Can Joe Biden and the Democrats Win Back Rural Voters in 2020?

Andy Kroll
·15 min read

WASHINGTON — Around this time four years ago, Matt Hildreth’s phone started to ring off the hook. Hildreth had played the part of a Cassandra going into the 2016 election, warning anyone who’d listen that Donald Trump was poised to dominate the rural vote. Hildreth, who had worked in progressive activism and Democratic politics for more than a decade, was living in northwest Iowa at the time, not far from the small town where he’d grown up. He was seeing firsthand how Trump’s pledge to “drain the swamp” and to undo free trade deals was connecting with rural America. He marveled at the handmade Trump signs that appeared wherever he went. “It showed this was bigger than an election,” he says. “This was a cultural phenomenon.”

Hildreth remembers pleading with his liberal allies to have Hillary Clinton campaign harder for rural votes, if only to lower Trump’s margin of victory. His advice fell on deaf ears. “It was this all-or-nothing mentality: If we can’t win ‘em, we don’t need ‘em,” he recalls. “The Clinton team was like, ‘They’re not part of the equation, so we’re not talking to them.'” Then, in October 2016, he says, the tenor changed: “People said, ‘Wait, you’re onto something.'”

By then, it was too late. Trump steamrolled Clinton in rural America. In Florida and Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania, North Carolina and Arizona, his performance in the less-populated parts of those states more than compensated for his dismal support in cities. If Trump hopes to win again this year, he’ll need to run up the score in rural America even more than he did four years ago.

This difference between 2016 and now, however, is that Democrats and the progressive movement have reawakened to the importance of the rural vote. While the Democratic Party has a long history of prairie populists and Midwest progressives, the party had increasingly lost touch with its rural roots as it derived ever more of its power (and, yes, money) from the big cities and fast-growing suburbs on the East and West Coasts. But Trump’s election was a five-alarm warning. In the past several years, wealthy liberal donors, long-time progressive activists, and state political parties have ramped up their efforts to recruit candidates for office in rural areas and to organize rural communities in places previously written off by Democratic candidates and operatives as “red” America or “Trump” country.

There’s early evidence that these efforts, in combination with the broader surge in energy on the left during Trump’s first term in office, can make a difference in rural America. Much has been written about how the suburbs powered the Democratic blue wave in the 2018 midterm elections, but the biggest shift in voters who supported Democrats two years ago after backing Trump in 2016 happened not in the suburbs but in rural areas, according to the left-leaning analytics firm Catalist. As Hildreth likes to say, rural voters are swing voters, even if they’re rarely talked about that way by pollsters and pundits.

Those swing rural voters could not only decide the presidency this year, but also control of the U.S. Senate given the political map in 2020. To win them over — or at least enough of them to deny Trump the staggering margins he recorded in ’16 and flip the Senate — liberal donors are pouring money into rural organizing efforts like Hildreth’s and dozens of others across the country. From distributing tens of thousands of Biden-Harris yard signs to employing cutting-edge canvassing tactics to funding hyper-local organizations built to last beyond one or two election cycles, this renewed focus on rural voters could not only prove to be key to defeating Trump but a critical part of stitching together a fraying nation.

TALK TO ANY ORGANIZER working in rural America and they’ll tell you an epiphany story.

For some, it was a realization that Democrats and progressives had lost the ability or the will to connect with rural voters. Matt Hildreth remembers working for a national political nonprofit while living in Iowa and going to a local bar after work. The two worlds he inhabited, he says, felt wholly separate and apart. Progressives like himself were answering questions nobody was asking in rural Iowa. The guys at the bar wanted to know why their wages weren’t going up or why the post-recession recovery had never made it to their town. “We had these great talking points, great theories about policies, but we weren’t answering the questions they had.”

For others, it was a fear that if they didn’t organize rural communities, the groups who espoused hate and division, and who felt emboldened by Trump’s election, would fill the vacuum. In the summer of 2015, Brigid Flaherty was visiting her mother in western North Carolina in the Blue Ridge mountains. She picked up the local newspaper and one item caught her eye. In response to the black activist Bree Newsom pulling down the Confederate flag flying over the South Carolina capitol, someone had written that “white genocide” was coming, Flaherty recalls. And so she packed her bags, left Brooklyn, and moved in with her mother to organize rural North Carolina. “There is a movement of white nationalism rising in this country. The rural South will be at play,” Flaherty remembers thinking. “What are we going to do?”

And for others still, it was the recognition that political campaigns that rush into and out of rural communities every two or four years before an election weren’t merely insufficient for organizing voters; they were fueling a sense of cynicism that elected officials only gave a damn when they needed something — money, volunteers, votes. “We’ve built sand castles election cycle after election cycle that treat people as bodies and numbers but not as people,” says Art Reyes, executive director of the grassroots group We the People Michigan.

