Guest Columnist

Democrats can't give up on rural voters

Democratic presidential hopeful Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., speaks to local residents in New Hampton, Iowa, in this Oct.
Democratic presidential hopeful Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., speaks to local residents in New Hampton, Iowa, in this Oct. 5, 2007 file photo. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall, File)

The year 2020 was a departure from previous political cycles for rural America. Before and after the caucuses, Democrats across the country paid more attention to rural voters. Fifteen caucus candidates visited biofuel facilities and wrote thoughtful rural plans. And, expanding biofuels and paying farmers to participate in climate change programs became hot topics.

Yet, here in Iowa, Trump picked up another 90,000 votes and Democrats lost Rep. Abby Finkenauer’s 1st District and retiring Rep. Dave Loebsack’s 2nd District. Those losses are causing Democrats to renew the debate about how to rebuild after difficult losses, but almost all the analyses fail to acknowledge a major culprit.

Iowa Democrats have experienced a growing deficit in registration and turnout in rural counties since 2012, when Iowa Democrats enjoyed a 20,055-voter advantage. They lost it by the 2014 cycle and hit a 20,000 deficit in 2016. Today, Democrats have a 10,547 statewide registered voter deficit. If you are doing the math on the work ahead, remember, Republicans historically have a higher turnout rate.

After every major loss, it seems, Democrats wonder if they should focus on urban or rural voters. It may look particularly tempting now to renew a push solely on turning out our urban centers at the expense of rural outreach. After all, Democrats are increasing urban voter registration by impressive margins. Compared to 2012, Polk County increased by 103.8 percent, Johnson went up 44.2 percent and Linn County Democrats increased 47.6 percent.

However, Democrats saw voter registration drop in nearly all rural counties, even in traditionally Democratic counties along the Mississippi River. Democrats are losing their advantage among registered voters at a rate of 27 percent in Dubuque County, 74 percent in Clinton and 68.7 percent in Jackson. In 2012, Woodbury County Democrats had 681 more registered voters than Republicans. Today, they have a 3,631 registered voter deficit. The answer on where to focus is not either or, it’s both.

The numbers are stark, but we cannot fix a decade of loss in one cycle. Rural America’s consciousness is steeped in years of broken promises. President Donald Trump convinced many rural voters he’s a Washington-outsider and a successful businessman. But his record resembles decades of politicians promising broadband, health care and competitive schools and, today, rural communities are still left behind.

Rural communities have been adding billions to our state and national GDP through farming, biofuels and coproducts from our fields, but year after year we miss opportunities. We leave renewable fuels out of the climate conversation and fail to invest in innovations right here in our fields that already provide tangible gains toward a zero-carbon future. Broadband gets kicked down the road, and our schools and hospitals consolidate just to survive. The failure to invest in these communities exacerbates the exodus of younger generations from rural towns.

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But there is hope for the Democrats and for rural Iowa. The playbook is in Iowa’s Third District where Congresswoman Cindy Axne beat an incumbent in 2018 and retained her seat in 2020. She shrunk her loss margins in rural counties and won big in urban centers. She underperformed Biden’s margins in Dallas and Polk counties, but she outpaced him by about 200 votes in each of her rural counties. Not only has Axne consistently visited her rural counties, she’s laser focused on policies that will improve life in rural America, from fighting for broadband to her work on biofuels. More than any other candidate, she raised these issues in her reelection debates and had solid deliverables in her answers. She fought against Trump’s waivers that shuttered 130 biofuel facilities across America, led the charge on the Rural Broadband Task Force and tackled opportunities to expand biofuels.

Toward the end of the race, we saw increased emphasis on these issues. As Trump’s strongholds narrowed, Secretary Perdue traveled Iowa celebrating grants for ethanol infrastructure and broadband with Republican candidates. And, if you tallied up the number of biofuel mailers Sen. Ernst sent to rural voters, you might need another recycling can.

Yet, Axne’s consistent model proved it works and should be a lesson to Democrats. In her two years she restored a reliable, rural Democratic district in Iowa. Rural states like ours need Biden’s Administration to do the same by zeroing in on key issues such as connecting every household and school to broadband fiber, engaging our farmers in the fight against climate change and adding jobs to the rural communities through value added agricultural manufacturing products like ethanol.

We have good reason to expect that the Biden-Harris agenda will deliver. Biden visited one of Iowa’s 42 biofuel facilities, made stops across small towns and committed to understanding the needs of rural Iowa. The Biden-Harris plan for rural America underscores the critical role rural communities can play in climate solutions and displays an understanding of how to make rural economies grow. In the off years, it’s the job of Iowa Democrats to communicate that to our rural communities and build on the engagement the presidential campaign began.

A brand-new president brings opportunities not just for political gains but to set priorities that will improve the quality of life in rural communities across the country. The ball is now in the Democrats’ court. Let’s see what we can do.

Patty Judge is a former lieutenant governor and secretary of agriculture in Iowa. She and Jeff Link are co-founders of Focus on Rural America, a nonprofit that promotes progressive, economic policies in rural communities.

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