WASHINGTON, Aug. 3, 2016 - If Donald Trump’s path to victory in November goes through rural America, he’ll likely to have to do better with white working class voters than Mitt Romney did. While that is clearly a key demographic for Trump, it’s not yet clear he can get them to the polls in numbers to offset potential losses in the cities and suburbs by voters who may be turned off by his approach.

A CNN-ORC International poll, which was conducted after last week’s Democratic convention and breaks out results by where voters live, shows Trump leading Hillary Clinton among rural voters by 54 percent to 36 percent. That’s down from a lead of 60 percent to 35 percent among rural voters in a CNN poll taken just a week earlier.

An NBC-Wall Street Journal poll in May that also provided a rural-urban breakdown had Trump leading Clinton 64 percent to 27 percent in rural areas.

By comparison, exit polling in 2012 indicated that rural voters favored Mitt Romney over President Obama by 59 percent to 39 percent. But there is evidence that many rural and white working class voters stayed home on Election Day, presumably because they weren’t excited about either candidate.

A large victory margin in rural areas won’t be enough to help a Republican overcome Democratic margins in the cities if the overall turnout in rural areas and small towns is relatively low, said James Gimbel, a political science professor at the University of Maryland.

“The question is whether these small towns, and rural, white voters in places like Ohio, are any more excited about the Trump candidacy. I don’t know the answer to that yet,” Gimbel said. “That’s what it hinges on really. It hinges on whether Trump has more appeal than Romney did to white, small town and rural voters.”

Sean Trende, a political analyst for RealClear Politics, found that rural turnout dropped off in Ohio in 2012 while urban and suburban voters turned out in full force. Seven rural counties saw drops in turnout of more than 10 percent. Trende blamed the drop on Romney’s failure to articulate a positive agenda that rural voters liked and Obama’s success in focusing on Romney’s health and tenure at Bain Capital.

Both the Trump campaign and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack say the rural vote will be crucial in states such as Iowa, Pennsylvania and Ohio. During a Rural for Hillary event on the sidelines of the Democratic convention last week in Philadelphia, Vilsack appealed to Democratic agribusiness leaders to help the Clinton campaign boost its rural support.

“We’re going do well in the cities, but if we lose 90-10, 80-20 or 70-30 in rural areas, it won’t make any damn difference what we do in the cities,” Vilsack at the event. “Encourage your friends and neighbor in small towns across the country. Their families’ future is at risk. The farm economy is at risk. America’s place in the world is at risk.”

Vilsack went on to argue that a strong rural showing for Clinton could also lift Democrats in key Senate races, a prospect that Republicans obviously fear.

“We’ve got to be able to govern. If Hillary wins, the Senate is Democratic, and over time we win the House back, and then it’s not just a question of four years of Democratic governance or eight years, it’s decades. It’s decades,” Vilsack said. “If we want equal pay, if we want to raise the minimum wage, if we want to extend access to health care, if we want America to assume its rightful place in the world, we need Democratic control for a long period of time and you are at the center of this.” (The Rural for Hillary event was off the record, but Agri-Pulse contributing editor Jim Webster was in attendance and Vilsack gave him permission to report his remarks.)

The president of the Ohio Farm Bureau, Frank Burkett, says that in his state, the rural vote will come down to both issues and character. "They’re going to have to feel they’re voting for someone who’s with them on most of the issues. Theyre also going to have to feel that theyre with the candidate who has the same moral compass and guidelines that they have.”

Immigration and national security are among the crucial issues this year for rural Ohio voters, said Burkett, a dairy producer who farms west of Canton.

Rural Democrats told Agri-Pulse that the Clinton campaign needs to emphasize issues such as needs for financial services, infrastructure development, broadband and education.

Bob Saunders, a North Carolina lawyer who was attending the Democratic convention, said expansion of broadband is badly needed in rural areas of his state. That “involves spending money. It’s more of a Democratic issue than a Republican issue.”

Mike Gierau, a Wyoming delegate to the convention, said access to capital is a critical need for small businesses and farms in the wake of banking regulations being tightened after the 2008-2009 crisis. “It has really closed off a lot of capital to small businesses, to small farmers. Hillary Clinton has a plan about that.”

His reference to the banking issue points to a potential weak point for Democrats, however. Congressional Republicans have been holding hearings on the impact the Dodd-Frank rules, and the Trump campaign has made clear that it believes that targeting the Obama administration’s regulatory agenda will appeal to rural and farm votes.

Ann Tornberg, a dairy producer who chairs the South Dakota Democratic Party, says that some rural Republicans are uncomfortable with Trump’s character and she thinks his repeated attacks on trade agreements also could hurt him in the upper Midwest.

“Donald Trumps version of business, and expansion of business by limiting trade and bringing back manufacturing jobs, is not what agriculture in the Midwest needs to hear,” she said. She and her husband farm near Beresford, S.D., about 50 miles north of Sioux City, Iowa.

Still, Clinton is disliked in rural areas more than anywhere else, and Democrats fear that her campaign won’t put the effort into wooing rural voters. According to the latest CNN poll, 67 percent of rural voters view Clinton unfavorably, compared to 41 percent of city voters. By comparison, 51 percent of rural voters have a negative view of Trump.

Betty Ritchie, a Democratic national committeewoman from Texas, said that winning back rural voters “is going to take a lot of work” and she acknowledged that the gun control was one of the issues hurting Democrats.

“Rural areas have been taken over by the Republicans, and this ship isn’t going to turn on a dime,” she said. “We lost the rural areas. We did it to ourselves.”


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