Democrats running for president have released a slew of ads and policy proposals in recent weeks targeting rural voters just over five months before the Iowa Democratic caucuses.
South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg became the latest candidate this week to set his sights on rural voters with a launch of radio ads to run in rural Iowa. The ads attack President Donald Trump for focusing too much on the stock market and starting a trade war with China that has been harmful to the rural Americans who helped put him in the White House three years ago.
“If you listen to President Trump, you’d think the only thing that matters for our economy is whether the stock market had a good or bad day,” Buttigieg says in one ad.
Buttigieg goes on to list the problems rural Americans face, including a drop in farming income, hospital shortages, and communities’ struggle with mental health issues and addiction to opioids.
The Indiana mayor’s ad blitz is just the latest effort by a 2020 Democrat to reach voters in rural America, where Democrats lost decisively in 2016 and gradually picked up support in the 2018 midterms.
Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., released a plan this month aimed to pick up rural voters by promising $85 billion in federal funds to build infrastructure that will provide high-speed internet access to underserved areas. Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, former Rep. John Delaney of Maryland, Buttigieg, and the race’s front-runner, former Vice President Joe Biden, have all recently released plans for bolstering rural communities. Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., put his plan forward earlier this year.
Democrats fear a repeat of 2016, when Hillary Clinton lost rural voters 2-to-1 against Trump, widening the urban-rural voting gap from the previous two presidential election cycles. The Democrats must adapt to win back these disenchanted voters.
Trump’s message resonated with rural America in 2016, as he campaigned in areas often regarded as forgotten, where the jobs had left and opioids had swept through neighborhoods, devastating communities.
Democrats see an opening, however, to reclaim these voters in 2020, already having made some progress in the 2018 election. According to a Brookings Institution analysis of voter data, Democrats made much of their gains in the suburbs, small metros, and rural areas in the recent midterms — places that have, in the past, all been reliably Republican.
Elections expert Jacob Neiheisel from the University of Buffalo said that of the candidates seeking the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination, Biden is in the best position to win back this key voting bloc. Neiheisel pointed to a new poll from the Pew Research Center released last week revealing Biden does far better among traditional Democrats who typically reside in rural areas.
The poll reveals Biden has much more support among religious Democrats than any other candidate in the race, giving him a platform to persuade voters he is the best candidate to go head-to-head with Trump next fall.
As the time remaining before the Iowa caucuses wanes, Democrats are likely to increase their focus on rural America, setting them up to compete for these voters in the general. Democrats need to pay still more attention to Middle America if they are serious about drawing these voters into the party. As Politico pointed out, Democrats only mentioned the word “rural” 10 times in 10 hours of debates this year.
Neiheisel noted that while there are indicators that Democrats might be successful in bringing rural voters into their party next year, it will not be a result of anything the candidates have done.
“It’s easier to mobilize when you’re not in power,” Neiheisel said, arguing that if rural voters flock to support the Democratic nominee, it will be in large part because of the “nature of the times.”