(Bloomberg) — When Danny Patrick cast his ballot for former President Donald Trump, it was in part to spite the party that had once counted his West Virginia coal country vote as a given.
“I felt like [Democrats] weren’t ever doing nothing for the lower class down here,” said Patrick, 57, a former miner who lives in McDowell County, designated by the US Census Bureau as being in “persistent poverty” — a poverty rate of more than 20% for more than 30 years.
That perception of abandonment, particularly on economic issues, has contributed to a decades-long erosion of rural voters from the Democratic coalition. Now, there is fresh urgency for the party to try to win them back.
With Democrats losing their grip on some of the non-White voters who have powered their recent victories, rural residents could prove crucial in the 2024 election cycle. The presidential contest will hinge on results in swing states including Wisconsin, which has a significant rural population. US Senate races in places such as Montana and West Virginia also will help decide control of that chamber.
“There’s no reason that Democrats shouldn’t be more competitive in rural areas,” said veteran Democratic strategist James Carville, the architect of former President Bill Clinton’s 1992 campaign. “You don’t have to carry these places; you just have to lose them by less.”
It won’t be easy to close the gap. The party’s trouble with the voters runs deep, reflecting Democrats’ focus on progressive social priorities and the sense that they did nothing to stem job losses in rural areas. Some of the highest-profile Democrats have stepped on the proverbial rake when talking about this group, such as when former president Barack Obama spoke of people who “cling to guns or religion,” or when 2016 presidential nominee Hillary Clinton referred to some of Trump’s coalition as a “basket of deplorables.”
Democrats “have given middle America the middle finger,” said Republican Senator Joni Ernst, speaking last weekend at an event in her home state of Iowa.
In McDowell, where the empty houses and abandoned storefronts along Coal Heritage Road make for visible reminders of economic devastation, voters say they want politicians to speak primarily to financial hardship.
In the 1950s, McDowell County was the state’s coal capital, where a booming local economy supported a population of nearly 100,000 at the beginning of that decade. But the mechanization of mines made for fewer jobs and spurred a mass exodus of residents.
The county’s population today sits at about 18,000 and economic opportunity is scarce for the people who remain. Only 27.5% of McDowell County residents were in the labor force as of 2021. The poverty rate is nearly triple the national average.
Many residents blame the region’s decline on Democrats and their attempts to regulate the coal industry. Trump won every county in the state during the 2016 and 2020 elections, in part thanks to his promise to repeal “job-killing” restrictions championed by Democrats.
There is a sense among rural voters “that Democrats don’t understand the pain they’re in,” said Jeanne Zaino, a political science professor at Iona University and a contributor to Bloomberg Television and Radio.
McDowell County is typical of many rural counties across the US. A 2022 report from the Department of Agriculture found that a decline in population has been weighing on the job market in these areas. At the same time, only two out of the six largest industries in rural areas saw job growth since 2001.
Mark Stowers, 57, works in the coal industry and pointed to economic issues as a key concern for him at the ballot box — even as social issues such as transgender people’s health care and participation in school sports become a political flashpoint.
On transgender rights, “it doesn’t make a difference to me what they do,” said Stowers. “But coal’s more important to us, that’s what we pay our bills with, that’s how we make our living.”
About 100 miles north in Craigsville, West Virginia, Pam Cline is working to showcase the party in a better light. Cline, chair of the Nicholas County Democrats, said rural voters feel “completely left behind by the Democratic party,” a problem that she said could be remedied with better messaging by national Democrats around voters’ economic interests.
National Democrats have made some strategic changes to better court rural voters. In the 2022 election cycle, the Democratic National Committee offered new grants to state parties as part of its Red State Fund, aimed at strengthening its infrastructure in traditionally Republican states with large rural populations.
But party officials are acutely aware that they are losing a messaging war, failing to effectively communicate what it considers its biggest achievements such as the infrastructure bill.
“We’re not doing enough to promote that good work that has happened that is benefiting people in rural areas, and helping people connect the dots between who they’re voting for and the outcomes that they get,” said Kylie Oversen, chair of the DNC Rural Council.
Sea of Red
Recent election results maps show a clear visualization of the urban-rural divide: a sea of red dotted with islands of blue. But it hasn’t always been that way.
Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter, both Democrats, won the presidency in part with the support of rural voters. Obama won 43% of rural voters in 2008 with his message of hope and change and sharp criticisms of monopolies and trade deals like NAFTA.
Eight years later, Hillary Clinton fared worse with this group, winning just 31% of that demographic in a campaign in which she responded to a question about energy policy by saying, “We’re going to put a lot of coal miners and coal companies out of business.”
Trump, meanwhile, appealed to “forgotten” voters who he said were being left behind by progressive policies and cultural ideas.
“Trump and the Republicans done a lot of good for us around here,” said Justin Stowers, 34, who works in the coal sector. “We stay busy with work and it kinda seems like their views are more for us — especially in our job industry.”
President Joe Biden didn’t do much better than Hillary Clinton, getting just 33% of the rural vote in 2020. The only Democrat who holds a statewide elected office in West Virginia, Senator Joe Manchin, is expected to face an extremely arduous path to reclaiming his seat next year. Senator Jon Tester of Montana, another vulnerable Democrat up for reelection next year, will also face the challenge of winning in a deep-red rural state.
Crafting an economic message that’s compelling in rural areas has been complicated by soaring inflation, which voters often blame on the party in the White House. It doesn’t help that rural households felt the pinch of higher prices even more than their urban counterparts. Over the past two years, rural households spent an extra $8,120 because of inflation, about $650 more than urban households, research from Iowa State University showed.
Still, some see a way for Democrats to thread the needle. “Populist economics works with rural voters,” said Democratic pollster Celinda Lake. A poll she conducted for the rural news site the Daily Yonder found that rural voters have a low opinion of Biden and Democrats — but an even lower one of wealthy corporations and CEOs.
Lake said Democrats should talk more about how corporate ownership — of railroads, mines, meatpacking plants and former family farms — has hurt rural America.
While Republicans appeal to rural voters on expanding gun rights and limiting abortion, Democrats can win on the economy and their longstanding support for safety net programs like Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security, Lake said.
Democrats who have claimed victories in states with significant rural populations — Tester, for example, and Senator John Fetterman of Pennsylvania — also offer a road map.
“They’re talking to them about fiscal issues, about health care, about Medicaid expansion and about farm subsidies,” said Jessica Taylor, the senate and governors editor for the Cook Political Report.
Tester, a three-term senator who still works as a farmer, said his party should be courting this demographic with overtures around “inflation and housing and childcare.”
When fellow Democrats hit the rural campaign trail, he advised, “Don’t go there and talk. Go there and listen.”