2020 elections

Biden tries to elbow aside Trump with rural voters

The campaign has vowed to pay attention to rural issues, but Biden could repeat the same mistakes as Democrats’ 2016 bid for the White House.

The Biden campaign wants to undercut President Donald Trump’s sweeping victory across rural America in 2016 by making its case that the White House has failed voters in small communities.

No one expects former Vice President Joe Biden to win the rural vote outright. But his strategists and supporters are working to peel away voters by hammering on Trump’s economic agenda and haphazard response to the pandemic.

“Let’s be fair, the president makes it real easy to be against his policies — it’s like shooting fish in a barrel,” said Christopher Gibbs, a former USDA employee and GOP voter. Gibbs recently founded Rural America 2020, a grassroots organization unaffiliated with Biden aimed at rallying rural voters. The group has bought billboards and ads in the Midwest spotlighting the harmful effects of Trump’s trade agenda.

During this week's Democratic National Convention, the Biden camp hosted a “virtual symposium” to discuss issues that have affected rural people, including trade, climate change and inequality in the food system. On Tuesday, members of the DNC’s Rural Council were given the floor during daytime programming.

During the first night of the convention on Monday, Democrats highlighted the importance of the U.S. Postal Service as Trump mounts attacks on mail-in voting. Sparsely populated areas lacking reliable internet and not served by FedEx or UPS strongly depend on the U.S. Postal Service as a public service and connection to other parts of the country.

Winning over just a slice of the rural vote could make a difference in battleground states like Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania. Many sectors of the rural economy under Trump have been reeling as a result of his trade and ethanol policies since 2017, while the coronavirus has disproportionately affected rural areas, stressing an already fraying health care infrastructure with few ICU beds.

The rapid consolidation of agri-businesses such as major meat companies has hurt the fortunes of farmers across the country, particularly in the Midwest. Thousands of meatpacking workers tested positive for coronavirus while the White House ordered plants to keep operating despite declining to make worker safety rules mandatory. And the continued glut of milk has forced countless dairy farmers out of business.

Farmers just make up a small percentage of rural populations, but agriculture is an important driver culturally and economically in every state. The Trump administration has funneled billions in payments to farmers to stem losses from trade wars, but that aid has largely gone to the biggest operations.

Darin Von Ruden, a dairy farmer and president of the Wisconsin Farmers Union, said that he’s been having more conversations with farmers who have become disillusioned by Trump’s promises on trade and the farm economy. And Biden is earning their attention.

“They’re starting to see that [Trump’s] not really for farmers like he has been saying,” he said.

Some polls indicate that Trump’s rural support is shrinking. According to a Fox News poll in July, 40 percent of rural voters said they supported Biden and 49 percent sided with Trump. Those are much closer margins than the 2016 exit polls, when Hillary Clinton earned 36 percent of voters compared with Trump’s 61 percent.

Recent polling “really paints the picture in terms of the challenging landscape that Trump has created for himself, the corner that he’s painted himself into,” said Tom Bonier, CEO of TargetSmart, a Democratic data and polling firm. He added that he believes Biden appeals more to rural constituencies than Clinton.

“Biden has a cultivated profile that can play better in rural areas — his 'Joe from Scranton' sort of thing.”

Surrogate strategy

The Biden campaign plans on ramping up rural outreach by running ads in rural media markets and targeting local newspapers and radio stations, as well as dispatching organizers to rural areas in states like Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.

“I also think people haven’t heard enough about him,” said former North Dakota Sen. Heidi Heitkamp. "They’re open to listening, but I don’t think Biden has closed the sale yet for a lot of these folks.”

Top rural surrogates have held virtual events to drive up enthusiasm for Biden. Over the last several weeks, Senate Agriculture ranking member Debbie Stabenow hosted an event focusing on rural Michigan issues, and former Agriculture Secretary under Bill Clinton Mike Espy moderated a roundtable with Black farmers.

