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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Political Strategy Notes

In their article, “Democrats Must Do Better in Rural America,” Anthony Flaccavento, Erica Etelson and Cody Lonning write at The Nation: “According to the AP/NORC VoteCast Survey, Democratic support among rural and working-class voters continued to fall in 2022, the latter by seven points compared to 2018. Among working-class voters of color, the decline was even bigger, dropping 12 points across that same period, In North Carolina, the state Supreme Court is now entirely Republican. In more than 40 small towns and rural communities in Virginia, North Carolina, Ohio, and elsewhere, local governments are passing “pro-life sanctuary” resolutions that proclaim that life begins at conception and pledge to prohibit abortions, in defiance of state law….If this midterm was a success for Democrats, it is a retreat from what they ought to expect. Success for the Party of the People can’t merely mean that they barely hold on to a tie in the Senate or lose the House of Representatives by only a few seats. This vision of success is far too modest to meet the enormous challenges our nation faces….For Democrats to do more than hang on by their fingernails in 2024 and beyond, it’s essential that they expand their base to include rural and working-class voters of all races. The Rural Urban Bridge Initiative (RUBI), which we cofounded, is one of a growing network of groups working to reach, understand, and engage rural voters. One important tool for doing that is our just-released report, “Can Democrats Succeed in Rural America? A Review of Strategies and Practices that Work.” It distills best practices from interviews with 50 Democratic candidates who ran for state or federal office in rural districts between 2016 and 2020….Rural races are different from urban and suburban races; running competitively in them requires a different approach in both style and substance. Two-thirds of rural voters hold Democrats in low esteem and are profoundly antagonized by liberal elites who scorn the “rubes of flyover country.” Though Democrats’ rural deficit runs deep, it’s important to remember that as recently as 2008, Barack Obama garnered 43 percent of rural votes. And this cycle, John Fetterman’s consistent presence in rural places produced a two-and-a-half-point improvementover the 2020 presidential race—enough for him to win statewide in Pennsylvania….“Can Democrats Succeed in Rural America?” describes more than a dozen strategies used by rural candidates and office holders, four of which we highlight here.

Flaccavento, Etelson and Lonning continue, “First, candidates must have local credibility. Whether through generational ties to the area or long-standing community involvement and problem solving, Democrats fare better when they have local roots and are fluent in the concerns and values of the people living there. This means being able to connect state or national issues to specific local realities, and responding to the everyday concerns of people, without regard to party affiliation. For example, Chloe Maxmin, a progressive who won rural seats in the Maine House and then Senate, suspended much of her campaign activities in the spring of 2020 to help provide essential services to sick and elderly residents….Second, candidates put local concerns and issues first, rather than trying to mobilize people around their own—or their party’s—policy agenda. These local concerns vary, though they almost always include “kitchen table” issues like jobs and health care. Making local concerns central to a campaign does not mean ignoring or adopting conservative positions on critically important national issues. Rather, it means respecting voters enough to put their priorities at the center of the campaign. In so doing, candidates sometimes find meaningful ways to tackle state and national issues by drawing upon local experience, as when a candidate in rural Appalachia stood up for local businesses by fighting the outrageous subsidiesused to recruit big box competitors….Third, candidates and campaigns seek people where they are, rather than strictly following the advice to “go where the votes are.” Canvassing and phone-banking strategies typically focus on people who vote regularly and lean Democrat. By contrast, many of our study’s successful candidates reached out to people usually overlooked by campaigns. In big districts, where comprehensive canvassing may not be possible, candidates routinely “showed up” in even the most out-of-the-way places, joining community events or hosting town hall meetings. While campaign consultants might view this strategy as inefficient, New Rural Project’s work in predominantly Black rural communities in North Carolina is modeling an approach that builds trust and activates people who’ve disengaged, especially when done year-round.Fourth, successful candidates listen more and talk less. Genuine listening entails more than a slight pause before rattling off your talking points. It requires respect for the experiences, values, and choices of the people with whom candidates are engaging. When effective rural candidates do speak, they do so with humility and respect for other points of view, steering clear of partisan talking points or jargon. They talk like a neighbor, not an activist, with clear, concise language and concrete examples rather than policy abstractions.”

