If Steve Bullock wants to win over rural Americans, he should focus on black and Latino farmers
Montana Gov. Steve Bullock (D) just jumped into the 2020 presidential race. He has said he’ll focus on winning a demographic group that usually backs the GOP — rural voters, 60 percent of whom supported Trump in 2016.
In his announcement, Bullock highlighted his record of getting right-leaning voters and lawmakers in Montana to back liberal policies. “As a Democratic governor of a state that Trump won by 20 points, I don’t have the luxury of just talking to people who agree with me,” he said in his video. “I go all across our state’s 147,000 square miles and look for common ground.”
The Washington Post’s Michael Scherer reported:
A former chairman of the Democratic Governors Association who now chairs a national group of governors, Bullock, 53, has criticized the Democratic Party for focusing too much on its base voters and not enough on reaching out to Republicans and independents. In Montana, a rural state that tends to be less polarized in its voting patterns than others are, Bullock won reelection in 2016 by four points even as Trump won the state by 20.
“Get your head around this: 20 percent of the folks that voted for me also voted for Trump,” he said in a 2018 visit to Johnston, Iowa. “To get elected and to serve in government, I have to go to a lot of places where there are not a lot of Democrats in sight. And I have to talk to people. I have to listen to people.”
In framing the election this way, Bullock is wading into one of the biggest divides in the Democratic Party — whether campaigns should focus on the mostly white working class voters who turned out for Trump or the nonwhite and young voters who turned out for Hillary Clinton at a rate much lower than for Barack Obama or didn’t turn out at all.
The focus on rural voters could be a point of particular frustration for people of color who often feel the term rural voters is often coded language for “white working-class voters who backed Trump.” It fails to acknowledge the large numbers of black and Latino voters living in rural America, who often face unique challenges ignored by those focusing on white working-class voters.
But it doesn’t have to be this way. An emphasis on rural voters can draw in people of color as well as white voters.
More than one-fifth of the approximately 60 million people living in rural America are people of color, according to the U.S. Census and American Community Survey (ACS). And these Americans vote differently than the rural voters that some Democrats believe the left should focus on winning back.
The relationship between rural white communities and rural communities of color is much like the relationship between urban white communities and urban communities of color: separate and unequal.
And it also appears that these rural Americans vote for different candidates than rural whites. A look at county-level voting and demographic data suggests that this rural America voted for Hillary Clinton.
In defining rural white America as rural America, pundits, academics and lawmakers are perpetuating an incomplete and simplistic story about the many people who make up rural America and what they want and need.
And 2017 Washington Post-Kaiser Family Foundation poll found that rural Americans’ opinions on their communities vary widely when controlled for race. The Post’s Abigail Hauslohner and Emily Guskin wrote:
“Black rural Americans — most of whom live in the South — are far less likely than their white neighbors to feel positively about their communities, the poll finds. Sixty percent of blacks say their area is an excellent or good place to raise children, compared with 80 percent of whites. Rural blacks are 25 percentage points less likely than rural whites to give their community positive marks on safety and are 29 points less likely to say their area is a place where people look out for one another. Rural Hispanics tend to fall in between whites and blacks in rating their communities.”
Most leading Democrats acknowledge that getting the support of black voters is key to winning the party’s nomination. But it’s unusual for these politicians to specifically address the challenges of black farmers. If Democrats such as Bullock can do that, they might make the quest for rural voters a little more competitive.