In some cases, it meant building something from scratch with no guarantee of funding and the real possibility of failure. After an unsuccessful run for the state legislature in 2018, Pablo Correa decided that Pinal County, a vast swath of rural southern Arizona roughly the size of Connecticut, “needed something for rural from rural.” He quit his job as a forklift driver at a Walmart distribution center and started Rural Arizona Engagement (RAZE) with Natali Fierros Bock, who had also run for local office in rural Arizona. When he wasn’t working to get RAZE off the ground, Correa drove Lyft to try to make ends meet.

Donald Trump’s election is only one of the reasons cited by Correa and others like him for why they gave up their old lives and decided to pour their energies into rural organizing. For the founders of Poder NC Action, it grew out of a recognition that white politicians of both parties wouldn’t lift a finger to advance the interests of North Carolina’s growing Latino community. Irene Godinez, Poder’s founder and executive director, remembers the former Democratic statehouse speaker saying he wasn’t “going to throw my party under the bus for those kids” during a debate over new policies for undocumented residents. Still, Matt Hildreth of RuralOrganizing.org says it’s impossible to overstate the shock that rippled through the national progressive movement after seeing Trump’s performance in rural America in 2016. “There’s a pre-2016 and a post-2016 approach,” he says. “Everything changed.”

This renewed attention in rural politics, he says, is long overdue. In 2012, Hildreth started a small Facebook group for progressives in rural areas to share tactics and find some semblance of solidarity. That grew to become RuralOrganizing.org, a clearinghouse for research, messaging advice, and other organizing tools with an email list of 450,000 people. “My entire structure was built on the idea that we’ll never get funded,” he says.

But that’s changing. A new outfit called the Rural Democracy Initiative has given out more than $13 million so far this year, helping to fund 99 groups in 19 states that do everything from basic social support like food banks and relief funds to voter mobilization and canvassing efforts, including in support of the Biden-Harris ticket. Sarah Jaynes, who runs the Rural Democracy Initiative, told me that the uptick in donor interest for funding rural work comes out of the realization that rural communities have in many cases never recovered from the Great Recession more than a decade later. But it also reflects an understanding that focusing on cities and suburbs to win elections and pass major policies isn’t enough to accomplish either. Jaynes cites the example of Oregon’s failure in 2019 to pass new climate legislation, which partly came as a result of a revolt by rural citizens and their elected officials to kill the bill.

“It really was a wake-up call for me to see what happened in Oregon,” Jaynes says. “For the really big things that you need to get done — passing climate legislation, progressive tax reform — you need to have voices from the rural parts of your state if you’re going to be able to pull together that governing majority.”

BEFORE THAT CAN HAPPEN, according to rural organizers in a half-dozen states interviewed by Rolling Stone, there’s plenty of work to be done to break down the urban-rural divide and to correct misconceptions about rural voters.

One common misconception is that “rural” means “white.” In fact, one in five rural voters is a person of color. And according to Hildreth, one third of all new immigrants and refugees wind up in a rural part of the country where many work in agriculture. In Iowa, the demand for workers at meatpacking plants has led to a surge in the Hispanic population. In Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, there are so many indigenous communities that the billboards along I-75 have Ojibwe language on them. Across the Great Lakes Basin, small towns in Ohio and Pennsylvania are home to multigenerational black families who moved north during the Great Migration.

Another common misconception: “rural” equates to “conservative.” Hildreth, who regularly conducts polls and funds research into the political preferences and attitudes of rural voters, says rural voters shouldn’t be thought of on a left-right spectrum, but rather as a bloc of swing voters with a strong populist and anti-establishment streak.

“Not in an anti-government way, but in an anti-elite way,” he says. “Trump was the middle finger to the establishment. If you look at the polling that we’ve done, the top messages that resonate are Trump’s anti-corruption messages.” He fully recognizes how hollow that anti-corruption pledge proved to be once Trump got into office — this is the president who has funneled millions of taxpayer dollars into his own hotels and other properties — but says the potency of that message can’t be overstated in rural America.

The organizers I interviewed all agreed that people who live in rural America consider rural life part of, if not central to, their identity. The problem is, few politicians ever want to take the time to figure out what all is wrapped up in that identity.

Rhonda Perry, a fifth-generation farmer in central Missouri who leads the Missouri Rural Crisis Center, says politicians from both political parties have for too long felt more comfortable talking about rural voters than talking to them. “People really don’t think they have to come here,” she told me. And even the politicians who do show up, she adds, act like “they don’t have to listen or have to do something about what they hear.” As Hildreth puts it, “There’s a lot of revolt in rural politics simply because there is not an authentic agenda [put forward by either party]. Democrats often have the policies and not the engagement; Republicans have the engagement but not the policies.”

