I’m glad to see that the new Chair of the North Carolina Democratic Party is going to put a renewed emphasis on reaching out to rural communities. I was born and raised in Anson County and began my career in politics working in Cleveland and Rutherford Counties in the early 1990s. Since then, I’ve worked extensively in rural areas in North Carolina and states across the country. I don’t really believe that Democrats can win these areas back, but I do believe that they need to stanch the bleeding or they will continue to have problems winning in swing states like North Carolina.
The problems Democrats have in rural America are deep and decades in the making. I’m dubious that traditional organizing can change much. The Democratic brand has been severely damaged and knocking on doors is not going to persuade too many people. Even “deep canvassing,” the longer conversations that try to change minds, won’t do the trick. Democrats need to rebuild trust, not just win arguments.
I don’t think most rural North Carolinians feel ignored by the Democratic Party. They feel threatened by it. Some of that fear comes from the hyperbole of talk radio, Fox News, OAN, Newsmaxx, and other conservative outlets, but some of it comes from Democrats’ commitment to protecting a woman’s right to choose and the rights of the LGBT+ community as well as support for more legal immigration. Personally, I believe strongly that Democrats are right on those issues and should not moderate their positions. That makes persuading rural voters who feel differently difficult.
Before they begin organizing efforts in rural areas, Democrats need to understand the people who live there. While some areas are becoming more suburban, the ones that are not are trending increasingly Republican. Many of those folks live in small towns and in the country because they are averse to change. They want to know their neighbors and are wary of outsiders. They enjoy being members of the churches in which they grew up and, often, in which their parents grew up. They are more religious and less formally educated, though most probably know more about the people, geography, and landscape of their county than anyone from outside.
They don’t want things to change much and if they do want change, they want them to go back to how they used to be, even if they view the past through rose-colored glasses. They are inherently disinclined to support a political party that asks them to adopt new attitudes and new vocabularies. They resisted integration and are now resisting marriage equality and accommodating transgender people. Republicans are certainly exploiting their fears, but the prejudices are based on a resistance to change and the distrust of new ideas is ingrained.
Their protestant religion includes a Calvinist work ethic. They believe everyone in the community must pull their own weight and they equate sloth with immorality. They’re skeptical, to say the least, of government programs that provide assistance, believing they encourage laziness and create dependency.
To them, Democrats are the party of change that they don’t want. They are the party taking down statues that have been in place for generations. They are bringing foreigners into the country who are taking jobs once performed by people who have had to move for work. They are even trying to change our understanding of men and women.
Most of these attitudes apply equally to White and Black residents of rural North Carolina. I suspect that’s why Democrats are losing vote share among African Americans and why their turnout lags White voters. Black voters in rural North Carolina, especially older ones, don’t trust either party much right now.
No amount of door knocking will change those attitudes, but actions might. Instead of organizing precinct meetings, Democrats should be addressing the needs of those in struggling communities. They should be setting up mentoring programs for kids who are falling through the cracks. They should provide rides to people who can’t get to the doctor’s office or hospital. They should clean up vacant lots and littered roadsides. They should become an integral part of communities providing the types of services Republicans are cutting.
As the old saying goes, actions speak louder than words. In the case of Democrats, no argument is going to change the perception of the party in the minds of rural and small town voters. However, programs might. They will build trust among the people and families they help. They will create opportunities for conversation that emerge naturally instead of artificially when an anonymous organizer shows up at the door.
The New Rural Project is already doing some of this stuff. The Democratic Party should join in as part of a rebranding effort. Establish mentoring and rides programs sponsored by the local Democratic Party. Show that the party is more than what’s on MSNBC. Make the connection local instead of national.
I disagree with the people who think the North Carolina Democratic Party should look more like the national one. Historically, the party has survived because it created its own brand and eschewed a lot of the rhetoric and policies being pushed in Washington. We were able to keep Democratic governors and even US Senators for years when the state as a whole was voting overwhelmingly Republican for president. There will certainly be times to openly embrace the national agenda like protecting Social Security and Medicare, but the party needs to carve out its own brand as much possible.
In North Carolina, Democrats win by threading a needle. They need to keep younger, more urban people engaged while narrowing their losses in rural areas. Right now, the trend in rural North Carolina is moving the wrong way. Stopping and reversing that trend is essential if Democrats want to elect more statewide candidates. They face a branding issue as much as an organizing one. You can put as many people on doors as you want and won’t make much progress if the people in those houses instinctively don’t trust the party.
Thomas Mills is the founder and publisher of PoliticsNC.com. Before beginning PoliticsNC, Thomas spent twenty years as a political and public affairs consultant. Learn more >
The Democrat Party in North Carolina is its own worst enemy. To even the most casual of party affiliates, it is clear that Democrats have no interest in good governance at all, and it is likely that they never did! Their single, driving lust is for control—absolute authority vested in THEM, with no room for dissent. For Democrats, it’s all about Power, and the more Power that they can accrue to themselves, the better.
