John Edwards will help us with rural voters

Note: this post originally appeared at MyDD, where I write a front-page post in support of John Edwards every Tuesday. Parts of it are aimed at readers who are less familar with Iowa politics than the typical Bleeding Heartland reader.

Although the ten SEIU state chapter endorsements of John Edwards have understandably dominated the recent blogosphere chatter about Edwards, I want to call attention to a different aspect of his campaign. Edwards is on a two-day swing through western and central Iowa, where he is highlighting his policy agenda for small towns and rural areas. When Edwards wins the Iowa caucuses, I believe small-town and rural voters will play as important a role as union members.

Yesterday the Edwards campaign in Iowa announced the formation of a Statewide Rural Advisory Committee. From the campaign website:

The committee consists of a wide group of leaders including first responders, business leaders, elected officials and agricultural leaders. The committee will work with the campaign's 99 Rural County Chairs to advise Edwards on the issues facing rural Iowans and spread his detailed plans to strengthen rural towns and communities across America. Edwards was raised in a small rural town and has made rural revitalization a cornerstone of his campaign. In August, the campaign announced more than 1,000 rural supporters showing Edwards' broad support throughout rural Iowa.

The biggest name on this committee is Denise O'Brien, who endorsed Edwards over the summer and will help him tremendously with progressives as well as rural voters. Denise, an organic farmer and the founder of the Women, Food and Agriculture Network, was the Democratic nominee for secretary of agriculture last year. She shocked Iowa politicos by winning the Democratic primary by a large margin, despite the fact that her opponent, Dusky Terry (a great guy by the way), had the strong backing of Tom Vilsack and virtually the whole Democratic establishment in Iowa.

Denise narrowly lost the general election for secretary of agriculture, but she has many passionate supporters in the Iowa environmentalist community. Environmentalists were a significant factor in John Kerry's caucus victory in Iowa.

But I digress. This post is about rural voters. Most of the people on the Edwards Statewide Rural Advisory Committee may be little-known outside their home counties, but when it comes to turning out caucus-goers, a respected figure from someone's home town is probably even more valuable than a statewide celebrity.

In addition to having a strong team working to turn out rural and small-town voters, Edwards has put forward a solid policy agenda for rural America. You can download his plans on the issues page of his campaign website. Edwards has a deep knowledge of the the issues affecting small-town America, and his current swing through Iowa is focusing on a different aspect of his rural recovery plan at each venue.

His first event yesterday was in Dunlap, Iowa, where he focused on agricultural issues including country-of-origin labeling. He discussed protecting family farms at his next event in Harlan. Later in the day, he held a town hall meeting at a high school in the small town of Exira, where he focused on his plan to strengthen rural schools. (As you probably know, Edwards was educated in rural public schools.)

Edwards' final two events on Tuesday were in Greenfield and Waukee (suburb of Des Moines), where he talked about economic development plans for rural areas, with a focus on main street development and incentives for small business creation. That issue is particularly close to my heart, as both of my grandfathers ran small businesses and I despise so-called economic development plans that are basically just corporate welfare.

Why should you care whether Edwards appeals to rural voters? I mean, besides the fact that his policy ideas are really good?

Well, if you are an Edwards supporter you will be pleased to know that caucus-goers in rural counties punch above their weight when the state delegates are tallied.

But even if Edwards is not your favorite candidate in the primary, you should be aware that a strong showing among rural voters will put many more states into play for our Democratic nominee. ManfromMiddletown made a strong case for this analysis in his diary on electability.

I also refer you to this report from the Center for Rural Strategies:

The rural vote is critical in presidential and congressional elections because large Republican majorities among rural voters have helped overcome Democratic advantages in urban areas. With the rural advantage eroding for the GOP, both parties may look more carefully at the rural vote in the coming elections.

"The rural vote determines presidential elections," said Dee Davis, president of the nonpartisan Center for Rural Strategies, which sponsors the poll. "Democrats don't win unless they make rural competitive, and Republicans don't win without a large rural victory. So you'd think that would mean the candidates would have a spirited debate on the things that matter to rural Americans, but we haven't heard it yet."

In the 2004 and especially the 2006 elections, Democrats began to make up ground against the GOP with rural voters. That was a big change from the 1990s, when rural voters swung significantly against the Democratic Party. I believe that John Edwards would be by far the best candidate in our field to continue this trend, which would hurt the GOP badly.

But maybe you don't care about rural voters and are buoyed by opinion polls showing that any of our top Democratic contenders could win a presidential election.

I urge you to consider this: the presidential election is more than 50 statewide elections. It also coincides with 435 House races and thousands of races for the state legislature.

As we know, gerrymandering has helped the GOP control more U.S. House seats than they deserve in states such as Ohio, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Florida. Too many Democrats in those states are packed into House districts that send Democrats to Congress with super-majorities. Consequently, many of the House seats we are trying to pick up contain significant numbers of rural and small-town voters.

What that means is that even if any of our candidates could win Ohio (or Pennsylvania, or Michigan, or Florida) in a presidential election, we have a better chance of winning more House seats if our candidate at the top of the ticket is appealing to the rural electorate. Holding down the GOP margin with these voters will bring big gains down-ticket.

The same goes for state legislative districts. If we want to improve our position in state legislatures going into the 2010 census and redistricting process, it will help to have a presidential candidate in 2008 and a president in 2010 who does not alienate rural voters.

All these factors reinforce my belief that John Edwards would be the best general-election candidate in our very strong Democratic field.

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