The policies that rural Americans support don’t look that different from the bucket of issues that most Americans care about: access to health care, good jobs and a livable wage, quality schools, and a functioning government that responds to their needs. There’s a rural twist on each of these issues — rural hospital closures and public-school consolidation have hit crisis levels in certain regions — and there are policies that rural Americans especially clamor for like tougher antitrust enforcement. People like Rhonda Perry see firsthand how the corporate takeover of farming has run thousands of family farms out of business and put too much market power in the hands of a small number of corporations, some of them owned by foreign entities.

Perry told me about the disappointment she felt with Barack Obama’s presidency. “Obama ran on one of the best agriculture platforms that I’ve ever seen in my history,” she says. Obama had vowed to enforce antitrust laws that had led to the corporate takeover of the pork and beef industries and to stop using taxpayer money to underwrite the industrialization of livestock industry. Thousands of farmers traveled to open meetings held by the Obama administration to make their voices heard about how to fix agriculture and stick up for family farmers. “Unfortunately, once the administration went up against those powerful forces that rural people go up against every day, they were like, ‘Yeah, maybe not,’” she says. “They got soft.”

Rural Americans voted in huge numbers for Obama because they thought he’d stand up to Big Ag, Perry says. In 2016, they voted for Trump because he vowed to do the same. But if anything, Trump is friendlier to the multinational ag corporations than Obama was. And Perry isn’t thrilled by Joe Biden’s decision to surround himself with rural advisers who have direct ties to Big Ag, including Tom Vilsack, the former Obama Agriculture Secretary who now lobbies for the dairy industry. “This isn’t necessarily an issue of Democrats or Republicans,” Perry says. “We didn’t have the power to hold either of them accountable frankly to the things people were saying were problems in their communities.”

FOR THE 2020 ELECTION, Matt Hildreth says he and his team have a motto: “Lose less.”

What he means by that is looking for cost-efficient ways to eat into Trump’s margins in the rural parts of battleground states. To boost Democratic turnout in rural America, Hildreth and other progressive groups with a similar mission have adopted old-school tactics with a modernized twist. Hildreth’s super PAC, RuralVote.org, has distributed 42,500 yard signs in rural battleground counties in Michigan, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Iowa. At first blush, giving out yard signs sounds like a distinctly un-scientific way of wooing voters. (“Yard signs don’t vote” was a mantra of the data-savvy staffers on Obama’s two presidential campaigns.) But Hildreth says a massive randomized field experiment he funded in Kentucky’s 2019 gubernatorial race found that in fact yard signs added two votes per precinct for Democratic candidate Andy Beshear. “Yard signs reflect momentum even if they don’t reflect polling,” he says. “People feel like momentum was so missing in 2016.”

Another tool in full use leading up to the election is deep canvassing. As Rolling Stone has reported, deep canvassing is when organizers try to engage voters in extended conversations, in person or by phone, that emphasize empathy and personal connection as opposed to outright urging someone to vote for a candidate. “When we get on those phone calls it’s not about telling people what they should have or need,” says Michaela Purdue Lovegood, deputy executive director of Pennsylvania Stands Up. “It’s about creating that space to go on that journey with them.”

Political scientists who have studied deep canvassing find that it can be 100 times more effective than traditional campaign tactics such as mailers and TV advertisements. People’s Action, a national progressive group that endorsed Sen. Bernie Sanders in the Democratic primary, has funded teams of deep canvassers in more than a dozen states this election cycle and aims to have completed 200,000 deep conversations by November 3rd.

These are merely two of the projects underway, and rural Democrats and progressives will need every tactic at their disposal if they hope to help the Biden-Harris ticket chip away at Trump’s rural support. Matt Hildreth told me in polling from this spring found Biden — who would never qualify as anti-establishment — underperforming the rest of the Democratic ticket in rural America, while Trump was overperforming the GOP ticket. However, more recent polling has seen Biden gain some ground as the Covid-19 pandemic has emerged as a top issue for rural voters, with one out of every three rural residents having lost work during the pandemic.

What might save Biden in rural America is a reverse coattails effect. If the resurgence in rural organizing around local issues and candidates — think Democrat and prairie populist J.D. Scholten in Iowa’s fourth congressional district, or the grassroots movement in North Carolina to expand Medicaid — pays off, it might trickle up the ballot to the presidential race.

No matter the outcome of the presidential race, the investment in rural organizing and the rural leaders on the ground — some starting anew, others carrying on the work of previous generations — will continue for years to come. “People thought policymakers were going to save them going one way or the other,” Rhonda Perry says. “Now, we know it’s on us. That train’s gone.”

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