Decades ago, political pundits frequently talked about the importance of farm and rural voters in presidential elections. During the early 1930s, President Franklin D. Roosevelt connected the economics on the farms to jobs in the cities as he tried to build political support from both.

“If the farm population of the United States suffers and loses its purchasing power, the people in the cities in every part of the country suffer of necessity with it," he pointed out during a campaign speech. "One of the greatest lessons that the city dwellers have come to understand in these past two years is this: Empty pocketbooks on the farm do not turn factory wheels in the city.”

Fast forward to the last two decades, and rural issues are often absent on the campaign trail. There have been two recent exceptions: GOP candidate Donald Trump, who — much to the Democrats' chagrin — secured victory in swing states like Iowa, Wisconsin, Ohio and Michigan in 2016, in part, because he paid attention to farmers and ranchers and more broadly, speaking to the concerns of those who have often been left behind in rural America. Eight years earlier, candidate Barack Obama, then a senator from Illinois, promised to focus attention on rural issues while campaigning in Iowa and was supported by an influential team of people who understood agriculture and rural areas.

“There is not enough conversation about agriculture and farming in rural America in national campaigns,” laments National Farmers Union President Johnson. “I wish they would all come to Iowa with a clear-eyed vision of what they want for the future of rural America and the USDA.”

Part of the problem is that candidates are not often asked about agriculture and rural issues by national reporters. During a Heartland Forum in Storm Lake, Iowa, last month, moderator and Storm Lake Times Editor Art Cullen was able to ask candidates about their visions for rural America. However, others asked questions — their stance on felons having the right to vote while serving their sentences, for example — that made it more difficult for candidates to pivot to a strictly rural response. 

Johnson said there was plenty of discussion about issues of high importance to NFU members like consolidation and health care. But he agreed: There could have been a sharper focus on USDA and rural issues.

Tom Vilsack, a former secretary of agriculture who was Iowa’s governor from 1999-2007 and briefly launched his own presidential bid in 2006, agrees Democratic candidates need to sharpen their rural focus.

“Democrats need to have a very specific, tailored vision for rural America that wraps into a larger vision for the country's whole. In other words, they have to speak specifically about rural,” says Vilsack. “You can't go in and say the world is skewed because the folks at the top have too much power and the folks at the bottom don’t have enough. That's a general vision for the country as a whole but doesn't necessarily tell me how you're going to revitalize and rebuild an economy that is important to the country.”

Tom Vilsack

Former Ag Secretary Tom Vilsack

By speaking specifically about rural issues, it’s a reflection that the “candidate understands and appreciates a unique contribution that rural America makes to the country and is facing some very difficult and challenging times,” says Vilsack.

“If you're going to win the presidency as a Democrat, you have to do well in the Midwest and the middle of the country. You have to at least reduce margins in rural areas and can’t get beat 80/20 or 90/10.”

Some folks are already trying to find ways to help the lengthy list of Democratic candidates lift up more agricultural and rural issues. Johnson says the former group of aggies that helped support candidate Obama in 2007-08 is coming back together. They hope to be able to offer advice on how to approach rural voters without embracing a specific candidate.

The good news about the crowded Democratic field? “Some of the candidates already know their way around a barn,” said one source who has participated in the discussions.

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