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Democrats have a huge opportunity to win back rural voters

For the first time in decades, Democrats are making gains in areas that have some of Trump’s most reliable voters.

A large red and blue Biden-Harris sign sits on the side of a dirt road in Iowa, with farm fields stretching out behind it.
Signs for Joe Biden and Kamala Harris in Union County, Iowa, on October 9, 2020.
Christopher Smith/Washington Post via Getty Images
Christian Paz is a senior politics reporter at Vox, where he covers the Democratic Party. He joined Vox in 2022 after reporting on national and international politics for the Atlantic’s politics, global, and ideas teams, including the role of Latino voters in the 2020 election.

In last year’s midterms, when Democrats narrowly held on to control of the Senate and won crucial elections in battleground states, they did so in part by reversing one of Donald Trump’s biggest 2020 accomplishments: They won more voters from rural and exurban communities than anyone expected.

From Arizona and Nevada, across the Midwest, and into North Carolina and Pennsylvania, Democratic Senate and gubernatorial candidates improved on President Joe Biden’s 2020 showing among this swath of the electorate, and persuaded tens of thousands of rural voters who voted for Trump to switch parties.

Now, as the 2024 campaign map begins to take shape, Democratic candidates, the state and national parties, and their outside partners will have to make a choice about how seriously to invest in outreach and persuasion operations in these communities. Democrats have long struggled in rural communities, but their decline in support has only accelerated in recent years, cementing the idea for many that the party caters to highly educated and primarily urban voters. That narrative has only entrenched itself since the ’90s, when former President Bill Clinton essentially split rural voters with his Republican opponents in his two presidential campaigns and won over 1,100 rural counties in 1996. Since then, Democratic presidential candidates have endured dramatic losses in rural areas: in 2008, Barack Obama won 455 rural counties; in 2020, Joe Biden won only 194.

That crumbling of rural support has led some in the party to write off this section of voters entirely. Biden’s 2020 victory is illustrative of this dynamic: He won the presidency despite winning just 33 percent of rural voters. (Trump won 65 percent, up from the 59 percent he won in 2016.)

But the 2022 midterms reversed that slide.

If Democrats decide to take these communities more seriously this cycle, activists, strategists, and former candidates say the party stands to shore up its margins in battleground states and make up for any possible loss in support from the suburbs. If candidates and their campaigns show up and work with the right local partners, they might have a better chance of replicating some of the rural progress they made in 2022. At the very least, they can “lose less badly,” as former Montana Gov. Steve Bullock, a Democrat, told me. “Far too often in exurban areas, Democrats over the last decade have just been ceding these areas to Republicans.” Bullock is now advising rural voter outreach efforts for the Democratic-aligned American Bridge 21st Century, a political advertising and opposition research group that is already spending money to promote Biden and Democrats’ record.

“What we need to do is, show up, listen, assume we share the same values, and demonstrate that we’re fighting for them,” Bullock said. “You’re not always going to win all these areas, but if you don’t show up, both in-person and on the airwaves, there’s gonna be a vacuum there.”

The new rural Democratic hope of 2022

Democrats’ performance in rural counties last year comes with one big caveat: They still trail Republicans in rural voter share. No one I spoke to in Democratic circles thinks the party can suddenly win a majority of rural voters; Trump’s hold on many voters in these communities is strong. But the GOP’s hold on rural regions is showing a few cracks, particularly in areas with Trumpian candidates: In almost all the 2022 cycle’s marquee statewide races, Democrats did better than Biden did two years before.

A December Axios story featuring analysis from the moderate Democratic group Third Way encapsulates those raw numbers. In most battleground states across the country, Democrats improved on Biden’s rural county vote share, from 1 percentage point in the Arizona gubernatorial contest to 15 percentage points in the Pennsylvania governor’s race. There may still be even more room to improve. Biden did worse among rural voters in 2020 than Hillary Clinton did in 2016.

The brightest spots for Democrats came in Michigan and Pennsylvania, where Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and Gov. Josh Shapiro, respectively, improved on Biden’s performance in rural counties by 10 and 15 percentage points. Candidates like Democratic Colorado Gov. Jared Polis, Sen. John Fetterman (D-PA), and Sen. Michael Bennet (D-CO) improved by more than 6 points — and even candidates who lost, like former Rep. Tim Ryan in Ohio’s Senate race, still improved on Biden’s numbers (winning 4 percent more support from these counties).

Of course, the 2024 presidential electorate will be very different from the electorate that turned out for the midterms. In 2022, Democrats framed Trump-backed candidates as extremists, which helped Democrats overperform in suburban and urban areas that have drifted toward them while also persuading some rural voters to see Republican anti-abortion efforts as forms of overreach. That same strategy isn’t guaranteed to work in 2024. Trump’s presence on the 2024 ballot could also give other Republican candidates a boost, Lucas Holtz, a political analyst with Third Way, told me.

But there’s another set of numbers from the 2022 midterms that provides even more hope for Democrats and that should force them to think seriously about the kind of presence they need to have in rural America: the number of Trump voters who flipped to Democrats during the midterms.

