Wooing rural voters

Published February 16, 2023

By Thomas Mills

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.