By now, you’ve probably read a lot of election spin that says Dems did so much better than expected in the midterm elections because they did so well with young voters. We’re going to need better data to verify or debunk that assertion, since the exit polls have their limitations. We need a solid estimate of the percentage of the pro-Democratic turnout that came from young voters, as well as the gender breakdown of the youth vote. Meanwhile, consider Katha Pollitt’s take, also at The Nation, about the pivotal importance of women voters: “Here’s what actually happened. On November 8, with a rush of new voter registrations and a high turnout, five states chose reproductive rights, women’s health, and freedom. In California, 66 percent of voters passed Proposition 1, enshrining abortion and contraception rights in the state Constitution. In Vermont, voters went one better, locking down in their Constitution the rights to abortion, contraception, sterilization, and decision-making around pregnancy. In Michigan, voters won constitutional protections for abortion, contraception, and pregnancy and childbirth decisions….Most surprising, in cherry-red Kentucky, where post-Roe trigger laws currently ban most abortions, voters rejected a constitutional amendment that would have explicitly denied protection for abortion, and in even cherrier-redder Montana, where Republicans control the governorship and both houses of the state legislature, voters rejected a deceptively worded “born alive” law that could have given doctors who provided palliative care to infants with fatal fetal anomalies a $50,000 fine and 20 years in prison….Far from sinking Democrats’ hopes with their pesky uterine concerns, in many states pro-choice voters helped Democrats on to victories….According to a recent Washington Post/ABC News poll, support for abortion rights has surged since Dobbs: 66 percent of Americans now support all or almost all abortion, the highest since 1995—among women it’s 74 percent. Moreover, ABC News reports that “in the 14 states that have ceased nearly all abortion services, 63 percent now support legal abortion, up 20 points since April.” Reality bites….Abortion rights are popular, and Democrats should act that way. As Maya Rupert of the Center for Reproductive Rights put it to me in a phone call, “We have to let go of the idea that abortion is a uniquely divisive issue that people shouldn’t talk about.”

New York Times columnist Thomas B. Edsall shares some of Stanley B. Greenberg’s analysis of the midterm elections: ” From Nov. 6 to 8, Stanley Greenberg conducted a survey of 2,520 registered voters for Democracy Corps, including a 1,130 oversampling of voters of color, the results of which were releasedon Nov. 15. The conclusions Greenberg drew from the survey and earlier polling this year are a mixed bag for both parties….“Two-thirds rate the economy negatively,” according to Greenberg, “yet Democrats did not prioritize the economy in this election, and the president is still trying to convince people this is a good economy. This may be the toughest to make progress on.” In addition, the “failure of national Democrats to address the economy meant rural areas and white working-class communities were a political wasteland.”….The Democratic Party, according to Greenberg, “got respectable support with Hispanics, as well as young people, but women across the whole spectrum played the biggest role. Unmarried women, white college women and under-50, white working-class women all raised their vote level since October, no doubt motivated by the abortion issue.” But, Greenberg warned, Democrats remain “at risk with Hispanics and Asian voters if they do not rethink what they prioritize, what their policies offer, consciously battling for all in our coalition and acknowledging past mistakes and having an inclusive vision where all make progress in America,” noting that the Biden administration’s 2021 expansion of the child tax credit is “uniquely popular among Hispanics.”….Crime, Greenberg wrote,

was a top issue for many Democratic base voters. A quarter of Blacks and half of Hispanics and Asians voters trusted Republicans more than Democrats to address the issue. With Democrats trailing Republicans by 10 points on crime, Democrats have a lot of work to do.”

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