What Many Democrats Still Don’t Get About Rural Campaigning

Fred Hubbell campaigned extensively throughout rural Iowa during the 2018 election. Voters may just not have noticed it.

As Iowa Democrats pick up the pieces from another stinging statewide loss, a lot of focus has been paid to the party’s continued lopsided defeats throughout rural Iowa. Carrying only 11 counties statewide, as Hubbell did against Governor Kim Reynolds, simply doesn’t cut it no matter how huge the vote margins are out of the state’s urban centers.

It’s a trend that’s clearly been evident in the decade after Chet Culver’s 62-county win in the 2006 governor’s race, and one that’s deepened under Donald Trump’s time on the national stage. Democrats aren’t simply losing in rural Iowa; they’re getting wiped out there. Reynolds carried many rural counties with 60% of the vote or more. There’s plenty of other issues (most notably Eastern Iowa’s blue-collar counties performing poorly for Democrats), but we’ll keep our focus on the rural counties in this post.

One of the biggest complaints that come from Democratic circles after an election result like this is that Democratic candidates just didn’t show up in rural Iowa. But with Hubbell and several other candidates who lost earlier this month, that simply wasn’t the case. Look back at some of their campaign tour schedules and you’ll find plenty of trips that included counties like Buchanan, Hamilton, Mahaska, Crawford and Buena Vista.

The other complaint you often hear is that Democrats didn’t talk enough about the issues that matter to rural voters. Well, I was at events in small towns where I heard Hubbell talk about rural hospital closures, small town housing problems, mental health services, consolidating school districts and job training programs. By the end of the campaign (really, by the end of the primary), Hubbell was quite well-versed in rural issues and spoke about them often there.

Why didn’t they have an impact, then?

There’s a number of reasons for that. The largest is probably a big-picture issue with TV ad messaging and a failure to present our candidates in a way that connects with people on a personal level. That hurts Democrats the hardest in places like rural Iowa where there’s a deep, cultural mistrust of the party.

But for the purposes of this piece, I want to keep the focus solely on what Democrats could be doing differently when stumping in small towns. Because after following along on some trips with many different candidates over the past four years and observing the rest of their schedules and social media feeds, I came away with one big, recurring concern.

Too often, when Democrats campaign in rural Iowa, it seems like they’re campaigning for the city administrator’s vote and little else.

By that I mean two things. One, that Democratic candidates can get so into the weeds of in-depth policy issues in rural Iowa appearances that they fail to make a personal connection with locals. The main people their discussions resonate with are the city administrators, community college presidents and hospital CEOs whose jobs are to solve such complex problems.

And two, that Democrats too often end up campaigning only with the professional class of any given rural county (and typically, only in the county seat). While Democrats are losing rural Iowa, it’s not like they’re getting zero votes there. They’re still pulling around 35% in most places. The problem is that when they go into a rural county, they’re talking mostly with that 35% that’s already with them.

Hubbell held countless policy roundtables and toured healthcare facilities and community colleges in rural counties. And there’s a very, very good reason for campaigns to do such trips. You invite along the local reporter, hammer down on your issue of Medicaid privatization or school funding and how its impacting that county, and get a nice, very on-message story written up. That way your visit that may have included just a dozen people can be read about by thousands, and they’ll hear about the exact issue you wanted to push.

But in today’s world of declining small-town newspapers, a rural populace that increasingly gets its news from social media and that is distrustful of both the mainstream media and Democrats, that approach just doesn’t feel like it’s enough anymore. It’s still useful, but that alone doesn’t cut it.

It also greatly limits which voters you get in-person face time with. I got a laugh in the final days of the campaign when I saw this tweet from Hubbell during one of his visits to a hospital in Hardin County. Of the five locals in these photos, two of them (a community college provost and I believe a former newspaper editor) were the same two guys who took Hubbell on a separate tour at the local community college back in last November that I joined. I assume he got those two men’s votes, but he lost the rest of Hardin County, 37% to 61%.

