The Trouble with Democrats: Two Leaders Discuss Party’s ‘Rural Problem’

Jay Clarke of Virginia and Matt Barron of Massachusetts each got attention for criticizing the way Democrats seem to have ceded the rural battlefield to Republicans. With Virginia’s gubernatorial race hanging in the balance, these disaffected Democrats share thoughts about why the rural vote matters and what the Dems might do improve their dismal performance.

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Blame for the Democratic Party’s lackluster performance in rural areas often gets placed at the feet of voters themselves. “What’s the matter with rural voters?” is a question we’ve heard more than once.

Local Democratic Party leaders Matt Barron and Jay Clarke have turned the question around. They ask, “What’s the matter with the Democratic Party?”

The men have some things in common. Barron, of Western Massachusetts, was so distressed at the way Democrats treated rural voters in 2016 that he quit his local leadership position and left the party entirely, registering as an independent in January 2017.

Jay Clarke of Virginia, on the other hand, briefly resigned as party chairman of his rural county last month over Democrats’ unwillingness to help their gubernatorial candidate connect with voters outside their metropolitan honey hole of Northern Virginia. (Clarke quickly rescinded his decision after hearing from state party leaders, and he never even mentioned changing his party registration.)

Given the similarity of the criticisms of these Democrats (one former and one current), we asked Barron and Clarke what they think the Democratic Party could do to make a difference with rural voters. The exchange below is edited from an email conversation.

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Daily Yonder: What do you see as the problem the Democratic Party has in addressing rural voters in your respective states?

Matt Barron: A big problem that Democrats have with rural voters in Massachusetts is that they take too many of them for granted. Virginia, at 27.6% rural, is exactly three times more rural than Massachusetts, at 9.2% (2010 U.S. Census), but I think we have similar problems.

In Massachusetts, we have both blue rural and red rural counties. The blue rural counties are in western Massachusetts (Berkshire, Franklin and Hampshire) and Dukes County (the island towns on Martha’s Vineyard). The western Massachusetts rural communities are losing population. The red rural areas are in the central part of the state in eastern Hampden County, Worcester County and in the southeast part of the state in Plymouth County and some of Cape Cod. These are gaining population and trending more Republican.

I left the Democratic Party in January 2017 because I got tired of the inability in both Massachusetts and nationally to compete for rural and exurban voters by building the rural electoral infrastructure at the various party campaign committees and state parties [that is] needed to conduct effective messaging and outreach to geographic minorities.

Jay Clarke: Democrats like to blame gerrymandering for their difficulties in state legislatures across the South and Midwest. While gerrymandering does make the situation more difficult, turning away from rural voters by Democrats makes it worse. While statewide elections [in Virginia] the last several years have settled on the blue team, Virginia’s Senate and House of Delegates tip solidly red. I would posit that’s because Democrats haven’t consistently or effectively made their case to rural votes.

Flippantly, it’s tough to win if you don’t show up.

Why should rural voters vote Democratic? Anti-Trump appeals alone will not win the day. While I’m perfectly happy with intellectual approaches for myself, more emotional appeals are necessary. For example, Virginia’s General Assembly has rejected Medicaid expansion. Personal stories of specific rural Virginians hurt because of decreased access to affordable healthcare, because local hospitals are closing—as just one example of a negative consequence.

Ralph Northam, our Democratic candidate for governor in 2017, has made this argument, but with inadequate focus. Instead, he has released dozens and dozens of policy papers with Hillary Clintonesque sincerity and dedication. The problem is, of course, that he’s preaching to the choir. They almost never reach the eyeballs of those leaning Republican.

 

What could Democrats do to attract more support in rural and why aren’t they doing it, in your opinion?

Clarke: (Clarke included the caveat that his responses were preliminary and not comprehensive. These are a place to start the conversation, he said.)

Rural voters see us on the wrong side of the God, guns, abortion, and family, including LGBTQ issues.

We need to speak comfortably in the language of belief and faith, not necessarily in [reference to] God, per se, if individuals are not comfortable with that, but belief in family, community, nation, and the future. Policy papers might be necessary for governing, but Democrats overrate them in campaigning. Belief is the key.

On LGBTQ, as an example, candidates can talk about bringing people into the family—integrating them into institutions we revere—instead of forcing LGBTQ members to the edge of society with society suffering negative consequences as a result.

Race, unfortunately, plays a role, but it’s mixed. On the one hand, Confederate symbols irrationally (in the philosophical sense) attract many in our community. In themselves, those supporting these symbols do not necessarily do so for racial reasons, but racists too easily can co-opt that support. On the other hand, every year I see more and more mixed-race couples and children at the Wal-Mart in Lexington [Virginia, population 7,400].

Candidates must walk a fine line on all racial issues including the removal of Confederate monuments. Personally, I grew up in Richmond loving the aesthetics of Monument Avenue. Still do, and I’m not alone. But I have grown more wary of their political and social message.

Too often, Democrats look down on rural voters. We can win these voters metaphorically and literally by sharing breakfasts with them in local cafes and Burger Kings. We can listen to and respond to their needs and worries, and we can support their dreams for community and family.