Despite the giddiness over the election of Anderson Clayton as the new NC Democrat Chairperson, it is unquestionably clear to rural voters—including a vast swath of Independents and Democrats—that the Democrat leadership has been lying to them for years, if not decades. Democrat voters ARE listening to conservative news sites, and they ARE reading conservative narratives, and—they have legitimate questions, especially when they can plainly see the dysfunction, incompetence, and sheer corruption displayed by their national party leaders. You know—the same ones that they voted for…? Yeahhh, them! One has only to listen to the babbling nonsense from Kamala Harris, or the stumbling, mumbling incoherence from Biden, and one gets the distinct impression that America is being led by a coterie of fools.
In rural, southeastern NC I have personally had multiple Democrat voters ask ME (a staunchly registered Republican) if it’s OK for them to vote Republican, even though they are registered Democrat. I have even had some of them call me personally, asking me about what they should do with the multiple absentee ballots that the Democrat Party has sent them—sometimes as many as four! Seriously, folks…?
Democrats can talk about ‘reform’, or about better methods to gin up their voter base, but until the Democrat Party recognizes that their entire message is fundamentally flawed, they will not win. There IS a reason why North Carolina swung so heavily Republican last November, and it is very simply because all those ‘Mom and Pop’ voters in rural areas aren’t stupid. They fully recognize that, for Democrats, it is not an issue of them leaving the party. It is because they realize the Democrat Party has already left them!
Wayne, I get the strangest feeling you are your own worst enemy. Based on your comments, I suspect you go to great lengths to regurgitate the exact talking points “one” can hear almost every night on a conservative political entertainment channel. However, the fact is even those folks don’t believe the “BS” they broadcast. The unsealed brief as part of Dominion Voting Systems’ $1.6 billion defamation suit showed Fox News bigwigs criticizing Donald Trump’s Big Lie, all while advancing his B.S. “stolen election” conspiracy theory on air (and simultaneously trying to punish a Fox News fact checker for reporting the truth). One of their more prolific broadcasters recommended this fact checker be fired as the truth was challenging the “big lie”, adding it is causing the “stock prices to drop”. I won’t mention his name, but he is noted for the similarity of his facial expressions to that of a deer caught in an automobile head lights. I believe I have mentioned this before, you need to work on your content, it lacks substance and credibility. In fact, I find it difficult to accept the notion you actually believe some of these comments!
While I’m familiar with the FoxNews narrative you just described, I don’t see where that has any bearing whatsoever on MY observation that the Democrat Party is making its own self irrelevant.
As I just pointed out, the ideology of today’s Democrat Party is becoming perceived as flawed—both from within NC, and in large sectors around the country. More and more of your long-time party adherents are switching their voter affiliations, and the numbers are proving it. In my own county I have seen an interesting reverse of registration numbers over the last few years, especially in Unaffiliateds, and it speaks volumes as to how the Democrat Party is losing ground. The ‘message’ of the Democrat Party is being readily seen as more rooted in trendy Leftist ideology than it is in common sense. People aren’t buying it, and the shift in registration numbers is proof. Bringing in an energetic youngster to jump-start the party won’t accomplish anything, except (perhaps) to highlight how immature your messaging really is!
In addition, you don’t seem to be getting the point that it is neither myself, nor is it the Republican Party writ large, which has the fundamental problem of credibility or substance. If you happen to have difficulty comprehending what I am saying, then I submit to you that it is you—yourself, and those of your political persuasion—who are suffering from the multiple delusions which forms the basis of your party’s platform.
Let’s see—delusions? Ideas that lack substance and credibility? How about just one—let’s pick a good one—one that is the very definition of what the Democrat Party pontificates about on a daily basis: perhaps one of the sillier notions that the Left embraces full-throated, like the idea that men can be women, that men can menstruate, so we should now install tampon facilities in the men’s bathrooms, or that men can now have babies, even! Gosh—nothing wrong with THAT, now, is there? Yep… nothing sells a political party like saturating yourself in ‘stupid’, and aggressively building your vision for your political future on it! Heck—you guys put Ketanji Brown Jackson onto the Supreme Court, and even SHE can’t even define what a woman really is! Keep it up, Democrats—you’re burning your own bridges with your unrepentant foolishness, and Republicans are happily watching from the sidelines as you self-destruct!
An unaffiliated voter is more likely to be a former Republican than a Democrat according to studies done by the NY Times and Newsweek. More Republicans are losing elections over the past four years than any time in the recent past. Dr Oz, thought to be a shoe in for the US Senate was defeated by a Democrat wearing a hoodie, Lake lost her bid for governor of Arizona (a traditional red state} to a Democrat, Blake Masters, a candidate for the U.S. Senate in Arizona, was defeated by a Democrat. It would be redundant to cite case after case of Republican losses. The so called Red Wave predicted by your party turned out to be a light rain storm.