Hubbell speaks with community college leaders in November 2017.

And it’s not a problem limited to the Hubbell campaign. Most of his opponents in the Democratic primary (and other Democrats in past campaigns) have taken similar approaches. That may have made more sense in a primary, but I doubt that any of them would have properly transitioned to a more effective strategy in the general election.

The even bigger problem here relates back to something that was repeated time and time again from Democratic candidates during the primary: that voters in rural and urban areas actually care about the same issues. That’s the biggest load of bullshit I heard during 2018, and I heard it a lot.

A more accurate description would be that the same issues that impact voters in urban areas also impact voters in rural areas. What voters in both places care about and vote on is lightyears apart. That’s something that Democrats simply have not been able to understand. In some ways, Democrats’ insistence that the two groups care about the same thing is a cop-out so that they don’t have to reevaluate their campaigns.

The roadblock to Democrats with the rural vote comes down more to a cultural issue and trust. And I don’t mean “cultural issue” as in abortion or gay marriage, though obviously those topics also play a part. It’s more that the cultural differences between rural and urban areas have split in such dramatic ways and that America’s partisan polarization places Republicans on the side of those rural areas.

There’s much more to it than that, but again, sticking to campaigning strategy here, what that means for Democrats is that you have to get yourself in front of these skeptical voters when you travel to rural Iowa. A news article won’t cut it, nor will talking to just the professional class or doing county party office drop-bys.

A campaign staffer told me after the election that what he saw was Democratic candidates constantly going to the one designated Democratic coffee shop in a county seat. In any given rural county, you can find an enclave of like-minded liberals and stick to that safe place to campaign. But you’re missing out on actually winning over people who might be sitting around the VFW down the street (including some folks who were voting for Democrats not too many years ago). Those are the people who need to see you in person (and will tell their friends about it when they do) to get past the cultural mistrust they have these days of Democrats.

There were candidates who did this well. Tim Gannon, though he lost, made lots of stops at grain silos to chat with local farmers. Rob Sand would stop in at small-town restaurants and just work the tables. He also understood the importance of cultural signifiers in his run for State Auditor. He’d put his mounted deer heads that he’d hunted on his campaign float while going through small towns, pitching his bow hunting hobby as a way to show he’s a Democrat who gets their way of life. J.D. Scholten turned his visits to small towns into community events and often walked town squares and dropped in on business owners

One of the best practitioners of a strong rural campaigning style is Dave Loebsack. He gets out to Friday fish fries, makes stops at American Legion halls and VFWs, holds farm visits where a friendly farmer will invite all of his neighbors, goes to nursing homes in small towns, does police ride-alongs in rural counties, and hosts a lot of “coffee with your congressman” events. There’s a reason he continues to hold down his congressional district, even in tough years for Democrats. Voters have met him, time after time, in settings that are natural to them.

There’s plenty of other methods. Stop by any Hy-Vee early in the morning in a rural county and you’ll find a group of a dozen older men who sit around and talk politics every morning (and who also happen to talk with everyone else in town). Outside the county seats, you’ll run into them at the local McDonalds and Hardees. Drop by the small town bars after 5:00 or around shift change and you’ll meet the blue-collar voters who lost faith in the party. Friday night football games, small town farmers markets and livestock sale barns offer up other chances to meet rural voters where they actually live and work.

This is one of the reasons Cindy Axne’s choice to continue David Young’s tradition of visiting all 16 counties in the 3rd District once a month should slowly help improve her margins in the counties outside Polk and Dallas. She can always stop by the designated Democratic coffee shop in town, but twelve visits a year to places like Page County means she’ll also be hitting up a lot of places that Republican-leaning voters frequent.

The point of all this is actually getting yourself in front of skeptical voters so that the caricatures they see of Democrats in the ads and on social media seem a little less real in their mind. Having a strong set of rural policy ideas is still very important and can help Democrats with their credibility. But unless you get your shoe in the door to where they’ll actually listen to you, none of that matters.

