Regaining trust of rural voters

by | Dec 3, 2021 | Editor's Blog | 9 comments

In the wake of the Virginia election, the group Third Way commissioned a focus group to figure out why Biden voters switched to Republican Glenn Youngkin this year. In an interview with the New York Times, Brian Stryker, who conducted the groups, said of the Democrats, “We’ve got a national branding problem that is probably deeper than a lot of people suspect…People think we’re more focused on social issues than the economy — and the economy is the No. 1 issue right now.”

I would argue that Democrats and progressives also have a trust problem, especially with voters in rural areas. Maybe that trust has been diminished by the propaganda of outlets like Fox News, but some of it has also been eroded by progressives who emphasize culture changes that unsettle a lot of working class people. It’s also been hurt by a cultural elitism that has left many Democrats with little understanding or sympathy for the plight of rural America, particularly areas that are still struggling to recover from the damage done by trade deals of the 1990s and early 2000s.  

Democrats aren’t going to regain that trust just by promising legislation that will help working class people. While voters may support positions like higher minimum wages and Medicaid expansion, the distrust of Democrats is deep and personal in rural America. The percentage of rural voters supporting Democrats has been shrinking for years, but it has cratered since 2016. Democrats might want to write these voters off as racist Trumpists, but they can’t win in states like North Carolina if they do. 

Besides, it’s not just White voters that are leaving the Democrats. Black voters in rural areas are starting to slowly shift toward Republicans, according to UNC-Charlotte political scientist Eric Heberlig. He told WFAE in January, “I think just the perception that Democrats emphasize urban issues, talk about things from the perspective of their urban core: higher educated constituencies that appeal to issues that are relevant to those upper income, upper educated voters. Talking in a way that rural voters perceived to be condescending and dismissive of their values.”

To retain or win back some of these voters, Democrats need to do more than promise policies. No messaging is going to restore trust among people who don’t believe Democrats have their best interests at heart. They need to become programmatic and engage with these communities. 

That’s just what the New Rural Project is doing. Founded by former Democratic candidates Cynthia Wallace and Helen Probst Mills, the organization is going into small towns and rural communities to provide services. Right now, they’re setting up vaccination clinics. Listening to the people in these communities to understand their needs is a core component of the New Rural Project.

A few weeks ago in Morven, NC, the New Rural Project partnered with local organizations that set up a vaccination clinic that also provided meals, free clothing, and even haircuts for men and boys. That’s how progressives can regain trust. Actions speak louder than words. Once they’ve got the attention of the community, they can begin conversations about policies that affect the people who live there. 

Instead of blasting TV or radio ads hoping to win votes, progressives need to put people in places providing services to better understand the perspective of rural voters. They need to regain trust and show that they care about the needs of people outside of intellectual centers and urban hubs if they want to earn their votes. 

The New Rural Project could provide a model for Democrats to re-engage in small towns and  rural communities. If they don’t, they probably need to get used to being a minority party. They can’t win in states like North Carolina as long as their vote share continues to shrink outside of the suburbs. 


  1. Phoenix

    Here ya go.

    Fix yourselves!

  2. phoenix

    It has nothing to do with Fox. Why on earth does the left think everyone they don’t agree with marches in lock step, watches, or even agrees with Fox? Do Democrats and the left do so with say CNN? How about just living your life and being observant? How about stop looking for someone or something to blame and just take responsibility for the mess you have made?

    Regaining those lost voters is not likely to happen in my opinion. The left ( Democrats Progressive Socialists etc..) They can’t buy these votes. These people don’t want your money or your programs, Oh they will use them (mostly not) But they would much rather provide for themselves. They don’t want your help, or your pity. They want you to leave them alone, and if anything promulgate legislation that allows them to run their own lives without governmental interference. The one thing the left hates the most is a person who not only does not need them, They don’t WANT them.

    Not to mention that Democrats spent literally Clinton, Bush (He really was a democrat) and Obama telling everyone who lives in “flyover country” That they are White, stupid, inbred slack jawed, yokels who are irredeemable racists, bigots, and homophobes, That should get in the back of the bus shut up pay taxes and die. Just read ANY leftist comment section or chat board etc. Its clear Democrats and the left HATE. Spend some time looking around, if you are open minded you’ll see it. Your black hearts are being seen worn through the thin veneer that you care.

    Gee, these dummies in flyover country take you at your word. You don’t like them! The figured it out! Imagine that!

    Also Democrats and the left would have to admit they are wrong, that their ideas are wrong and unpopular. A direct insult to their oh so superior-ness. After we are highly educated etc…

    There is no way.

  3. ctw

    Too late.

  4. Randell Hersom

    The number one necessary action to bring rural America back into the fold is to ACTUALLY TAX THE RICH! We did not succeed in that in Biden’s first year. The promise to revoke the Trump tax cuts for billionaires is as yet unfulfilled.

    • Phoenix

      Tax the rich. lol

      How much? If you took all the wealth from the 550 billionaires you could run the fed gov less than a year.

      The problem isn’t revenue its spending and a federal government that is WAY bigger and expensive than it should be.

      regardless. They will never pay it, but you and I will.

  5. Deeto McKinsey

    It’s none of that. Republicans are industrialists and the majority of the 1%. They created FAUX NEWS and Reagan changed the laws on television to allow cable channels and radio stations to propagandize instead of telling us what our government doing.
    If Democrats want to regain power, they must tear down Reaganomics first. All of it. From globalization to endless war to the prison industrial complex to privatization of government, but starting with public airwaves acting in the best interest of the public.
    The majority of even Republicans are sick and tired of Reaganomics, they just don’t know the name of the sickness.

  6. Tom Fehsenfeld

    The New Rural Project sounds like it has some positive features. The question is whether it can rapidly be brought to enough a large enough scale to move the needle. If we are facing attitudes formed by decades of declining opportunities for people in rural areas and many years of demonization by the Right, it seems like it will take more than one on one relationship building to make much progress in an election cycle or two.

    • Diane

      You could be right about a long timeline for the change we need to have. The journey has to start somewhere or it will never happen. I’ve heard from activists that they may never see the outcome in their lifetime, but they are still willing to start the work to impact the direction towards the change to a better future.

  7. conchgal

    While I agree with much of what you say, until and unless some significant changes are made regarding partisan gerrymandering, Democrats are toast in NC. I’ve lived in Randolph County for over 30 years and have never been able to vote in any local elections, at least not those where candidates run under a party’s banner. Which the GOP has seen fit to pretty much make every one.

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