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 thoughts on “What Many Democrats Still Don’t Get About Rural Campaigning

  1. 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.

    1. 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 . . .

  2. 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.

  3. 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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