Hubbell could have spoken about the Medicaid crisis in rural Iowa until he was blue in the face. At the end of the day, the policy side of things only matters if voters feel like they can actually trust anything you’re saying.

And sure, it’s not like Hubbell was the kind of guy who was going to go in and do a bunch of back-slapping at a small town tavern. But certainly his business background could have helped him connect at the Rotary Club meeting held at the local Pizza Ranch.

Also, yes, you’ll never get face time with all the voters in rural Iowa that you need, but word spreads in these close-knit communities when you show up in the places that matter and where people talk. Doing enough of that could get some of these counties that Democrats are losing by 30 points down to a more respectable 10 or 15 points, enough to pull off a statewide victory. And maybe the party should start taking candidates’ personalities and abilities to make those connections more into consideration during primaries.

That’s also an important lesson for Democrats’ crop of 2020 presidential candidates who will soon be descending upon Iowa. For the purposes of winning the Iowa Caucus, they too could stick to a safe campaign approach in rural Iowa, tailoring their events to meet the 35% of people who are already voting for Democrats (and who are likely to caucus).

But if they really want to figure out how to win back Midwestern states, it wouldn’t hurt to spend some of their time in Iowa stopping by those Hy-Vees and fish fries and VFWs where they can meet the kind of voter who stopped trusting the party in recent years. It would certainly help Iowa Democrats in future races if those folks saw the party’s national leaders as real human beings that they could relate to. And the candidates might just have a bit of fun while doing it.


by Pat Rynard
Posted 11/26/18

19 Comments on "What Many Democrats Still Don’t Get About Rural Campaigning"

  • I agree, that is probably a good lesson for the future. And slightly off topic, it points to the need for lifting the cap on 435 Reps in the House – if we make CDs smaller, more like 100K citizens instead of 700K, then voters will be better able to contact their representative, reps will be better able to listen to them and meet them, and the influence of Big Money (for ad money and logistics) will be diluted. It also does not require changing the constitution.
    But OK, that still means _statewide_ candidates have to have money, an organization in place, and shuttle around the state like mad – I don’t see how that can be helped.

  • Interesting take on this, but I think it leaves out one important point. Your post applies to places like Carroll, Decorah and Sheldon. Those are definitely rural communities, but there is rural and then there is rural. By that I’m referring to true small towns in places like Fremont and Taylor counties in SW Iowa. Generally candidates spend very little time and energy in those locations. Tim Gannon’s visit to local elevators was an exception. So I think Democrats have to understand that there are two rural Iowas and figure out how to reach both.

  • That may be all well and good to visit those establishments, but, in Allamakee County (any politician know where that is?) the residents are mostly Republican, and don’t give a rat’s behind about the views of our democratic challengers. They vote for only those with an R in front of their name. They couldn’t tell you the first thing about that candidate other than they’re a Republican and that is who they’ll vote for. The Allamakee County Courthose has one, count em, one Democrat in the Courthouse. People are proud of that.

  • Pat, I agree with much of what you say here about the need for Dem candidates to have a much wider presence in those kinds of venues where they have a better opportunity to connect with the “non-choir.” I also think a big part of the problem is that Dems in general have to start doing a better job of countering the plethora of false narratives that is being hoisted on rural voters in various forms of media, whether it’s rural talk radio, FOX News, and social media.

    In any assessment of any kind of dilemma, it must first be asked, “What has changed that may have contributed to this situation?” In rural America, the constant barrage of utter BS through FOX News, Rush, the dramatic rise in Christian broadcasting stations at lower frequencies in the last ten years (Try finding a signal for public radio affiliate while driving through parts of rural Iowa or Nebraska these days.) Sinclair, etc. is having a profound impact on the ideology of the rural voter in America, Iowa included. So much so that of course Iowa is replicating a mirror image of what occurred in Kansas, where voters are so lured that they literally vote against their own interests time and time again.

