Let’s Not Reach Out to Rural Voters

As is generally the case when we Democrats win…anything, the media immediately start asking us what we’ll do to soothe the feelings of the candidates and voters who just fought tooth and nail to keep us from implementing our policies that improve education, health, and the economic well being of all Americans. Just as annoyingly, we Democrats always take the bait, insisting that our first order of business will be, yes, to reach out to the other side, to listen to the older rural white voters who cast their ballots against us at a ratio of four and five to one, and strive for “reconciliation” telling ourselves that we’re “stronger together”.

I’ve been in just this sort of discussion on Facebook with one of my Indivisible groups. The “reach out our hands” set outnumbers me and my small posse of “to hell with them” bandits by a bit. When I ask the “reach out” advocates just what reaching out looks like, I don’t get much response. Nor do I get much response to my “Who, specifically, should we reach out to?” And when I ask, “Who should do this reaching out?” pretty much no one replies, “Well, I will.”

Philosophically, I’m all for good relationships with folks with whom we disagree. Too many friendships and families have experienced serious rifts for me to advocate for more division. As a tactic, however, “reaching out to the other side” is a fool’s errand; it just doesn’t work. In fact, it might reduce liberals’ opportunities for gaining political power.

I’m going to use my home state of Ohio as a case study. Our state is becoming the Mississippi of the Midwest politically (and in other ways as well). After providing its electoral votes for President Obama in 2008 and 2012, the state has gotten progressively more red.

Is Ohio more red because the Democrats have run “out of the mainstream” liberals that are being rejected by suburbanites and centrists? No. Ohio Democrats’ one success since the Obama years is the election of Sherrod Brown to the Senate. No one confuses Senator Brown with Joe Manchin of West Virginia.

The Democratic candidate in the last gubernatorial race, Richard Cordray, was deemed to be very “electable”. He beat a leftist candidate in the primary, Dennis Kucinich. Cordray was even thought to have problems within his own party because he was seen as a moderate on guns. He was thrashed in the general election by Republican Mike DeWine.

GOP Senator Rob Portman faced Ted Strickland in 2016. Strickland was a United Methodist minister who hailed from the hollers of southeast Ohio while Portman went to private schools and Dartmouth. Portman’s first vote as a young member of the House in 1993 was in favor of NAFTA. Portman beat Strickland by 21 points.

All to say, running moderate, centrist candidates for statewide offices has not served Ohio Democrats well. After all that, I still hear Ohio liberals (and liberals across the country) talking about the need to reach out to “rural voters”.

I have no particular argument with those who see the need for more civility in our political discourse. I take no issue with those who are eager to prevent division and discord among their families and friends. In those circumstances, there’s a lot to be said for learning how to listen…and learning how to smoothly change the subject.

I do push back energetically with the notion that “reaching out to the other side” represents anything like a good political strategy. In these instances, the advice my fellow Southerners give is good: Don’t wrestle with pigs…they love it but you just get covered with manure.

The notion of “reaching out” requires someone on the other side who’s as eager to extend his or her hand to you in return. I’d argue that those people don’t exist on the right or , if they do, it’s in such small numbers as to make the effort not worthwhile. I made my own small effort in this regard recently. I got into a Facebook group established by a few conservative residents of the small Ohio town in which I lived for about nine years. When joining the group, I clearly stated that I was a liberal seeking to enjoin them in conversations as to whether or not our two sides could find anything like “common ground”. I promised not to cause any trouble within the group.

I was welcomed by the group’s administrators. When I posted my questions about the possibility of co-discovering common ground, though, responses were few. (As you might imagine, posts and comments regarding the alleged fraud in the recent election were numerous and very energetic.) Such responses as I did get were one variant or another of “Sure, we’re willing to discuss common ground…as soon as the left admits and apologizes for how terribly they have treated us and Donald Trump for the past four years.”

I know my effort was limited in reach and my sample is small but I still think we can draw a couple of conclusions from my experiment:

So, as much as we liberals might want to carry on civil discussions with “the other side” to find out what makes its members tick, “the other side” isn’t that interested. We end up talking to ourselves about the importance of civility while they bring guns to the state houses and send death threats to elections officials.

That said, I think the real problem is that our ongoing “we need to reach out” discussions hurt us politically. Democrats win or lose elections in our cities. If not for Pittsburgh and Philadelphia, Pennsylvania is Alabama. If not for Detroit, Michigan is Oklahoma. If not for Milwaukee and Madison, Wisconsin is South Dakota. Our problem has always been that turnout in urban areas is lower than in rural areas. Here in Ohio, Summit County (Akron) had a respectable voter turnout of 74%, less than a point above the state average. Summit County had the second highest turnout of any blue county in Ohio and the highest of any blue county with more than 150,000 voters. All the other blue counties experienced turnout below the state average. Eight counties in Ohio had voter turnout above 80%, six to ten points above the state average. All eight of those counties were red in the last election. Fifty-three of Ohio’s eighty-eight counties had voter turnout at or above the state average; only two of them were blue (Summit and Athens).

Here’s my question: Given that urban voter turnout is already a serious issue for Democrats, are those voters more likely to come to the polls after they’ve heard liberals call for more conversations with and “understanding” of white rural voters? The question answers itself, doesn’t it?

One might reasonably ask, “Shouldn’t we work to convince those rural voters to cast their votes for us, given that they already vote at such high rates? If eight of ten of them are going to show up at the polls, it’s better if we have those votes, right?” There are two problems with this line of thought:

Trying the reach rural voters, then, is a difficult, expensive, and probably fruitless enterprise. Increasing the turnout in city wards has its own challenges, obviously, but strong candidates with strong campaigns can do it. Increasing turnout in urban wards adds meaningfully to Democratic votes. The same can’t, with any confidence, be said of “reaching out” to rural voters

None of this is to suggest that we ignore rural voters altogether. Democratic policies would help bring good schools, good health care, and good jobs to those counties and we’ll continue to advocate for those laws. But, at the moment, we’re powerless to do so because those voters cast their ballots for our opposition. The best way to help rural voters is to increase turnout in the cities. Time, energy, and dollars spent “reaching out” to those voters hinders Democrats’ ability to actually serve their needs and interests.

Born and raised in the South, living in Ohio. Writes about politics, management, and religion.