One remarkable aspect of the 2008 Obama campaign was its success in carrying rural counties in battleground states such as Colorado and Iowa, the same counties which Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry had lost four years earlier.
Evan Vucci / AP
President Barack Obama steps off Air Force One May 2 at Andrews Air Force Base, Md.
Whether Obama’s field organizers can repeat their 2008 success with rural voters this year depends on both symbolism and substance.
Political analyst Charlie Cook said last week on MSNBC that this year Obama has a problem in places such as Iowa. In “states with a large small-town, rural populations ... the president's had a really, really hard time.” And according to the most recent Des Moines Register poll in February, 48 percent of Iowans surveyed disapproved of his job performance, while 46 percent approved.
Carolyn Kaster / AP file
President Obama greets supporters at a campaign event last week at the University of Iowa. He won Iowa with 54 percent of the vote in 2008.
One Obama administration decision which Republicans portrayed as a sign that the president is tone deaf when it comes to rural voters was last December’s proposed regulation from the Department of Labor that would have banned people under age 18 from being near certain farm animals and operating certain kinds of farm machinery.
Last week ago, after months of pressure from farmers’ groups and members of Congress, the administration withdrew the proposed rule. Even liberal Democrats such as Sen. Al Franken of Minnesota welcomed the decision to kill the regulation. “While they may have been well-intentioned, these rules would have had a negative impact on our state’s ag community,” he said.
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The economy seems likely to be the driving factor just as much for rural voters on Election Day as for those in bigger cities, like Las Vegas or Denver. And this will make Obama’s 2008 success in wooing rural voters harder to replicate this year.
According to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics the average unemployment rate in smaller counties – those with less than the average size labor force – is 8.7 percent, compared to the national average of 8.2 percent.
About 30 percent of the nation’s more than 3,000 counties still have an unemployment rate of 10 percent or higher and 162 of those are smaller rural counties in states such as North Carolina, Wisconsin, Michigan, Colorado, and Ohio which are likely to be hotly contested this fall.
Fifty of the highest unemployment, rural counties are in North Carolina. Obama carried 15 of those North Carolina counties in 2008 and came within a whisker of carrying four more of them.
Obama carried North Carolina in 2008 by 14,000 votes – his smallest margin of victory in any state, and the Democrats are holding their convention there this September. In the most recent Elon University poll in North Carolina, 49 percent of voters disapproved of Obama’s job performance while 43 percent approved.
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Traditionally the formula for victory for Democratic presidential candidates has been to rely on heavy turnout in the party’s big city bastions and then to add enough suburban voters to carry toss-up states such as Ohio, Missouri, and Florida. The larger the rural population of a state, the harder that strategy was to pull off since rural America generally favors Republican presidential candidates.
But in 2008 the Obama campaign’s effort to increase rural turnout paid off in states such as Iowa. In 2004 George W. Bush had carried the state. But in 2008, in Iowa’s rural counties, defined as those in which the total number of votes cast was less than statewide average per county, Obama won 49 percent of the vote, edging his Republican rival John McCain by two percentage points.
In those same counties in 2004, John Kerry won 10 percent fewer votes than Obama and won only 44 percent of the total rural vote.
In two-thirds of those Iowa rural counties, total voter turnout in 2008 was in fact smaller than in 2004, with only the Democratic voter turnout going up – indicating a demoralized Republican base.
In Iowa’s bigger urban counties, Obama’s share of the vote, 56 percent, was bigger than in rural Iowa, but Obama’s success in rural counties helped give him a nine-point margin of victory in the state.
On Wednesday, Iowa Republicans pointed to new voter registration data showing that they increased their voter registration edge last month. In March Republican registration exceeded Democratic registration for the first time since 2006 and the GOP now holds a lead of over 8,000 registered voters in the state.
In another battleground state, Colorado, in 2008 Obama won 46 percent of the vote in rural counties, compared to Kerry who won 41 percent of Colorado’s rural vote. Obama won 23 percent more votes in Colorado’s rural counties than Kerry had won in 2004, helping boost Obama to a 215,000 plurality statewide.
“Republicans have a very real opportunity to win in battleground states like Colorado and Iowa this November,” said Republican National Committee press secretary Kirsten Kukowski. “We already have aggressive ground operations in place to make new voter contacts and continue registering voters in key battleground states. Things like our Social Victory Center [a new Facebook app] will make it easier for all voters, including rural voters, to help elect a Republican to the White House.”
In 2008, Obama’s novelty and his appeal to voters’ idealism were factors that seemed to work as well in some parts of rural America as in suburbia and cities.
For example, in Indiana’s largely rural Third congressional district, with many Amish, Mennonites and evangelical Christians, Bush had gotten 68 percent of the vote in 2004, but John McCain managed only got 56 percent in 2008, as some conservative voters opted for Obama.
In an interview in 2009, then-Rep. Mark Souder, a conservative Republican who’d represented the district for 14 years, said that in 2008 Obama had “represented an element of the evangelical Christian dream, an African-American who has made it up through our system and proved we aren’t a prejudiced country because he made it…. There was a desire – not ideological – to vote for him.”
The big reversal came two years later. Take, for example, Virginia’s Fifth congressional district which includes Charlottesville, home of the University of Virginia, but also many rural counties.
Obama nearly carried that district in 2008 and Democrat Tom Perriello won the House seat there, but in 2010 voters turned against them, ousting Perriello despite a last-minute campaign visit from Obama. Perriello had voted for Obama’s health care plan.
Obama’s field operation in that part of Virginia in 2008 “had an enormous impact -- there were many counties in my district that had not seen a Democratic field office in years and in some case they had two or three offices,” said Perriello, who is now president of the Center for American Progress Action Fund, a Democratic advocacy group. “So you saw a tremendous grassroots presence and they were able to find those voters who wanted to support the president and get them there. But I also think it made a statement to independent voters that this was someone who cared enough to show up.”
This year, Perriello said “the conversation about economic fairness is one that resonates deeply in rural communities and puts conservatives on defense. A lot of people in rural counties work hard and play by the rules but feel like the system is rigged against working middle-class folks.”
He added that “there’s also a lot of disillusionment with both parties from rural communities and I think to some extent that’s going to be a challenge for both sides -- how disgusted people are with politics.”