After a string of losses in the 2017 special House elections, it’s clear Democratic candidates are continuing to struggle reaching rural voters. That’s partly because our playbook for appealing to voters outside of urban areas remains unchanged: take a poll, repackage the DNC’s national messaging and target voters with mail and advertising. The problem is many rural voters become alienated when campaigns attempt to micro-target using messaging distilled from a national or statewide poll.
Campaigning in rural Illinois, Montana or West Virginia and talking about the importance of not defunding Planned Parenthood, for instance, won’t get you anywhere unless you can help voters make the connection that it's about cancer screening and women's health. Republicans continue to define Planned Parenthood as an abortion-only organization so finding the right nuance to the message is vital.
Rural voters who have seen factories shuddered over the past 15 years want to talk about jobs, not economic development. Economic development is a Beltway term that they hear on the nightly news and campaign ads. These voters want to know what the candidate can do to address farm issues, cell phone signal, and broadband internet access. Rural voters want to know what a candidate can do to fix broken roads and keep the cost of gas and milk down.
In coal country, voters knew Trump wouldn’t be able to revive the lifeblood of Appalachia. But from small town to small town, Trump recognized coal miners, their families, and their struggles on a national stage covered by “fake news.” He mentioned time after time how he knew these families were struggling and he’d make coal great again.
These coal miners and their families were so appreciative to finally have someone recognize the struggles they had been facing for years that they voted for him. Meanwhile, Hillary Clinton knew she couldn't bring coal back, but the term coal was all but absent in her campaign speeches in rural areas.
In the 2017 special election to replace former Rep. Mick Mulvaney in South Carolina’s 5th district, Archie Parnell lost by a mere four points. Yes, it was a loss. But Mulvaney defeated his 2016 Democratic challenger by 21 points. Trump carried the same district by 18 points just nine months ago.
Similarly, Kansas Democrat James Thompson campaigned as a “Kansas veteran for Congress” with ads that showed him firing an AR-15. He turned what should have been an easy Republican win into a nail-biting contest that attracted the attention of the president, Mike Pence, and Ted Cruz.
Now, whoever was in charge of Trump’s cabinet appointments chose strategically from deep-red districts. But while a win is a win and a loss is a loss, coming within single digits in a deep red district shows tremendous progress for Democrats. In Georgia, Jon Ossoff didn’t lose because of lack of strategy (or money), he lost because there simply were not enough Democratic voters in that district.
To appeal to rural voters, Democrats need to be where rural voters are — the grocery store, the gas station in a one-stop-light town, advertising on terrestrial radio and in local newspapers. Micro-targeted digital ads sound great to consultants, but they’re not nearly as effective as shoe-leather campaigning in rural areas.
Admittedly, this West Virginia native concedes that some of these rural voters live down gravel roads that are just too long or the campaign doesn't have access to a vehicle worthy of truck nuts to make it up the hill on a rainy spring afternoon. These voters do go to the grocery store, they have post office boxes where they pick up their mail, and they need to refill their gas tanks. These voters are reliable visitors to the county fairs and ramp dinners. Democratic candidates need to be at these places listening to voters’ concerns. These optics persuade rural voters better than a mail piece with the candidate wearing a barn jacket.
If Democrats want to have any chance of taking back state legislatures, the House, or the Senate in 2018, we must re-engage the rural vote in person and in messaging. Meet these rural voters where they go, speak with them rather than at them, and incorporate these conversations into messaging that matters.
Cartney McCracken is a partner at Control Point Group, a D.C.-based Democratic consulting firm.