays into rural communities in western Massachusetts that he had lost in the 2010 special election. On election day, Brown won 90 of the state’s 172 rural towns (with a population of 10,000 and less) to 82 for Warren. The Harvard professor won all of Berkshire County and took most of Franklin and Hampshire counties in the upper Pioneer Valley, a swath of Baja Vermont and liberal college towns derided as “People’s Republics” by a well-known columnist for one of the Boston daily papers. Brown’s haul included sweeping the rural parts of Hampden County in the western part of the state and Norfolk, Bristol and Plymouth counties in eastern Mass., all home to many ‘Reagan Democrats.’

Republican Jeff Flake, winning 9 of Arizona’s 13 rural counties, will fill the state’s open Senate seat. He was opposed by Richard Carmona, a Vietnam vet who had served in the Bush administration but ran as a Democrat.
AZ: In Arizona’s Senate contest between Rep. Jeff Flake, the Republican, and Democrat Richard Carmona, the rural vote proved critical – and costly for Carmona. At almost 18% rural, the Grand Canyon State is not a place that most people think of as all that rustic. But 13 of the state’s 15 counties are rural, and for the 12 years Flake has served in the House, he had gone out of his way to vote against their interests on issue after issue. Carmona, a Vietnam vet and former cop who served as surgeon general under President George W. Bush, was a huge recruiting coup for the Democrats. Early on, Carmona’s primary opponent dropped out, while Flake had to battle a free-spending developer to win the Republican primary in late August.

When you look up the definition of the word “extremist” in the dictionary, it says Jeff Flake. This guy is an opposition researcher’s dream. On lopsided votes where the minority racks up single digits (out of 435 members), that is where you will find Mr. Flake. Carmona had a strong September and began to hit Flake (who had never worn the uniform) hard for his sorry record against veterans. By early October, several polls showed Carmona leading or tied, and Democrats began to feel as though they could elect a centrist in the mold of Dennis DeConcini. Then it all went horribly bad. Carmona made some rookie mistakes, and he never aggressively went after Flake’s record of hurting rural Arizonans on the issues of agriculture and rural development, health care, transportation, renewable energy and water.

The low point came October 25 at a debate on rural issues at Arizona Western College in Yuma. Carmona had known that he would be asked about health care, water policy, and farming and ranching among other topics. Instead of skewering Flake over his votes against two farm bills, clean water infrastructure, or funding for distance-learning and telemedicine grants and community and rural health centers, Carmona let the smarmy Flake wriggle off the hook. Carmona compounded this problem by failing to attack Flake on rural radio, airing a boilerplate spot that promised voters he would be “an independent voice” rather than spelling out how in his messianic zeal to cut every last penny of federal spending, Flake had ravaged his state’s small towns and rural areas that depend on vital droplets of largess from Washington. Flake handily won nine of the 13 rural counties on Election Day.

The House – Black and Blue Dogs Take Another Beating

When Democrats took back the House in 2007, things were downright giddy in the Democratic caucus. The infusion of freshman moderates, many recruited and hand-picked by then-Chicago congressman Rahm Emanuel, who chaired the DCCC that cycle, meant that the liberal old bulls would regain chairmanships on powerful committees; progressives like David Obey (Appropriations), Barney Frank (Financial Services), John Conyers (Judiciary) and Charlie Rangel (Ways & Means) would once again wield gavels on their panels. The victory had come about largely because newbies won in districts that were at least one-third rural. Interestingly, most of these new moderates were not from the south but from places like upstate New York, northeastern Pennsylvania, Appalachian Ohio, Iowa and Minnesota.


Tea Party rally against the Affordable Health Care Act, March
of 2012, in St. Paul, Minnesota.
The Obama-wave election of 2008 added more rural Democrats in purple-turning states like Colorado and North Carolina. Then came the 2010 midterms. Blue Dogs were clubbed to death like baby seals on an arctic hunt. In 2011, rural voters got the government they deserved (at least in the House) when the Tea Party class began to get down to the work of screwing their own base. From essential air service for rural airports to agricultural research and extension to mine safety and Social Security and Medicare, federal programs all had to be shrunk so “we can get our country back,” according to the Tea Party mantra.

With the Republicans back in charge,  surviving rural Dems suddenly didn’t feel the love from their urban and suburban colleagues. In the Tea Party wave to capture the U.S. House, many state legislatures also fell, yielding crayon boxes with which to control redistricting for the 2012 elections. Faced with both a miserable life in the minority and drastically re-drawn rural turf, many Blue Dogs headed for the exits this cycle, creating lots of new GOP pick-up opportunities in open seats. Some, who stayed, faced head-to-head death matches with better financed Republicans like the race between Leonard Boswell (D) and Tom Latham (R) in IA-3.

Republican Tom Latham, backed by strong financing, won his race against incumbent Democrat Leonard Bowell and will represent Iowa’s 3rd Congressional District.
Now as the smoke from November 6 has cleared, casualties litter the national map: AR-4, IN-2, IA-3, KY-6, NC-8, NC-13, and OK-2, all Republican wins. Democrats were able to pick off seats in IL-17, MD-6, MN-8, NY-24 and TX-23. Congressman John Barrow of Georgia hung on to his seat and is now the last white Democrat from the Deep South in the House.
Going forward, it will be hard to remain successful as a national party if Democrats cannot be
competitive in huge swaths of the nation such as the Deep South, Appalachia and the Great
Plains that include rural political geography. Last year, Democrats lost the Virginia state Senate and the Mississippi House. On November 6, Democrats in Arkansas (the nation’s fifth most-rural state) lost control of their state House, for the first time since Reconstruction. Democrats had controlled both chambers since the post-Civil War period ended in 1874.The Republican dominance in state legislative chambers is now complete all across Dixie.

Matt L. Barron is a political consultant and rural strategist based in Chesterfield, MA (pop. 1,222).

 

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