Rural Playbook

Richard D. Elliott, UMBC:

One problem that we Democrats face is geography. Republicans rack up easy, often blowout wins in many states. A 12 point victory in Arizona for McCain, a 24 point win in Arkansas for Boozman, a 14 point win in Georgia for Isakson. In fact, Republicans won 15 of these seats by double digits. Below you see a map from the 2016 senatorial races where the dark blue indicates Democrats holding a Senate seat, light blue indicates Democrats gaining a Senate seat, and red indicates Republicans holding a Senate seat.

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In Missouri, Jason Kander lost by less than 3%. In Pennsylvania, Kathleen McGinty lost by less than 1.5%. Below is a map where dark red shows Republicans holding onto House seats, light red shows areas where Republicans flipped a district red , light blue shows where Democrats flipped the district blue,  and dark blue is Democrats holding onto House seats.

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Based on these maps, it’s clear that Democrats have issues with winning over rural voters. You can chalk it up to racial prejudice against an increasingly diverse America, or economic anxiety, or people who previously believed in Obama’s message of hope and change but felt left out after eight years. Regardless, Democrats MUST rewrite their playbook for earning rural votes, lest our party be destroyed and relegated to the coasts and cities.


  1. Fighting gerrymandering and voter suppression

Gerrymandering:  to manipulate the boundaries of (an electoral constituency) so as to favor one party or class, to achieve (a result) by manipulating the boundaries of an electoral constituency.

Voter suppression: A strategy to influence the outcome of an election by discouraging or preventing people from voting. It is distinguished from political campaigning in that campaigning attempts to change likely voting behavior by changing the opinions of potential voters through persuasion and organization. Voter suppression, instead, attempts to reduce the number of voters who might vote against a candidate or proposition.

In 2008, North Carolina had 8 Democratic representatives to 5 Republicans. In 2016, there are just two. This can be chalked up to extreme gerrymandering that occurred after the 2010 census. By compacting most of North Carolina’s black population in just two congressional districts and imposing draconian voter ID laws, there’s no way that Democrats have a chance (considering that black Americans overwhelmingly vote Democratic). And it’s not just North Carolina.

Georgia, Indiana, Kansas, Mississippi, Tennessee, Virginia, and Wisconsin have all passed strict photo ID laws. In fact, only 18 states and Washington D.C. don’t require some form of ID in order to vote. Why require ID to vote, you may ask? To prevent election fraud which is Ever. So. Prevalent. Voter ID laws to counter 31 cases of election fraud in over a billion ballots counted is giving a solution to a non-existent problem. What do these laws really do? Make it unnecessarily hard for the poor, black, elderly, and Latinx to vote and thus depressing Democratic turnout. In Alabama, 31 state driver’s license offices closed while the cost of getting a license renewed increased by 54%. The prohibitive cost of obtaining IDs for many of these people is worse than the poll tax.

And gerrymandering is just as bad, if not worse. Republicans who made enormous gains in the 2010 midterm elections were allowed to redraw the electoral maps to their own benefit, changing politics for the rest of this decade. And if Democrats can’t pick up Governor’s mansions and House seats in 2018 and 2020, our party could be gerrymandered into obscurity.

  1. Helping out small businesses, farmers, and unions

Prior to the DNC Chair race, I had never heard of Pete Buttigieg. He is an unorthodox Democrat: a gay former Marine, an ardent progressive, the 2013 Mayor of the Year, and a proven winner. He wins elections by enormous margins in the same state where Mike Pence was elected governor. How? By assisting the creation and development of local businesses.

A 2014 study showed that 39% of small business owners identify as Republicans, while 22% align with the Democrats and 29% are Independents. And that’s a huge demographic: there are nearly 5,000,000 small business owners in the country (more than the population of Alabama). This is likely because they believe that Republicans would repeal the Affordable Care Act, which does require businesses with 50 or more employees to buy health insurance for their employees. This is what Ted Cruz was talking about when he debated Bernie Sanders on health care. However, universal health care (Medicare For All) would reduce costs for health care and lead to happier, healthier employees. This is better for businesses, better for workers, better for the economy, and better for society,

“Tax reform” as described by Republicans is also viewed as a benefit for small business owners; it’s not. There’s no way that cutting the corporate tax rate for Wal-Mart will assist Joe on Main Street. HOWEVER, tax cuts on the poor and middle class that are supplemented with tax increases on the upper class will leave more money in the pockets of consumers and promote spending. And fixing the tax code so that small businesses don’t face higher tax rates than their large-scale cousins would be ideal. This is especially pertinent since, as Bernie Sanders says, many large corporations don’t pay a dime in taxes.

Small businesses and the Democratic Party can work together on a variety of issues. Democrats should support universal healthcare to decrease business costs and a fairer tax code, one that doesn’t give large corporations an unfair advantage over small businesses. And they can offer tax credits for using renewable energy, opening new storefronts, or otherwise contributing to the Main Street economy.

Farmers are another opportunity.