The big question is why! Several folks have suggested that many Republicans are disgusted with their party’s aggressive behavior in areas that just do not matter. Many believe the Jan 6, attack on the Capital to further the political purposes of a single individual which injured cops and civilians alike was a stain on this countries reputation. Something one would find in a banana republic, not in the USA. Experts put the defection rate to be in the tens of thousands. These are decent, honest folks who believe Republican shenanigans are no longer acceptable or in keeping with true patriotism. They are disgusted with lies and misinformation. Moreover, this obsession over matters of sex gets to be boring and distasteful. Many folks remember the so-called bathroom bill, which cost NC merchants thousands if not millions in lost tourism. Moreover, gave the state a backward reputation.
Your attack on Biden base on advanced age shows a superficial understanding of what he has accomplished and intends to accomplish in the future. Biden may be old, but he is not stupid or corrupt. He has grown the economy, producing lowest unemployment in years and strengthened Social Security/Medicare for folks who worked all their lives and deserve to retire with dignity.
I spent most of my free time last night reading about how the Democratic party and Democrats were responsible for all the evil in the world.
Looks like our hero ran out of rants to bloviate about, Coco.
When a commentator bases his or her thoughts on a proven unreliable source, as has been the case with Fox, then anything that follows is also unreliable. Wayne appears to be a Fox true believer, therefore what follows is highly suspect. I attempted to point this out by discussing the pending Old Dominion Case, however he, she or it ignored my efforts. There used to a saying in the business world resulting from the introduction of computers: “garbage in garbage out”. I suspect this may be the case with many of these folks who follow some of the Fox talking heads.
I suspect that there is also a feeling among Democrats in many rural areas, including in NC, that the party has abandoned them, leaving them to fend for themselves in hostile territory.
Perhaps working to create an environment in which Democrats in rural counties can feel more comfortable being more public about their partisan affiliation will result in the people they already know coming to the conclusion that maybe all Democrats aren’t out to completely destroy America, force women at gunpoint to have abortions, and recruit their children into gay groups now that they actually know people who are Democrats.
The assumption, I fear, is that because you have a rural origin, background, or currently reside in those environs, then you should have 100 IQ points instantly deducted in any discussion or interaction with those who are not of the same background or place of domicile. Less educated does not equate less intelligent. But it often results in a lecture that was not asked for or solicited by the party on the receiving end.
In addition to action, which I think you are spot on about, simple unadulterated language is also a component of that. Say what you mean and mean what you say. A person’s word used to be worth something. A handshake was enough to cement a deal or agreement. Inuendo, metaphors, and sarcasm might be conversation subtleties of the well-heeled and a way to make yourself feel superior, but the connotations of those words are not lost on people in rural environs. They may not have a voluminous vocabulary, but they know what happens when people come around using words they don’t understand. Republicans understand that.
One of the first divide and conquer issues was prayer in school. A complex Constitutional question that had to be answered. But when you tell the tale in rural North Carolina, its, “them democrats took Jesus outta schools.” Now, it’s gender identity, or CRT, or immigration…. Every point you made is a wedge to be driven. Democrats, as the party of niche swords to perish on, embrace them all. I’m not saying those issues are not deserving of support on the political stage. I am saying that every action has an equal but opposite reaction. While holding the moral high ground on such issues may be the only metric by which to measure success or failure, when last I checked, majorities make the laws and hold the power. The courts were there to make sure that majority was not synonymous with right. You see who has control of the appellate court system now as well.
You’re right about rural North Carolina. But it shouldn’t be written off. It will take work, but Democrats can do better. There is still such a thing as moderate and even conservative Democrats. Actions people can see, words they can understand. You won’t win them all, but you gain a foothold on which to build.
Rural folks think the Democrats are ignoring them at the very same time Democrats are voting to spend tens of millions of dollars to expand broadband to rural areas. And Democrats strongly support the expansion of Medicaid via the Affordable Care Act — expansion which helps keep rural hospitals from closing. And Democrats strongly support the food assistance programs that help put food on the tables of hungry families. There’s a strange disconnect here.
Your best ever article.
Thanks for the post. Who is this in the photo up top, in the tee shirt?
Just some stock art.
Technically, he has a white collar.
Dems just have to lose less badly in rural counties. We have to inspire hope that someone is listening to their problems. Rural folks had plenty of support for FDR, JFK, Clinton and Obama. Branding schmanding.
Tom, I think you nailed it. I moved to Randolph County 33 years ago and got the shock of my life! Granted, politics generally has gotten much more polarized over that period but Randolph was already way to the right of center in 1989.
I understand your analysis regarding white rural voters, but I am wondering about the evidence that Black rural voters share many of the same values and skepticism of the Democratic brand. What do we know about the reasons for the disaffection and low turn out of rural Black voters? What exactly is the New Rural Project doing, and how is it working?