A chart shows Democratic candidates who got large shares of rural voters in 2022, like Pennsylvania Gov. Josh Shapiro and Sen. Mark Kelly. Lucas Holtz/Third Way

Holtz and the Third Way team looked at the raw data behind the Associated Press and NORC’s 2022 midterm exit polls (also known as AP VoteCast) and found that many of the statewide Democratic candidates who improved on Biden’s rural voter numbers did so by winning over significant chunks of rural voters who voted for Trump in 2020. For example, 15 percent of rural and exurban Trump voters ended up voting for Shapiro in Pennsylvania, and 12 percent of Trump 2020 voters cast ballots for Sen. Mark Kelly in Arizona.

And again, candidates that didn’t win, like Democratic Senate candidates Cheri Beasley in North Carolina and Mandela Barnes in Wisconsin, still flipped about 4 and 3 percent of rural Trump voters each last year.

The 2024 rural opportunity

Until 2022, it seemed to many rural Democrats and progressive activists that the Democratic Party leadership was content to abandon these communities to Republican dominance. Especially after Trump’s rural dominance in 2020, the narrative that Democrats had given up competing beyond the suburbs had solidified among many in the party. Rural Democratic politicians, like Bullock, who lost a Senate election in 2020, were beginning to sound the alarm ahead of the midterms.

The former two-term governor now sounds a lot more optimistic when he talks about the future of rural Democrats. “We have a long way to go as a party, but I think that certainly we saw through the midterms that you can’t cede any parts of the country,” he said.

What is required to build on those 2022 gains, Democratic sources told Vox, looks a lot like a mix of economic populism, boots-on-the-ground local organizing, and pragmatic pitches that take into account the way rural voters think.

Former Rep. Tim Ryan, who lost an Ohio Senate race to Republican venture capitalist J.D. Vance in 2022, sees this as a reframing of classic Democratic messaging. “Generally, I see a populism meaning that for most people, the economy is not working,” Ryan said. “You need to identify that, but there has to be an independent streak too. It’s not unique to rural voters, but it’s more pronounced in rural areas.”

Ryan said the right appeal to rural voters emphasizes a kind of matter-of-fact attitude that doesn’t mean always defending national leaders. “It’s important as Democrats are going to campaign in rural areas to say, ‘Look, I have honest disagreements with Joe Biden, I have honest disagreements with Chuck Schumer, but I have completely honest disagreements with Donald Trump too. And I’m not going there to toe the line for anybody. I’m going to toe the line for you,’” he said.

Ryan, who is now on the Natural Allies Leadership Council, a natural gas advocacy group, said that pragmatism extends to topics of vital importance to the Democratic Party, like the way they talk about immigration, manufacturing, clean energy and climate change, free trade, and even the debt ceiling and the deficit.

Other Democratic strategists and progressive activists told me that how Democrats talk about their achievements also matters for rural voters. Melissa Morales, the founder and president of Somos Votantes, the Latino engagement group, told me that she and other rural Democratic advocates and strategists have a theory for how candidates should be talking about the economy. Called the “Winning Jobs Narrative Project,” the strategy calls on Democrats to center on working-class and rural voters first and find commonalities between their concerns and Democratic accomplishments.

Democratic candidates often pitch voters with a “long laundry list of things that they’re doing to help you out,” Morales said. Democratic messaging last year on the child tax credit, which used the tax code to dramatically slash child poverty, was a prime example. “We go in and talk about how it was a huge anti-poverty initiative, that we’re going to lift half of people out of poverty. But that turns out to be incredibly disempowering and comes from a place of pity and not respect.”

After years of polling and focus groups, Morales said, if you flip the framing to focus on how the tax credit will enable families to pay for child care and get parents back to work easier, the idea resonates better. In Nevada, Morales said, Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto won one of the tightest races in the country by talking about the economy and Democratic wins like this.

And there’s also a way to talk about social issues that centers the libertarian and pragmatic streak that exists in a lot of rural communities, said Cody Lonning, a college instructor at Eastern Washington University and a co-founder of the Rural Urban Bridge Initiative, a think tank that develops messaging strategies for liberals and progressives. Abortion is an example of an issue where “there’s a sense of there needing to be a middle ground and neither party is really leaning into that idea, so when a candidate does talk in that way, there is a place of agreement.”

That means the candidates who can best connect with rural communities don’t necessarily get bogged down in policy specifics when talking to voters, but prioritize personality and earnestness. “A candidate does not have to agree with a voter on those issues. But they can’t just pivot and avoid those issues,” Lonning said. “A lot of times those questions are really sort of a voter exploring the cultural differences between them and a candidate, and trying to understand that candidate as a human being.”

Republicans still have a tremendous advantage in base support, infrastructure, and candidate recruitment in rural communities. But making inroads and cutting down margins is the key to winning statewide elections — and that goal seems to be within reach for Democratic candidates this coming cycle.

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