“At this point in the campaign President Trump has created doubt by himself,” said Will McIntee, Biden’s rural outreach coordinator who moved into that role last month. McIntee previously served as Iowa political director and Missouri state director. “We really want to focus on highlighting Joe Biden’s record and agenda for rural America.”

The Trump campaign brushes off the argument that Biden has a real shot with rural voters.

“Joe Biden’s public option health care plan will kill rural hospitals, and his proposed $4 trillion tax hike, devastating trade deals, and embrace of the radical Green New Deal would disproportionately harm these communities,” said Samantha Zager, deputy national press secretary for the campaign.

“By throwing a Hail Mary and picking a California liberal [as vice president] to try and excite his base, Joe Biden is once again telling rural Americans that he doesn’t have their interest and values in mind. President Trump has had the backs and the support of rural Americans since the day he took office,” she added.

Even today, the president has no trouble getting an audience among rural voters, especially farmers. Trump made a stop in Iowa on Tuesday after the state was hit by a devastating derecho that caused an estimated millions of dollars in damage to crops.

Industry leaders like American Farm Bureau President Zippy Duvall and Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue have been loyal supporters of the president, frequently appearing alongside him and other agriculture leaders in the Oval Office or Rose Garden.

Still, there’s evidence that some farmers have soured on Trump. Many corn producers in the Midwest are stinging over the Trump administration’s decision to grant biofuel exemptions to oil refineries, Von Ruden said.

The Environmental Protection Agency has punted making politically fraught decisions on ethanol until after the election, out of fear of alienating both the agriculture and oil industries. “Vice President Biden has picked up on that and should make sure we’re looking more and more at renewable fuels,” he said.

And Congress has failed to address the chronic labor shortage that agricultural regions continue to face. The House passed a sweeping bipartisan agriculture labor bill last year but that effort has stalled in the Senate.

Multiple agriculture lobbyists told POLITICO they sensed a disinterest from the White House on getting an agricultural labor bill through as Trump officials focus on implementing policies that curtailed immigration to the U.S.

The White House, for its part, points to many actions that it says have benefited farmers and other sectors of rural economies.

“After decades of overregulation, bureaucratic red tape, and bad trade deals, America’s farmers, ranchers, and producers are winning under President Trump,” said Judd Deere, White House deputy press secretary.

Deere also pointed to passage of the U.S.-Mexico-Canada trade agreement, as well as trade deals with Japan, South Korea, Latin America and the EU, and an agreement to allow year-round sales of higher-ethanol blends of gasoline.

Push to crack down on consolidation

Still, Democratic lawmakers and political consultants told POLITICO that Biden needs to sharpen his message and show up more in those communities so that he doesn’t repeat the same mistakes from Democrats’ last bid for the White House.

“I can speak for Michigan, we really hope we get to see lots of Joe Biden,” said Michelle Deatrick, a Michigan farmer and chairwoman of the DNC Climate Council, which is advising on climate change goals in the Democratic platform.

Many organizers want to see Biden come out stronger on issues like corporate consolidation within the agriculture industry by stepping up antitrust enforcement and breaking up large companies like Monsanto and Syngenta that have tremendous influence on local economies.

Biden’s best shot at distancing himself from Trump is by taking on an anti-corporate message, said Shawn Sebastian, senior rural strategist for People’s Action, a grassroots network that built out its rural organizing operation in the aftermath of the 2016 election.

“Rural areas have been disinvested from and extracted from by corporate agriculture, corporate health care industries, predatory banks — and everybody knows that,” he said. “I think naming the enemies very clearly and having a plan for taking them on is incredibly popular.”

Tom Vilsack, who served as Agriculture secretary in the Obama administration, has been pressing the Democratic party to get serious about attracting rural voters after Clinton was stomped in rural counties. He said that there’s an opportunity in the Midwest for Biden “to speak to farmers who would traditionally not be open to a Democrat.”

“For Democrats to be successful they cannot afford to write off rural places and rural people,” he said. “They need to contest with the understanding they’re not likely to win those areas but they can squeeze the margins.”