Thomas Mills: Can Democrats reach rural voters?

Published 12:00 am Thursday, June 27, 2024

By Thomas Mills

North Carolina’s rural voters are getting a lot of attention this cycle. The Wall Street Journal did a long piece this weekend. The AP did another story that was widely circulated. WUNC did a piece last week.

The story is really about Democrats hemorrhaging rural voters in the age of Trump. While rural counties were trending Republican for years, the process sped up in 2016 when Trump brought out new voters in rural areas and then expanded his margin with them in 2020. Democrats need to staunch the bleeding if Biden is to have a chance in the state.

North Carolina Democratic Party Chair Anderson Cooper has vowed to make rural voters a priority this cycle. She served as chair of the Person County Democratic Party before winning the race for state party chair. She has criticized the party for ignoring rural voters and is putting boots on the ground to reconnect with those people. That’s a good start.

Democrats used to win rural areas regularly, particularly in eastern North Carolina, but have lost their advantage. Now, there’s fear that they are losing rural African American voters who have been a significant part of their base. In 2022, even with a Black woman at the top of the ticket, African American turnout sank.

Democrats are losing rural support largely because of a cultural divide. In the minds of too many people, the national party has let itself become defined by social issues like immigration, guns and transgender rights. They’ve lost the focus on economic opportunity in areas that have been hit hard by urbanization and trade deals that gutted local economies. The populations in those areas are aging and not as open to new ideas or social mores.

Democrats have also lost, or at least are losing, the communication battle. While progressives have hung onto their belief in 30-second ads and campaign-like field operations, conservatives have bought up local newspapers that echo the sentiments of Fox News and talk radio. Small town newspapers that used to hire journalism majors right out of college, now hire local bloggers or writers who offer more biased than nuanced perspectives.

North State Journal, the GOP mouthpiece published by veterans of the McCrory campaign, now owns several small newspapers across the state. The Asheville television station, WLOS, that reaches rural western North Carolina is owned by Sinclair Broadcast Group, a conservative corporation that regularly spreads propaganda under the guise of straight news. Small, AM radio stations are dominated by talk radio that denigrates liberals and Democrats. The flow of information into rural communities is controlled by conservative outlets.

As Michael Tomasky says, “Right-wing media took over in these places and convinced people who live in them that liberals are all God-hating superwoke snowflakes who are nevertheless also capable of destroying civilization, and our side didn’t fight it. At all. If someone had formed a liberal Sinclair 20 years ago to gain reach into rural and small-town America, that story would be very different today.”

With the advent of online publications like Cardinal & Pine owned by Courier Newsroom, progressives are starting reach out to consumers of news in rural areas, but they have a long way to go. It’s good to see early field operations and early ad expenditures, too. Those efforts need to continue outside of the election cycle if they are going to make a difference. The challenge is more than just convincing voters which candidate to support. Progressives need to change mindsets and rebuild lost trust and to do that they need to be heard.

Instead of trying to copy the conservative media infrastructure, Democrats need to start delivering to people on the ground. Turn the conversation from transgender rights to public schools by setting up breakfasts for kids who go to school hungry, exploiting the GOP’s refusal to feed poor kids. Or have programs that drive people to doctors’ appointments in other towns, because the GOP policies have allowed health care to collapse in rural America. In essence, start to refute the Republican messaging that has damaged the Democratic brand.

Do something. Waiting for election cycles to communicate with voters has failed in rural North Carolina. It’s time to change strategies and tactics.

This first appeared in NC Spin.