Small farmers are led to believe that the regulations that we liberals want to impose will destroy their businesses. We must counter that narrative. With so many people living in food deserts and farmers being paid not to grow crops, unique opportunities exist. A Democratic Party that is working for both cities and the country should give large farms tax incentives to donate excess machinery to small farmers, in order to reduce the need for large loans to afford them. Democrats should also open up the opportunity for more grocery stores and even mobile grocery stores, building the economy up by helping people get healthy and delicious food.

On Maryland’s Eastern Shore, Perdue creates large amounts of pollution that we, the taxpayers of America, have to pay for. Did I note that Perdue has an annual revenue of over $6,000,000,000 with only 19,000 employees? This is absurd. Democrats should make sure that large profitable companies like Perdue get stuck with the bill, not taxpayers who didn’t profit from the mess.

Next: unions. Here’s a chart of union membership in our country.

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Why has this happened, you may ask? While Donald Trump might blame NAFTA or China, I believe other factors are at work.

Under right-to-work laws, employees in unionized workplaces may not be compelled to join a union, nor compelled to pay for any part of the cost of union representation. By enacting these laws in states with strong union history like Michigan and Wisconsin, their economies have died and they are left with little economic opportunity. 51% of Americans in union households voted for Hillary vs. 43% who voted for Trump.

Regardless of political affiliation, there are some economic truths that some may consider harsh. Coal is not coming back. Automation is cheaper than human workers. Brick and mortar stores are on the decline. Malls are packing upWealth and income inequality are actually worse than during the Roaring 20’s. These are truths and Democrats in rural areas need to speak these truths and provide solutions to them. Building solar energy plants in Detroit and West Virginia would be a start. Tuition-free college would be ideal so that youth don’t see themselves stuck in dead-end jobs for 50 years. We should create a new American Dream that gives people hope that they can be included in the 21st century economy as creators and as consumers.

But that’s not enough.

Some of the best policy enacted during FDR’s New Deal were massive jobs programs under the Worker’s Progress Administration. These jobs helped keep West Virginia reliably blue for decades. Starting a large-scale works program with the goal of upgrading our infrastructure, constructing new highways into rural areas around the country, building solar farms in the Southwest and wind farms in the Midwest, planting trees both in the country and in the cities, creating the framework for American bullet trains: the possibilities are endless. The WPA established 3.5 million job openings on the equivalent of roughly $70 billion dollars today. Modern Democrats should push for $100 billion for 5 million jobs. Such an investment is essential for expanding the Democratic umbrella and expanding opportunity for many in America, while also rebuilding our country’s crumbling infrastructure and bringing us into the 21st century.

  1. Countering the liberal stereotype

There are some unfortunate stereotypes that have been attached to liberals longer than I have been alive: that we hate veterans, even though Republicans slash funding for them; that we hate police and incite violence against them, even though more cops died under Reagan’s watch than Obama’s; that we hate white working-class people, even though our domestic policy is better for them; that we hate guns, even though the overwhelming majority of Americans support background checks. There isn’t much individual politicians can do to challenge widely-held stereotypes or media narratives, but here are some ideas.

Nearly ¼ of veterans live in rural areas, according to the U.S. Census. Hosting political and social events at Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) posts, which are often struggling, would be a good move. Demanding increased funding and online updates for the Veterans Administration, and building more military hospitals to decrease wait times are steps in the right direction. More veterans have committed suicide within the borders of our country than died in Iraq and Afghanistan. This is a national tragedy and Dems should work towards solutions ASAP.

I harken to the Ben Jealous message on policing. He says that while attending a Bernie Sanders speech in the Ozarks, he was worried that the almost entirely white crowd would be silent in response to Bernie calling for an end to the murder of unarmed black youth. Instead, the crowd got even louder. When tying the racialized criminal justice system in with your economic message, white Americans are more receptive to the message of social justice.

If Keith Ellison, an African-American Muslim, can hold onto a district that is almost 65% white with over 70% of the vote, I don’t think this is an issue. Pushing for good policy with strong messaging can and will get votes.

Guns are a touchy issue. Rural Dems should take the Bernie Sanders approach and leave gun laws to the states, with the exception of federal background checks and a ban on assault weapons. Although it is nonsense, the belief that Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama would “gun grab” from all Americans is partially based on the fear that a state that can take guns away from private citizens can take away a lot more.

Politics is more than just policy: there’s a reason that West Virginia’s Joe Manchin shot into cap and trade legislation, that Missouri’s Jason Kander reassembled an M-16 while blindfolded and discussing background checks, that Iowa’s Joni Ernst took aim at a gun range. Politics is culture. These ads are an appeal to identity politics. But if Bernie Sanders can draw huge crowds in Appalachia, it’s clear that policy and strong rhetoric against economic elites, big business, and those who are actually destroying the American Dream helps.

By employing these strategies, Democrats can turn the electoral maps from above into something more like this.

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This is the 2008 House of Representatives map. With Trump’s popularity in the doldrums, Republicans whiffing miserably on Trumpcare, and no substantive policy wins despite holding majorities in both chambers of Congress along with extraordinary amounts of Democratic energy, races in Georgia’s 6th District and deep red Kansas are worrying Republicans. And that’s a damn good sign.


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