The 2016 election losses in rural America were a shocking wakeup call to Democrats. It demonstrated that winning in urban areas alone isn’t sufficient to regain majority control in statehouses and Congress. Democrats must find an effective message that will resonate with rural and working class voters. Following President Donald Trump’s overwhelming wins in rural America and the devastating losses by Democrats, a number of projects were launched in an effort to craft that rural message.
One survey was developed by Congresswoman Cheri Bustos, our Democratic Illinois neighbor. Her survey results are published in Hope from the Heartland: How Democrats Can Better Serve the Midwest by Bringing Rural, Working Class Wisdom to Washington.
In her survey, they conducted interviews with 72 successful local officials from rural areas won by Republicans. A number of Iowans were interviewed, some of which are quoted below.
Congresswoman Cheri Bustos has rural credibility because she has consistently won in an Eastern Illinois rural Congressional district that Trump carried. Bustos beat her Republican opponent by 20.6 percent as Trump edged out Clinton in her district. In all of these 12 districts, Trump flipped the districts in presidential elections in 2016 vs. 2012. Obama won Bustos’ District in 2012 by 16.8 percent while Trump won her district by .7 percent in 2016. In the survey summary, Bustos described the makeup of her district.
“Most of the counties in my district are rural with a high concentration of working class voters. After defeating a Republican incumbent in 2012 and again in a rematch in 2014, I won 60 percent of the vote last year in a district that Donald Trump also won,” said Bustos. “In my district, you hear stories of workers whose jobs were outsourced overseas and faced the indignity of having to train their replacements from China. Stories of working families holding multiple jobs and trying to save some money for their kids to have the opportunity to go to college. Stories of farmers concerned about how they have to transport their goods to market on crumbling roads and bridges.”
The questions Bustos hopes to answer are: what changed in Democratic messaging between 2012 vs. 2016 and what must Democrats do to reverse these rural districts back to the Democratic column?
“We sought out people who regularly face voters in rural and working-class areas. These leaders have not only witnessed cultural and economic shifts over time, but they have also prevailed on the front lines of recent political battles by addressing the real concerns of their constituents,” wrote Bustos.
“Too often, Heartland voters view national Democrats as fixated on siloed messages to specific groups that don’t include them or are too focused on controversial social issues to the exclusion of economic concerns. Instead, (we) urge national Democrats to stay focused on championing new policy solutions in infrastructure, education and small business that will elevate the economic fortunes of all voters, especially those in rural areas and small towns who feel their concerns aren’t being addressed. When they open the paper in the morning or flip on the news at night, too often they see Democrats talking about things that don’t directly relate to them,” continued Bustos.
Bustos summarized her goal, “We believe the most effective way for the party to better serve those in rural areas is to learn from those in the trenches, especially those who are actually succeeding.”
Here are a few quotes from Iowa Democrats interviewed:
Former Iowa State Rep. Patti Ruff, “The ‘D’ by my name hurt, and the top-end campaign hurt the bottom-end campaign. It had an elitist bent, which didn’t fit for the working class.”
Iowa State Sen. Chaz Allen advised the party to “stop talking to voters in silos… Democrats should focus more on working class voters who pay their taxes quarterly.”
Iowa State Sen. Kevin Kinney: “Our words don’t match what rural people are saying…Don’t tell them what to do; get buy-in from them…don’t talk down to rural voters. Talk to them as your neighbors, your equals. National Democrats are perceived as arrogant, and we’ve lost credibility in rural areas because were not in touch with people.”
Iowa State Sen. Tod Bowman suggested the party “help Main Street versus Wall Street and the focus should be on financial security — quality, affordable health care, affordable college, pension security and supplemental savings.”
Rep. Todd Prichard said, “the party needs a clear message, and that message should have five priorities-jobs, jobs, education, jobs and jobs.”
“We need candidates that have backgrounds in agriculture and understand agriculture,” said Iowa State Rep. Bruce Bearinger.
Here are the key summary points of the Bustos’ report. The full report can be accessed this link. It’s well worth the read.
Despite these trends, Democrats can do better in rural areas. We can earn back the trust of rural working class voters by:
- Improving our messaging and the Democratic brand;
- Focusing our policies on jobs and the economy;
- Reconnecting with voters from the Heartland; and
- Adapting campaigns to rural areas.
by Rick Smith