Democrats Should Look Beyond Rural Voter Stereotypes, Author Sarah Smarsh Says

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A voter in Minnesota holds their "I Voted" sticker. (Stephen Maturen/Getty Images)
A voter in Minnesota holds their "I Voted" sticker. (Stephen Maturen/Getty Images)

Coasting along the rolling plains leading up to the Iowa caucus, Democratic candidates know they must answer to flyover state voters.

However, not all candidates agree on an approach. Some White House hopefuls double-down on rural outreach by knocking on doors and stopping by the Iowa Steak Fry.

Other candidates may shift focus to city voters, especially women of color, forgetting about rural voters in favor of making up the numbers elsewhere. If that demographic is truly lost, why spend the precious campaign capital on Kentucky coal country?

Sarah Smarsh, author of “Heartland, A Memoir of Working Hard and Being Broke in the Richest Country on Earth,” advocates for a third path. She rejects the narrative that poor and white inherently means a Trump sign on the front lawn.

She points to 2016 primary exit polls, which showed that Trump voters were more affluent than most Americans, with a median household income of $72,000 and 44% college degree attainment.

The Trump train is a mixed bag of demographics that buck the traditional, stereotypical perception of his supporters, she says.

Without a homogenous audience of rural Trump voters to appeal to, what should the Democratic strategy be to win over the middle of a divided country?

Smarsh says “these conversations are much more nuanced than the reductive headlines indicate.”

Interview Highlights

On privilege and Trump voters

“It's not poor whiteness that correlates with supporting Trump or rural whiteness but rather just simply whiteness, and inherent in that could very well in many cases be an overt bigotry. It's at the very least a racial privilege that allows them to overlook the ways in which he's dangerous to people of color.”

On the branding of political identities

“When I was a kid, country music, pickup trucks, the American flag were not correlated with a particular party. They were just part of our lives and they had no sort of tribal political identity. Those things have very intentionally been leveraged by one side to say, 'This is our brand.' ”

On whether the populist movement in the U.S. could swing left after the 2016 election

“I think what a lot of us knew during that election and some folks in perhaps more powerful places didn't understand is that that would indeed be a change election. I don't think that energy has dissolved by any means. It was a populist moment. It remains so and it was a matter of in which direction would that energy be leveraged. And I think there was great potential and remains for it to be leveraged in the direction of the left.”

On the Democratic presidential contenders’ attempts to reach rural voters

“Well I would say that about six of the current Democratic candidates now have a very robust comprehensive rural platform. I've been quite heartened to see that. It's more attention paid to that space than I've ever witnessed in my just shy of 40 years. And that's no doubt for political calculations. But I think also because there are some progressive candidates who deeply understand their sort of baseline tactics which is to go at wealth inequality and economic injustice, [which] tracks very perfectly with the ways in which family farms and rural people have been on the losing end of policy for many decades.

On which Democratic contender is appealing best to rural voters

“I've definitely seen a shift in energy toward Warren, also a lot of respect for Klobuchar [and] Buttigieg, folks who indicate with their policy notions a real understanding of rural spaces.”

Cassady Rosenblum produced and edited this interview for broadcast with Kathleen McKennaAlexander Tuerk and Allison Hagan adapted it for the web. 

This segment aired on October 7, 2019.

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