DES MOINES, Iowa — As Democratic presidential candidates descended on the Iowa State Fair, a plane buzzed overhead, an ominous warning fluttering behind it on a banner: “Focus on Rural America.”
Democrats hoping to win the White House in 2020 recognize how critical that advice is after 2016, when Hillary Clinton turned in strong performances in many cities and suburbs but lost rural voters 2-to-1, falling short to President Donald Trump by slim margins in Florida, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. Democrats clawed back some gains in rural counties in the 2018 midterm elections, and they want to build on that momentum in 2020.
But the presidential primary, often dominated by cultural issues and Trump-driven hot buttons, including immigration and race, isn’t helping their case.
“There’s good reason to worry because the reality is this: There’s a fundamental values gap between the mainstream Democratic Party, which tends to be more socially liberal and cosmopolitan in its outlook, and rural and small-town voters,” said Mark Mellman, a Democratic pollster whose past campaigns include Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers’ 2018 victory and the 2018 defeat of Sen. Heidi Heitkamp (D-N.D.). “Unless a candidate can build bridges across that gap on the basis of values, it’s very difficult to make any policy proposal matter.”
“Right now, no one is building those bridges,” Mellman continued. But “if you can move rural voters, even a few points, it becomes possible to win in states you can’t otherwise win.”
There are early signs that Democrats’ wide presidential field is trying to forge a new connection to rural America and show that its party feels rural voters’ pain. In recent weeks, six Democrats — former Vice President Joe Biden, Sens. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota and Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Ind., and former Rep. John Delaney of Maryland — rolled out rural policy proposals, swinging through Iowa to cast themselves as the best messengers to voters who flipped from Barack Obama to Trump. Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont unveiled his rural agenda earlier this year.
Those individual pitches aren’t yet translating into a primary-wide conversation, however. During the first two Democratic National Committee debates, only one question focused on farmers, and candidates made only passing mentions of rural voters. (The word “rural” has been uttered 10 times over more than 10 hours of debates so far.) Meanwhile, decriminalizing border crossings and gun control have lately dominated the primary conversation.
“We are literally falling prey to the very thing that was one of the major factors that did us in in 2016 — that is a lack of focus on rural,” Klobuchar, who has centered her presidential bid on her own successes in winning counties deep in Trump country, said in an interview. “We have an obligation to keep talking about it, to keep bringing it up.”
Jeff Link, an Iowa-based consultant who is advising Focus on Rural America, the progressive group that paid for the plane circling the Iowa State Fair, said that if candidates are “talking about who is using what bathroom, we’re not going to get there with rural voters,” but that if they are “talking about how voters can pay their mortgage, then they can.”
Link added that earlier this month, his group discussed the early dearth of rural-centric debate questions with ABC, which is hosting the DNC’s third primary debate in September.
“We have a long way to go, and Trump starts way ahead in these rural places,” Link said. “In 2016, we didn’t have this level of discussion around rural that we are now, so that’s a positive indicator.”
Rural Democrats noted that the 2020 candidates’ proposals do address a slew of important rural issues, going beyond “saying ‘ethanol’ and ‘biofuels’ to check those boxes,” said former Sen. Heidi Heitkamp (D-N.D.), who started One Country, a group focused on rural issues, after she lost her reelection bid in 2018. The plans include a hodgepodge of proposals, like investing in infrastructure, addressing shortages in health care, expanding broadband access and taking on climate change in partnership with farmers.
The proposals’ breadth might attract rural voters, particularly those feeling economic pain from Trump’s tariffs, “so, it’s a start,” Heitkamp added.
“Rural Americans are among those with the most to lose from Republican policies that range from refusing to expand Medicaid in many states to these tariffs that are just killing a lot of farmers,” Buttigieg said in an interview. “If there [was] ever a chance to make sure we’re reaching out to voters who will benefit from our policies … now’s that chance.”
At the Cedar County fairgrounds last week, Buttigieg met with a handful of farmers and agricultural leaders before he laid out his own plan to help rural America, which he said is “too often” treated as “an afterthought,” a line greeted by nods from the crowd.
“I appreciate his willingness to talk to us and hear our concerns,” said Amy Glick, a 45-year-old independent who runs a farm in Iowa and met with Buttigieg ahead of his policy launch in Tipton, Iowa. “Showing up is important.”
Katie Anderson, a 30-year-old independent voter who also met with Buttigieg, said, “We need more of this, more of them showing up and sitting down with us.” Both Anderson and Glick said that although they hadn’t decided on whether they would support a Democrat for president, they both were open to it.
Former Agriculture Secretary and Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack — who just three years ago was a lone soldier in his quest to get the Democratic Party to show up in remote parts of the country — said that in other presidential cycles, candidates often thought if they talked about farmers, they would reach rural Americans. But people living in rural areas often work in education, health care, retail and manufacturing — not farming.
“The depth and the substance of these plans reflects a genuine effort to speak directly to rural places,” said Vilsack, who advised a handful of candidates on their platforms, including Biden, Warren, Gillibrand and Buttigieg. “It is a positive sign for the party.”
He added that a strong message emphasizing economic opportunities in rural America, combined with aggressive organizing in those communities, would make a difference in a campaign against Trump.
Democrats are climbing out of a deep hole in rural America. In 2008, Obama lost rural voters by 17 points, and by 23 points in 2012. Rock bottom arrived in 2016, when Clinton ran 34 points behind Trump among voters, according to data collected by Catalist, a Democratic data platform.
By 2018, Democrats rebounded slightly, losing rural areas by 27 points, an improvement over 2016. But “some Trump voters who sat out in 2018 will come back in 2020, so it will be important to see how well Democrats can maintain the momentum they built in these areas in the midterms,” said Yair Ghitza, chief scientist at Catalist. “I don’t think anybody expects Democrats to win rural areas writ large, but keeping the margin close is important for the overall state results.”
Democrats frequently point to Trump’s tariffs on farm products, like soybeans and pork, as one reason why agricultural communities might swing their direction in 2020. “Because Trump has been such a failure, particularly for rural America, he’s created an opening that would not otherwise be there,” said Mellman, the Democratic pollster.
But a recent survey by Iowa State University of more than 700 farmers in Minnesota, Iowa and Illinois found that 56 percent were still “somewhat or strongly supportive” of Trump’s trade dispute with China, even though the vast majority saw their income take a hit. To make up for some of their losses, the administration since last year has authorized two bailouts totaling up to $28 billion for the farm economy.
Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) told reporters at the state fair that he wouldn’t advise Trump to roll back tariffs on China, even amid signs the dispute could drag past the 2020 election, because “I haven’t talked or run into any farmers who have suggested that either.”
Even as some 2020 candidates are paying more attention to rural counties, some Democrats worry that “some of these issues get heavy media attention and chew up so much bandwidth that we can’t break through on economic issues,” said Matt Paul, Clinton’s 2016 Iowa state director, who also led Vilsack’s press shop at the Agriculture Department. “Clearly, Democrats have work to do in rural America, but it’s an important recognition that Democrats are going to renew efforts to get a message out to people in water tower towns.”
A Democratic consultant, granted anonymity to discuss the issue candidly, said that if Democrats are “the party of banning assault weapons and decriminalizing the border, then rural voters are not going to be able to hear any Democrats’ policy plan.”
“That’s like bringing a boombox to a rock concert,” the consultant said.
Helena Bottemiller Evich contributed reporting.