    Yes, getting out into those small rural gatherings is key, but I believe that candidates also have to start talking about the lies that voters are hearing. And a good way to do that is to use real life stories of Iowans who have been negatively affected by GOP policies, whether it’s healthcare, education, wages, business, etc. Labor intensive? You bet! But will a diehard rural FOX News fan be more inclined to believe a new political candidate telling them that what they’re hearing on FOX is BS or will they believe their neighbor telling them the same thing because they’ve experienced it?

    At all levels of government and politics, the GOP nationwide has become masters of the false narrative. No matter how outrageous, the old adage applies: “Throw enough shit on the wall, and some of it will stick.” Dems have to work harder at capturing and growing the space where the truth exists. And to make that space more inviting and less threatening.

    • I agree with your ideas. You also can’t count on that the rural voters are dialed into Fox, or MSNBC, or CNN. I am constantly surprised by how little attention voting commands among my own neighborhood. Republican, Democrat, or None of the above, there are a lot of people who don’t vote. That is mystifying to those of us who pay such close attention to politics and government, but it is true.

  • Actually, your points I as a rural/urban Democratic voting citizen are lost on me. I understood elections were to be so every person could vote on policy and how it will impact my family in the future. If it is going to be a “popularity” contest let me point to the national leaders we have now. Enough said.

  • Hi Pat –
    Our 30 years of work growing rural towns has also identified your excellent distinction that the “culture” of rural communities is vastly different than that of the metro areas. To achieve a new cultural level, a community – and for purposes of this article, campaigning, – must understand the history and childhood brain development of each individual in a community in order to work/grow/campaign/be taken seriously there effectively.

    Rural communities hold tightly to a deep sense of pride and Iowa independence – a strength and vulnerability. Smart campaigners will spend the next six months studying Rural Iowa history and birth-to-six-year-old psychology in rural areas to apply to the 2020 election cycle. Thanks for a spot-on article.

  • It’s not fair to compare Hubbell to Culver. 1. Culver ran for an open seat, not against an incumbent. 2. Culver had spent the previous eight years giving commencement speeches and doing feel-good GOTV campaigning. Before Hubbell announced his candidacy, I had no idea who he was. 3. Finally, Culver was an ex-school teacher from Cedar Rapids whereas Hubbell was a multi-millionaire from the biggest city of all. He should have known his appeal was limited. But when you are rich, I guess the temptation to start at the top is hard to resist.

    There’s more going on here than the urban-rural divide.

    • The sad part is that the policies of the Democrats are critically needed in Iowa. I grew up in a small town in Northeastern Iowa. I have read about the child abuse and the lack of serious sentences given to offenders. What about the failing foster care system? People in Iowa are hurting and there is little help. I see racism increasing and expressed more freely. The message that I hear from Iowa is…as long as me and mine are okay, I do not care. Sad.

  • Another objection: The writer assumes campaigns matter; that a change in tactical choices of audiences will produce results. What is the evidence for that? Indeed what is the evidence that direct mail or TV ads matter?

    I think voters do drift from one candidate this time to his opponent next time, but that is not the result of campaigns. It results from the personality/identity of the candidates in the race, and from the changing news cycle over the years. This time the news cycle produced an anti-Trump vote for Congress but failed to produce a generally anti-GOP wave in Iowa.

  • Lots of truth in what you say in this article . however the party politics are still controlled by people long involved so they have their favorites when it comes to who gets to run and Hubbell was on of those . These deserving candidates always lose ! In the governors race this time we had candidates on both sides like that, so the only ace that Reynolds had was already being governor . In the last leg of the campaign she had great ads, a soft caring good looking grandmother wanting the best for those under her care . Brilliant ! The old school Democrats should have stirred the pot and went with the guy that was not afraid to get in the face of republicans . He was human even pinched a girl in a bar when in collage . Plenty of Republicans in Iowa have done the same or worse . But then Democrats will always take a pocketknife to a sword fight, its just in their DNA ! The younger Dem’s that won did it their own way and it showed .

