# Rural Voters

Obama's small-town outreach will crush McCain's

David Yepsen wrote a piece in the Des Moines Register warning that it would be perilous for the presidential candidates to ignore rural America at their parties’ nominating conventions:

I’m not talking about pandering here.  Nor am I talking about just the “farm” vote.  I’m talking about the thousands of Americans who live on the countryside and in small towns.  Some are farmers.  Most aren’t.

They face many of the same problems other Americans face – jobs, health care, senior issues and drug abuse.  They are patriotic Americans – many military people come out of these areas – yet because they live in the hinterlands they often feel ignored.

Lots of Americans feel that way these days but that’s especially true in rural parts of the country, many of which are losing population and vitality.

It would be politically smart for each presidential candidate and party speakers to specifically address the concerns of rural Americans in their convention addresses.  Conventions aren’t the place for “farm speeches” or big policy addresses.  But they are the place where messages and themes can be stressed.   Both parties should reach out to rural voters.

Why? Look at the battleground states.  Missouri, Ohio, Iowa, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania.  All are states with sizeable rural populations.  Yes, some have urban areas in them but the rural vote in each could prove pivotal in tipping their electoral votes.

I agree with Yepsen that rural and small-town voters are a critical swing bloc, and that was one reason I  thought John Edwards would have been a strong general election candidate. I recommend ManfromMiddletown’s piece explaining why “rural voters are the key to the kingdom.”

That said, it strikes me as odd to look to convention speeches for proof of whether the presidential candidates are ignoring rural America.

Let’s examine what Barack Obama and John McCain are doing to reach Americans who do not live in major metropolitan areas.

There is no plan for rural America on the issues page of John McCain’s website. There is only a page labeled “agricultural policies,” which contains nine paragraphs about farming, trade and food policies.

Obama’s website includes a comprehensive Plan to Support Rural Communities. It addresses not only agricultural policies but also economic opportunities, small business development, environmental protection, renewable energy, communications and transportation infrastructure, attracting teachers and health care providers to rural areas, and dealing with the methamphetamine crisis.

But anyone can slap a plan on a website, right? What are the candidates doing to reach out to those small-town voters who feel ignored?

Let’s look at each of the battleground states Yepsen mentions in his column.

Obama had about 40 field offices before the Iowa caucuses and has established 30 offices in Iowa for the general election. His campaign has also organized canvassing in dozens of Iowa towns this summer (see here and here). In August, surrogates for Obama are holding

numerous “rural roundtables” across Iowa to focus on issues affecting small-town and rural residents.

John McCain has six field offices in Iowa, none of them in small towns. I haven’t heard of a lot of campaign activity on his behalf in small towns either.

Obama has already opened 31 field offices in Missouri, which isn’t even one of his campaign’s top red state targets. McCain has six campaign offices in that state.

Let’s turn to Ohio, a state McCain must hold if he is to have any chance of winning 270 electoral votes. McCain has nine campaign offices in Ohio (although there’s no phone or e-mail contact information for these offices on the McCain Ohio website). Obama will have 56 offices supporting his field operation in Ohio, and 44 of those offices are already open.

I don’t consider Minnesota much of a battleground state in light of recent polling. But since Yepsen mentioned it, and McCain may select Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty as his running mate, where do the candidates stand? Obama has 11 field offices in Minnesota, while McCain has seven.

It’s more lopsided in Wisconsin: Obama has 31 field offices, while McCain has six.

Obama built a large campaign organization in Pennsylvania leading up to that state’s primary and has opened 18 field offices there for the general election. The Pennsylvania page of McCain’s website lists a “Pennsylvania & Ohio Regional Office” in Columbus, Ohio and just one local office in Harrisburg. Looks like McCain hardly plans any outreach in that state.

I could go on about Obama’s 35 field offices in Virginia, 22 offices in North Carolina, 26 offices in Indiana and four offices in North Dakota, one of the most rural states.

But you get my point. Not only does Obama have a plan for rural America, he has a campaign presence in dozens of small towns where McCain does not. His staff and volunteers are making contact with thousands of voters who will only hear from McCain through their television sets.

I don’t know how much Obama plans to speak about rural issues on Thursday night, but he certainly can’t be accused of ignoring the concerns of voters outside cities and suburbs.

If you are planning to volunteer for Obama in a small town, take some time to become familiar with the Plan to Support Rural Communities. AlanF has good advice for canvassers in this diary, and Pete Mohanty lays out the reasons that canvassing is an effective campaign tool in this research paper.  

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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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