The November election has inspired a new wave of rural analysis. Spend five minutes looking and you’ll find five different opinions. Some claim Donald Trump’s sweep of Midwestern states indicates that Democrats should write off rural voters. Some believe the lower margin of rural Trump victories in 2020 compared to 2016 shows a slight, but not insignificant, shift in political trends that must be capitalized on.
Whatever your opinion, it’s clear that the debate over rural voters will influence strategies, campaigns and policies over the coming years -- and this is something both urban and rural residents should pay attention to.
I am a rural Iowan. I always have been and always will be. I was raised in a town of 1,600 people and never left. I didn’t move out for college or try my luck in a big city. I now live two blocks away from my childhood home. Never leaving your hometown to experience different lifestyles and cultures might not sound appealing to some, but it’s exactly what I wanted.
Friends living in urban areas can’t understand why I’d want to live in a town where the most exciting thing to do on a Saturday night is sitting around a bonfire, or where waiting behind two cars at a stop sign is considered heavy traffic. They can’t figure out how someone who grew up in a heavily conservative county could hold such progressive ideals.
By all rights, rural Americans should be even more liberal than their urban counterparts. Our healthcare services are extremely limited, if they exist at all. Our schools are constantly consolidating and underfunded. Our wages are typically far below those working in urban areas. We’re forced to commute constantly -- for jobs, for groceries, for school. Our water is polluted with toxic chemicals from industrial agriculture practices. Our farmers, our stores, and our hospitals are going out of business every day. Young people are moving away and not coming back. We’re witnessing rural America’s death rattle, and only progressive policies will bring it back to life.
So, why don’t more rural residents see it this way? Well, they do. Take J.D. Scholten for example. He has run two incredibly successful progressive campaigns in Iowa’s fourth Congressional district, the state's most conservative district by far. While J.D. fell just shy of winning the 2019 election, his close race against U.S. Representative Steve King was the biggest factor in King's Republican primary loss in 2020. J.D. ran a campaign that centered rural, progressive values, including strong criticism of our corporate agriculture system. And while he wasn't able to overcome the massive GOP voter registration advantage in the district, he did outperform other Democratic candidates in nearly every county.
J.D. received more votes than presidential nominee Joe Biden in 36 of the 39 counties where he was on the ballot, outperforming Biden by more than 6 percentage points in a handful of rural areas. At the same time, many Democrats around the country underperformed Biden, which is why the party's U.S. House majority shrank. Leading Democratic strategists believed a progressive campaign could never succeed in rural America. But if the IA-04 election results tell us anything, it’s that many rural voters do support “radical” policies like Medicare for All and free higher education.
Running moderate Democratic candidates in rural districts and hoping their barely-disguised conservative views win over some Republican voters clearly hasn’t worked. The vast majority of rural voters aren’t Republicans -- they’re swing voters. Rural Iowans led Barack Obama to victory twice, then turned around and supported Trump in equal measure. If the Democrats want to be competitive in rural areas, they must step up and embrace the kinds of progressive policies that helped Scholten outperform Biden.
Rural America is desperate for candidates who will fight for a better future for rural people -- a future that ends the reign of Big Ag, bolsters independent farms, ensures everyone has access to a quality education and healthcare, and reinvests in rural infrastructure.
There’s a lot at stake. The battleground states -- Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin -- that proved once again to be key deciders of the presidential election have significant rural populations. They are also losing independent family farms at an alarming rate. Will the party continue to run moderate candidates comfortable with this status quo, or will it recognize that Scholten’s progressive promises to break up corporate ag, stop agricultural mergers, and restore antitrust enforcement perform much better with rural voters?
We need candidates willing to campaign on bold solutions. We want to see a transition away from fossil fuels and an influx of clean energy jobs. We want to see legislation like the Farm System Reform Act enacted to save our independent family farmers. Rural America deserves a better future, and we need these bold solutions to revive our rural communities for our children and grandchildren.
I’ve spent my entire life watching my rural community crumble. In my 26 years, I’ve witnessed our school consolidate twice, all of our grocery stores close, and innumerable friends and family leave for places with better opportunities. We cannot withstand the status quo. We are desperate for progressive change. Rural voters have told the Democratic Party what we want. Will they listen?
Top image: Eastern entrance to Rockwell City, Iowa (Calhoun County) on the old U.S. Highway 20. Photo by "Dual Freq," available via Wikimedia Commons.