    • What is being said is this. Get out in the barnyard and pick grit with the chickens. Hospital and municipal execs are well connected and meet in Des Moines frequently. Coffee and cookies in church basements will woo voters who are struggling.

    • The younger Democrat you’re referring to was also the pick of the party establishment and it’s not clear that he would have campaigned all that differently (perhaps somewhat better policies) than Mr. Hubbell. Democrats use the same political consultants for statewide races and follow the same game plan election after election. As mentioned in the article, the plan involves predominately preaching to the choir. It also, as mentioned, includes discounting the importance of the candidate directly connecting with both disaffected Democrats and infrequent Democratic voters. There is an almost religious belief that volunteers, mailings, and television ads will make the connection. Although all of those have value, in the end they invariably fall short.

      With respect, while the younger Democrat would not have had trouble connecting to voters (rural and urban) because he was wealthy, one group of our less frequent voters is women, particularly young women. I think many of them and the men who support them would have felt disrespected if he and the party had argued his behavior was no big deal. Disrespecting people is not a winning strategy for Democrats.

      I would be interested to know if others have observed another problem with the Iowa Democratic party’s behavior, directly disrespecting and marginalizing Progressive voices, including the young. I have been part of the Democratic party leadership in the past and have heard the leadership more than once declare that authentic Progressive candidates with clear Progressive policies are naive and unelectable. I as a Progressive have been directly informed that I don’t understand how things work. While I vote for Democrats despite being ignored, not all of our voters will do so. The young Democrats who won in many places won because they ran as unabashed Progressives. They inspired voters and gave them hope that if elected, they would not just fight, but fight for the People’s best interest. In primary’s, they were rarely the party establishment’s choice.

      Until the Iowa Democratic party adopts a more Progressive attitude both in elections and in governing, embraces not undermines more Progressive candidates and the effective solutions they bring to the problems, and truly listens to those who are marginalized, I fear we will never gain and keep enough power to affect positive change.

  • A one word reaction to this article: Amen! Especially the sentence “And maybe the party should start taking candidates’ personalities and abilities to make those connections more into consideration during primaries.” The WHO talk radio influence in rural areas is real, but Demos need to make an effort to break through and dispel the stereotypes.
    Am hopeful that in your next article you tackle the differences between the TV ads run by the Finkenaur and Hubbell campaigns and their efforts to reach rural voters — with profoundly different results. It’s important folks outside the 1st District see exactly how to reduce GOP margins in rural counties.

  • There are two non-negotiable issues for many rural Iowa voters: gun rights and abortion. It’s nice to talk about Medicaid and mental health but none of that matters if the perception is that you are going to take my guns and allow abortions. Right now these are also non-negotiable issues for the Democratic party. This is going to be a problem for us for a long time.

    • yes, stick with the meat and potato issues. Farm policy geared to perpetuate soil/water degradation and below parity farm income, resulting in farm consolidation, main street demise, and removal of eaters from the food chain . . .

  • Hi Pat, Your point about meeting administrators, whether they be school/college, city or hospital, is well taken. I also watched way too many Democratic candidates or spouses come to our local Democratic office or the lovely neighboring Democrat-owned space to give their stump speech. Who attended? Once when I saw Hubbell there were there some faces I didn’t recognize, but how much better would it have been if they had come to the local VFW or public meeting room? Those were spaces that both Sand and Finkenauer used. Our local Democratic chairs need to be giving that advice to candidate’s staffers when they first make contact to schedule events. Quit preaching to the choir.

  • I have watched too many candidates entr the venue with a group, give their comments and return to that first group to continue talking–THAT is preaching to the choir! The candidate should be shaking hands around the room–touching people is very important! Shaking a hand, looking the person directly in the eyes and listening is very important! Touching is very important!

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