“The Democratic Party doesn’t give a shit about what voters have to say.” Eva Posner, a Virginia-based political consultant, is furious. She believes that the progressive establishment will pay for snubbing rural voters.

Forsaken by the Democrats, rural America has offered its soul to the MAGA movement. Donald Trump took 65% of the rural vote in 2020, up from 62% in 2016. The 2020 figure was even higher among rural whites at 71%. The resulting polarisation between blue cities and red countryside is a “byproduct of the Democrats”, says Matt Barron, who specialises in rural Democratic races as the principal at MLB Research Associates. “They don’t even try to compete in rural America.”

While only one in five people lives in rural or small-town America, the Republican Party has a monopoly over 24 states with large rural populations. The Constitution’s rural tilt means that the Republican Party can claim two senators for every state — however small or rural. As a result, the Senate is trapped in a stalemate with an almost equal number of Republicans and Democrats. Meanwhile, at the state level, rural voters give Republicans nearly double the number of state legislative chambers as Democrats. This, in turn, gives the Republicans more influence in the House of Representatives, which is also stuck in a deadlock.

But the Democrats haven’t always been rural pariahs. In the post-war era, the party regularly earned half of the rural congressional vote. In the Nineties, Bill Clinton won the heart of rural America, and in 2008, Barack Obama received 43% of the rural vote due to the strength of his grassroots organising. Yet Obama took his victory for granted. His operatives came to believe that the Democratic majority was destiny: there was no need to organise, canvass or traipse round knocking on doors.

“The Obama people showed-up [in 2008] and then they left — there was no follow-up,” Chloe Maxim, a former state representative in rural Maine, told me. “Voters felt abandoned.” The percentage of rural voters identifying as Democrat fell from 45% in 2008 to 38% in 2016. During the Obama presidency, Democrats lost 13 seats in the Senate and 69 in the House, as well as 11 governorships, 913 state legislative seats and 30 state legislative chambers. Rural voters were punishing Democrats for their betrayal.

After such humiliation, can Joe Biden win back rural America? It would certainly transform his electoral prospects: even a 5% bump with rural voters would be a “game changer”, according to Adam Kirsch, a Midwest-based Democratic political consultant. For one thing, control of Congress would no longer shift every two years, allowing a Biden White House to make headway with its political agenda.

The trouble is that rural voters are difficult to reach. In the Nineties, liberals all but ceded talk radio to the conservatives, an act of foolishness given the platform is crucial to connecting with a car-loving population. Soon after, the internet transformed the economics of newspapers: nearly 3,000 American newspapers have folded since 2005. Rural newspapers were hit especially hard. Today, more than half of all American counties have very limited, if any, access to local news. On top of this, nearly a quarter of rural Americans lack broadband internet. How can they keep up with Washington politics while living in a media vacuum?

Despite these obstacles, Democrats can move the electoral needle in rural America. They don’t even need to win a majority of the rural vote — just reduce the margin of defeat. Barron points to the 2020 Arizona senate election: in a race in which Democrat Mark Kelly spent nearly $100 million, it was a $20,000 rural radio advertisement that turned the tide. Unlike past Democratic candidates, Kelly took more than 30% of the vote in every rural Arizona county bar one. This turned out to be vital in a race decided by 60,000 votes.

“If the Democratic Party could be bothered, it could claw back rural loyalty.”

Political consultants, however, seem wary of this strategy: many would rather pad their bank accounts than reach out to rural voters and win elections. I was told by many sources that consultants prefer placing advertisements in urban rather than rural media, as their pay cut will be higher. Ricky Cole, the former two-term state chair of the Mississippi Democratic Party, tells me: “Our politics became nationalised by a cadre of professional operatives. It has become a big industry. It is a money game so that they can pay for their vacation homes. It is a cynical multimillion dollar Ponzi scheme.” Posner agrees: “It is about turf, power, and money. If the Democratic Party gave a shit, it would fund parties and campaigns from the bottom up.”

I keep hearing the same thing: if the Democratic Party could be bothered, it could claw back rural loyalty. Jane Kleeb, the state chair of Nebraska Democrats, tells me that four full-time paid organisers could turn the Cornhusker state competitive, if not purple. But alas, donors finance campaign consultants rather than grassroots organising. And campaign consultants would rather send mailers to dump leaflets on rural areas than pay grassroots activists. This is because, as Posner puts it, “consultants get a cut of the mailer. They don’t consult on actual strategy. They consult and decide based on their economic incentives.”

Their incompetence is leading the party to ruin. Without inspiring candidates or local organisation, the party’s brand in rural America is “non-existent”, according to Kirsch. Rural voters have come to see elections as “us versus them, not Left versus Right”. And the Republicans successfully appeal to the “us” mentality.

With party gentry deaf to the problem, a constellation of local and state Democrats is seeking to rebuild the grassroots Democratic Party. One of these rebels is Sara Taber, who is running to be North Carolina’s Agriculture Commissioner. The crop scientist and ex-farmworker refers to rural North Carolinians as “my people” and admits that in her neck of the woods, “it helps to know your place as a Democrat”.

Another is Ty Pinkins, an African American Democrat who is running against Mississippi’s white Republican incumbent, Senator Roger Wicker. It appears to be an uphill battle — but Cole thinks Pinkins has a real shot if Democrats can get out the vote. He points to 2023, when a Democrat, Brandon Presley, lost to Mississippi’s Republican governor, Tate Reeves, by 20,000 votes. The margin of defeat, he says, was a lacklustre African American turnout.

Pinkins seems determined not to repeat history. Slim and youthful looking, the 50-year-old politician is an army vet with a Bronze Star and Georgetown law degree. Since June 2023, he has put 70,000 miles on his Black Chevy Tahoe, canvassing in 67 of the state’s 82 counties. But his goal is not just to win one election; instead, he is building an entire get-out-the-vote infrastructure. He aims to have a campaign honcho in every county and a team leader in all 1,762 state precincts.

Can he succeed? Anthony Flaccavento, a farmer in southwest Virginia who ran for Congress twice as a Democrat and later set up the Rural-Urban Bridge Initiative, tells me that rural people often “believe Democrats just don’t like them”. Here, as in any relationship, trust is what matters most. For instance, during his 2014 Congressional race, Flaccavento was approached by a retired United Mine Worker raging against Obama’s support for gay marriage. Flaccavento had lived in southwest Virginia for years; he knew how to handle his interlocutor. In a span of three minutes, Flaccavento told him that Jesus had instructed humans to love another, and that he personally intended to do just that. The miner shrugged and admitted: “I guess they were just born that way.” He went away satisfied with the answer, not because it was a particularly original one but because Flaccavento had spent years building trust and respect in the local community.

Pinkins, too, understands the importance of trust. He says: “I see it every day. The moment you walk up to [voters], you see the look in their eyes. They are eager to tell you what is important to them.” But trust is a two-way bond. If the Democrats are going to take on MAGA in rural America, they’re going to have to trust small-town voters enough to try their luck.

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