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Rural voters in swing states present untapped potential, new poll suggests

New poll shows rural areas contain a much higher number of swingable voters than strategists might expect.
MinnPost file photo by Gregg Aamot

Editor’s Note: The Center for Rural Strategies, which publishes the Daily Yonder, conducted this survey with Lake Research Partners.

Largely untapped political messaging about the economy could sway a large swath of rural voters in battleground states, a new survey by the Center for Rural Strategies suggests.

The findings provide a potential new and more effective roadmap for candidates vying for seats in state legislatures, Congress, and the White House ahead of the 2024 elections. The survey suggests as many as 37% of rural voters are swing, blue-collar voters who could be swayed by the right policy proposals and messaging.

While partisanship remains strong among the rural electorate, voters were aligned on many of their chief concerns: affordable housing, the high cost of food, and corporate greed.

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The Center for Rural Strategies and Lake Research Partners, a Democratic research firm, interviewed a weighted sample of 500 likely voters in rural ZIP codes in 12 states, including Pennsylvania, Ohio, Arizona, and Georgia.

Want to see the full poll results? Find them here.

By far, these likely voters put the rising cost of living as their highest concern. The policy offerings presented by the surveyors suggest a populist message focusing on the affordability of housing, healthcare access, and improving schools could sway voters who are currently under-targeted by many Democratic candidates.

  • 51% of Democrats thought the economy was working well for them, compared to 17% of Republicans.
  • Respondents were asked to pick two issues from a list of 14 that were the most important for themselves and their families. The respondents could also choose “other,” “none,” or “not sure.
  • 54% chose the rising cost of living as one of their most important issues, followed by retirement and Social Security (25%), health care (19%), dysfunction in government (15%), and jobs and the economy (15%).
  • Respondents were asked to pick two concerns from a list of 11 that were the most important for themselves and their families. The respondents could also choose “other,” “none,” or “not sure.
  • 43% chose the rising cost of food as one of their most important issues, followed by rising gas prices (24%), rising energy costs (21%), rising housing costs (19%), and a lack of good-paying jobs (18%).

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Three messaging points — lowering prices; bringing good-paying jobs to local communities; and a populist message focused on corporate greed — received such broad support that they rivaled voters’ agreement on core values like family and freedom.

The cost-benefit analysis of how much the Democratic Party should focus on rural areas has led to debate among strategists and party officials. In North Carolina, Democratic Party Chair Anderson Clayton rose to power on a platform of reaching young and rural voters, even those in the reddest counties.

“​​County parties are supposed to be the grassroots, or the ‘local voice’ of the Democratic Party,” Clayton told the Daily Yonder in 2021. “Yet in rural communities, Democratic county parties are struggling or non-existent, and have been since the national party diverted its attention from focusing efforts on organizing in rural America.”

Five policy points were viewed favorably by more than 90% of the people surveyed. They included creating manufacturing jobs instead of shipping jobs overseas; lowering prescription drug prices; improving schools; and providing skilled training to local workers.

Others, like cracking down on price gouging and expanding access to high-speed internet, received nearly 90% support from likely rural voters.

  • Republicans, Democrats, and independents and weak partisans all chose the following policy proposal as their favorite out of a list of 10: “We need to reduce inflation and make life more affordable because, from gas to groceries to prescription drugs, the cost of living is too expensive for working families.”
  • Partisan voters split on policy proposals related to cutting taxes and government spending, and with making sure wealthy corporations paid their fair share. However, weak partisans and independents ranked both those policies in their top three.
  • Based on survey answers, pollsters broke down the respondents into five groups: small government older Republicans (18%), economy and tax-focused blue-collar workers (19%), anti-corporation retired Democrats (12%), younger jobs-oriented women (14%), and less defined blue-collar voters (37%).

While there was broad agreement on several policy proposals, partisanship revealed itself when asking voters about candidates like Joe Biden and Donald Trump. Biden was viewed unfavorably by 66% of respondents, while Trump was viewed unfavorably by 48%.

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Over the past two presidential elections, Trump expanded his share of the rural vote from 59% in 2016 to 65% in 2020, according to the Pew Research Center. Republican candidates have performed better in rural congressional districts, too.

The Daily Yonder found that in 2006, half of rural voters supported Republican congressional candidates. That figure has generally grown since then, reaching 68% in the 2022 midterms.

Still, pollster Celinda Lake said the poll revealed the potential for Democrats to perform much better in rural areas than they might otherwise believe.

“We don’t get in enough to local communities with local voices, tailoring the message to local experience — to the rural experience,” she said.

Lake said the survey also revealed the importance of understanding the economic web of rural economies. While candidates might focus on improving infrastructure — a local bridge that needs repair, for example — they might miss the conversation about who is hired to make the repairs and how those workers are paid. Those issues might be as important to people as the repairs themselves.

“There’s a broader conversation around the story of that bridge, and we don’t tend to tell that story,” Lake said. “We just say we put X billion dollars into infrastructure and let it go at that, and then we wonder why it doesn’t work.”

Seventy percent of respondents said they don’t believe the economy is working well for them. Republicans were more likely to hold this belief than Democrats, at 82% for Republicans and 48% for Democrats.

And while the rising cost of living was the top issue for people aligned with both parties and for independents, Republicans were also more likely to put that as their top issue.

People’s values also showed some partisan differences. Republicans, independents or weak partisans and voters of color all put family, freedom and faith as their top three values. Democrats put family, equality and kindness or compassion as their top three.

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Along with the polling, the Center for Rural Strategies held focus groups in rural Minnesota, Kentucky, Wisconsin and Ohio. The concerns presented there reflected those of the poll: that the economy is not working for rural Americans, said Dee Davis, president of the Center for Rural Strategies

People’s sense of identity in rural places has long been connected to their work, Davis said. As many of those industries faded or moved overseas, people’s sense of identity and connection to America as a whole weakened.

Still, the effectiveness of policy messages shows a path forward, he said. While many candidates focus heavily on suburban areas where voters are viewed as more persuadable, the polling suggests rural areas may be well worth the time and money.

“This was not a response of people who didn’t want to be connected,” Davis said, “but who were longing to be reconnected with the country.”

This article first appeared on The Daily Yonder and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.