Speak Your Piece: Deciphering the Rural Vote
[imgbelt img= Heidi-HeitkampFortYatesPowwow530.jpg]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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).