Inside the impact of rural voters on the Democratic Party

Inside the impact of rural voters on the Democratic Party
Image via Shutterstock.

It’s another Sunday, so for those who tune in, welcome to a diary discussing the Nuts & Bolts of a Democratic campaign. If you’ve missed out, you can catch up any time: Just visit our group or follow the Nuts & Bolts Guide. Every week I try to tackle issues I’ve been asked about. With the help of other campaign workers and notes, we address how to improve and build better campaigns, or explain issues that impact our party.


In my normal structure of Nuts & Bolts, I work to help someone who may never be involved directly in a campaign understand how a small campaign may work. I try not to cover the large scale items or very complex workings—like communications and field campaign strategies, which get too detailed, and are better done in person or through an actual training program. In a broad overview, though, one item needs to be addressed before the 2020 election and it is simple: as a party, we often misunderstand rural voters. These mistakes, made based on geography not based on voter tendencies and psychology are easy to fix. We just have to commit to actually talking to, and listening to, rural voters

Understanding the democratic base

Recently, at a forum for statewide candidates, the question centered around how much attention to put into areas which were more difficult for Democratic voters, and who would motivate those voters. An individual stood up and made the case clear that in order to potentially win, they would need a more conservative Democratic candidate. This analysis was—in my opinion—too surface level and did not appreciate who were the Democratic voters. It didn’t take too long before it was clear that in the Democratic primary, the candidate who advertised themselves as pro-choice and pro-LGBTQ rights would easily win the primary, while the anti-choice Democratic candidate would suffer a significant defeat.

Others had warned that this outcome would result in terrible outcomes for the fall. What really happened, in 2018, was that the pro-choice, pro-LGBTQ rights candidate ended up becoming governor of Kansas.

Why was that true? What we discovered is that if you were a registered Democratic voter in rural counties, you chose to be registered Democratic in an area where that wouldn’t always be popular. Understanding our own base can be very important.

A loss can be a win

Many races around the country cover significant geographical areas. An elected district can include several counties, cities, or areas in order to comprise their voting base. In these races, Democratic consultants will often focus on heavy and high turnout in known Democratic areas, looking to solidly outpace rural areas to bring in a win. There is absolutely nothing wrong with this strategy, as long as it is not the only strategy. Rural areas often have higher voter turnout per percentage because they have more social pressure to participate. After the 2018 election, YouGov did an interesting breakdown of the issues and how they play out even inside a party from urban to rural.

What a lot of this can boil down to is that you do not need to win these districts to win a larger race. In 2016, several counties in Oklahoma and Kansas, as an example, went nearly 90-10 Trump to Hillary. The moment you begin to turn those districts 70-30 you lose them, but you start making up ground county by county. The party can’t over-invest in rural areas in comparison to their voter turnout, but they also cannot abandon them as well. This is a juggling act to make sure we get the most voter impact for the investment.

Is this really white privilege?

In terms of the Electoral College, and even the House, a lot of the problems with all of these strategies comes down to the simple fact that terribly drawn districts or districts that pack together voters in such a way that we diminish the impact.

We’ve known about this for quite some time. Slate wrote about this in 2006:

“As a mapmaker, I can have more of an impact on an election than a campaign, than a candidate,” says Republican consultant David Winston, who drew House seats for the GOP after the 1990 U.S. Census. “When I, as a mapmaker, have more of an impact on an election than the voters, the system is out of whack.”

So, what happens? The unfortunate truth is pretty simple. If a state uses redistricting based on a philosophy of diluting likeminded voters so far apart to give them no voice (cracking), or packing them together so tightly as to hand over districts but prevent impact anywhere else (packing), they can do a lot of harm to Democratic efforts.

Why? Because when it comes to many of these races, especially congressional races and how they twist up with states that have a wide rural population, packed urban districts can lower turnout because the outcome is assured. Missouri 2016 is an example I often think about when it comes to the impact of packing. Kansas City and St. Louis are drawn into tight, packed districts that guarantee they will be democratically held. As a result, they don’t have the same contact numbers as if they were, well, a little bit less packed.

Jason Kander lost Missouri by 78,000 votes. Due to packing, however, looking at the House district returns, you see something interesting. In competitive races—like U.S. House seat 2 in Missouri, 413,000 total votes were case, and the Democratic candidate, Bill Otto, lost with 155,689. In U.S. House district 5, the Kansas City area, Emanuel Cleaver II also won 55-38, the same percentage Otto lost by, but with 190,766 votes, a total of 324,000 votes cast in that U.S. House district.

When the voters have less competition, or they feel as though their state is not going to be overall competitive for major races but their district is safe they have less reason to vote.

This allows packing to minimize the voices of minority communities by continuing to pack the districts and spread the message: look, this district is democratic, so that’s fine, we gave you that, just don’t show up because your state is lost.

Rural Republicans keep showing up, and turn out in packed districts declines. Until (or if) districts are defined in a way that is not as packed/cracked, we have to see the solution we do have is to work at any level to turn the races we can compete, no matter where they are, and a way to do that is not buying into the idea that rural community democratic voters are conservative democratic voters. The answer remains the same: actually go talk to them, rather than offer prescriptions without hearing their issues. You might be surprised.

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