We must find concrete policies, beyond generalized references, to improve education and vocational training and better high-speed internet that will keep young people in our rural communities. We must devote time and money to achieve our educational goals.

The economic health of our families is tied into keeping young people in our communities. In fact, many—and this includes Republicans and Democrats—are happy that our local population will be stable with retirees replacing the departed young. Local Democrats, too often, are willing to take political-economic decisions that harm those on the lower socio-economic rungs. (Personally, I am embarrassed that many local Democrats do this.) Democrats must support local policies and initiatives that improve job opportunities for all our citizens.

For example, too often in Rockbridge, the stress that local Democrats place on “clean” jobs to preserve local natural beauty and our environment becomes a euphemism for not looking out for those who are lower on the socio-economic ladder. Why should local Trump voters vote for Democrats if we don’t find ways to improve their lives? Heavy industry is not the issue. That’s gone from Buena Vista and Glasgow [two other small cities in Rockbridge County, Virginia] and for economic reasons won’t be coming back. However, we should be able to attract light industry that, with care, can preserve the natural ecology that makes Rockbridge such an attractive place to live.

Our three universities are interested in, and can be further encouraged to, support the development of local high-tech businesses and other businesses by our “intellectual proletariat.”

Rampant drug use in small town and rural America is a symptom rather than a cause of economic dislocation, although it accelerates the downward spiral. … Rather than trading on fear and panic, candidates should show paths to a better future.

 

 

Barron: Nationally and here in the state, it continues to be a lack of showing up. Here in Massachusetts, almost all our statewide candidates are from the urban or large suburban communities in eastern Massachusetts. They need to visit rural towns and learn what our particular issues are firsthand. Too many campaigns are run by managers and schedulers (who are born and raised in urban places) that see small towns as tiny specks on the map and write them off because of they don’t think there are any votes there.

The folly of [relying on urban voters to win statewide election] was revealed here in our 2014 gubernatorial race. The Democratic nominee was the then-Attorney General Martha Coakley, who was born and raised in Berkshire County on the state’s far-western border with New York. In January 2014. Coakley was told by rural Democrats to highlight issues such as the lack of “last-mile” rural broadband and the shortage of primary care physicians, dentists, and mental health professionals in the four western counties. She was urged to campaign at farms and rural health clinics. A new Massachusetts Democratic Party Rural Subcommittee was created in February 2014 to work on driving up rural turnout.

But Coakley and the state Democratic Party would not commit any resources to a cost-effective rural voter initiative. Instead of running a hyper-local campaign, Coakley ran a cookie-cutter one. She aired the same spots on Springfield TV in western Massachusetts as she did in Boston. She vastly underperformed in many of these key rural towns. If Coakley had made the effort to really turn out a large rural vote in these target counties, she could have closed the 40,000 votes she needed to win.

 

What role, if any, do you think media infrastructure plays in the preferences of rural voters? Around 40% of Trump voters got their main election coverage from Fox News, according to the Pew Center. Is it even possible for Democratic candidates to reach a rural audience?

Clarke: In most public places where the TV is tuned into news channels rather than to sports and the occasional soap opera (my barbershop, for example), by far Fox is the channel of choice, with CNN lagging far behind. MSNBC doesn’t even make it to the starting gate.

Many of my non-Democratic friends also get much of their news from the internet. I am constantly bemused and saddened by their inability to discern good sources from bad and sound information from suspect sources. In their reluctance to verify what they read, to paraphrase Star Wars, “The Confirmation Bias is strong in them.” I have been subjected to email chains that defy intellectual rigor and are cruelly ignorant.

How to change this? Beyond the by-and-by hope for a better public educational system—generally supported by Democrats and held with suspicion by Republicans – it will be a hard slog for Democrats. 

Barron: The problem is not just Fox being the go-to network of red state America. The problem is also one of media consolidation in both print and electronic outlets. Many large daily papers are closing their Washington, D.C., bureaus meaning there are fewer reporters keeping a close eye on the doings of their state’s congressional delegation in the capital. The same thing is happening with the loss of bureaus at state capitals. Most rural daily and weekly newspapers don’t have the staff to do the in-depth reporting on how policies are affecting their readerships and just run the press releases of incumbent politicians as gospel.

Democrats need to convince their donor base, all of whom live in cities and suburbs, that their dollars can get stretched much further in rural precincts. This means buying display ads in small town papers and running spots on rural radio stations. Where Jay lives, you can buy a 60-second ad on the morning drive “Miss Jackie and Jim” show on WREL in Lexington, VA for $6. You can’t buy a Subway foot-long for that for lunch! In my county, a 60-second ad on WARE in Ware, MA, a town Trump won by almost eight points, costs only $8.

Whether it is trying to promote the pro-rural accomplishments of Democrats or expose the anti-rural records of Republicans, Democrats need to reach rural voters where they are If Democrats don’t seize the initiative to reach rural audiences with their own messages then they won’t be competitive at the ballot box.

 

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