President Donald Trump maintained his strength in rural areas of battleground states even as he struggled to win reelection against a Democratic surge in the suburbs and big cities for former Vice President Joe Biden.
The outcome of the race remained in doubt Wednesday morning because of the slow pace of counting votes in Georgia and North Carolina as well as the northern battlegrounds of Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.
Early Wednesday morning, Biden expressed confidence that he was on track to win. Later at the White House, Trump went further by claiming victory and vowing to fight what he claimed were Democratic attempts to “steal” the election.
Democrats made a concerted effort to cut into GOP rural margins without much evidence of success. In many major agricultural counties, Trump was on track to even exceed the margins by which he carried them in 2016, helping Republicans down ballot in Senate and House races.
In southwest Wisconsin, Trump was winning Grant County by 55% of the vote, beating his 51% share in 2016 and Mitt Romney’s 42% showing in 2012.
Trump also met or beat his 2016 performance in neighboring counties of Iowa, which he won relatively easily after Barack Obama had carried them in 2012.
In Darke County, Ohio, one of that state’s largest agricultural counties, Trump was getting 81% of the vote, compared to 79% in 2016.
A lot of issues important to U.S. agriculture were in play, including immigration, tax, trade and regulatory policy.
Trump, who promised to keep his tariffs on China, repeatedly attacked Biden for being weak on the Asian nation; Biden pledged to end the tariffs and said he would try to work with allies in Europe and elsewhere to get China to make concessions on U.S. trade complaints.
According to the Fox News exit poll, voters appeared to like Trump’s position on trade and China, even if they supported Biden. Some 48% of those polled said Trump had not been tough enough on China and 37% said his approach was about right. Results were similar in farm states such as Iowa, Kansas and Minnesota where producers had been hit particularly hard by Trump’s tariff war.
During the campaign, Trump also touted the 2017 tax cuts, which included a number of benefits for farmers, including cuts in rates for small businesses and an increase in the federal estate tax exemption.
Biden has promised to roll back some of the tax cuts and has called for ending the use of stepped-up basis, which would force heirs to pay capital gains taxes on increases in the value of property they inherit.
Biden also promised to make immigration reform an early priority of his administration, raising the possibility Congress could address long-sought changes in the H-2A visa program for foreign farmworkers.
Rural voters were a key target for both parties. Democrats were dead set on avoiding a repeat of Hillary Clinton’s performance in 2019, when she did much more poorly in rural areas than Obama had done in 2008 and 2012. The goal wasn’t to win rural counties, probably an impossible goal, but rather to cut into GOP margins.
Former Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack helped the Biden campaign devise a climate plan that would avoid alienating rural voters by using an expanded Conservation Stewardship Program to pay farmers for reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
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With help from Vilsack and others, Democrats also repeatedly hammered the Trump administration over the trade war with China as well as waivers from the Renewable Fuel Standard that many small refineries obtained from EPA.
“Trump left an opening in rural America many of us did not see,” former Iowa Lt. Gov. Patty Judge told reporters on Tuesday.
Former Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., led a group called the One Country Project that advised Democrats on ways to appeal to rural voters.
Trump relied heavily on his administration’s record to maintain rural support. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue crisscrossed the country to promote rural broadband projects and the administration’s coronavirus assistance to farmers through the Farmers to Families Food Box program.
Trump “is an unabashed advocate for America’s farmers and ranchers and his administration has delivered prosperity for rural America,” Perdue said in an op-ed posted Monday by Fox Business.
“Whether by cutting taxes for all Americans, fighting for better trade deals, expanding the use of ethanol, or connecting rural Americans to high-quality broadband Internet, the President has made sure that America is better off.”
Administration officials frequently reminded farmers and rural voters that the EPA and Army Corps of Engineers had replaced the Obama-era “waters of the U.S.” rule that had brought additional wetlands and streams under the jurisdiction of the Clean Water Act.
In recent days, the administration took a series of regulatory actions certain to appeal to many farmers. The action included the Labor Department’s announcement of a rule that will cut H-2A wage rates; EPA’s re-approval of formulations of the herbicide dicamba for five years; and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s removal of the gray wolf from protection under the Endangered Species Act.
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