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Can Democrats Do Better Among Rural Voters? Take Florida

There are 30 counties in Florida with significant rural areas. Jefferson, Liberty and Lafayette counties, in fact, are completely rural-- 100%-- and Walton, Glades, Dixie and Franklin counties are mostly rural. And all of these counties support Republicans in local and national elections. In 2018 these 7 counties helped Rick Scott defeat Democratic incumbent Bill Nelson and last year they helped Trump win Florida's 29 electoral votes.

  • Dixie- 77.06% for Scott, 82.76% for Trump

  • Franklin- 62.86% for Scott, 68.26% for Trump

  • Glades- 69.74% for Scott, 72.83% for Trump

  • Jefferson- 50.48% for Scott, 53.00% for Trump

  • Lafayette- 77.89% for Scott, 85.51% for Trump

  • Liberty- 76.66% for Scott, 79.92% for Trump

  • Walton- 75.26% for Scott, 75.37% for Trump

The Republican percentage increased from 2018 to 2020-- from Rick Scott to Trump-- in every one of these counties. And of the 30 counties statewide that are significantly rural, Biden won only 1-- Gadsden, the only county in Florida with an African-American majority.

Recently, YouGov conducted a poll for the Rural Objective PAC, in 9 states. Although Florida wasn't one of them, Georgia and North Carolina were. A summary of the results helped them conclude that:

  • Democratic policies are popular among rural voters but many rural voters don’t know these are Democrats’ policies

  • Both party brands are unpopular among rural voters, but the Democratic brand much moreso

  • Persuadable rural-area voters do not watch (or trust) traditional media, are younger, and engage with politics on relatively newer platforms like reddit, Discord servers, and Twitter

  • Strongly trusted messengers include doctors, nurses, and farmers, while strongly distrusted messengers include political leaders and the media

  • Belief in misinformation is fairly common among rural voters, not just Fox Republicans

One of the findings that struck me most powerfully was that although rural voters say they support progressive policies, they tend to give Republicans-- not Democrats-- credit for the policies, even in the face of Democrats writing and voting for legislation implementing the policies and Republicans opposing and voting against those same policies!

For example, about 30% of rural voters give Republicans credit for the stimulus checks, including a majority of Republican voters with an even split among independent voters, while 30% of voters are unsure which party put those checks in their pockets. Similarly, about 30% of rural voters think Republicans are the ones who want to expand things like rural broadband and access to electronics in schools, including an even split among independents. In some ways most shockingly, more rural voters think of the Republican party when it comes to fighting to lower the cost of prescription drugs and working to improve small towns and rural communities. Asked which party comes to mind when they think about fighting for good paying jobs, 36% say Republicans, 32% say Democrats, 11% says both equally and 14% says neither. Asked which party is controlled by corporate lobbyists 34% say Democrats, 29% says Republicans and 29% say both. Which party is protecting America's democracy? Rural voters say 43% Republicans and 31% Democrats. Rural voters say that the Democratic Party doesn't value rural communities. 46% say Republicans treat rural voters as more important while just 15% say Democrats do.

With Alan Grayson getting ready to launch his campaign for the Senate in the coming days, I spoke with him about outreach to rural voters. Fortunately his thoughts about rural voters in Florida goes beyond just the most recent liberal panacea of getting broadband for everyone, which is just one piece of the puzzle. Grayson told me that the availability of healthcare in rural counties in Florida-- especially specialized care like cardiology-- is unacceptably limited and that he sees the Democrats trying to help solve that problem, with the federal health clinic program. "I see the Republicans trying to cut and even eliminate programs like that." He also noted that "most rural areas rely on state roads for transportation, with no mass transit. I see the Democrats trying to pass hundreds of billions of dollars in state and local aid, and I see the Republicans adamantly against that... The only geographic 'affirmative action' program to put more jobs in rural areas is the HUBZone program, started by the Clinton Administration. The Republicans have shown no interest in it at all. So, basically, the Democrats recognize problems in rural areas, and try to solve them, while the Republicans get all upset about statues of Confederate generals and Mr. Potato Head."

In addressing the mistrust of Democrats among rural voters, Grayson had been looking at a recent survey of Oklahoma voters. In regard to the current debate over Biden's infrastructure proposal, Grayson told me that the pollster told half its respondents that 'it has been proposed to increase Amtrak passenger rail service in Oklahoma by having a train run from Oklahoma City north to connect with other existing lines in Kansas as well as increasing frequency of service to Ft. Worth' and asked whether they were in favor. A whopping 71% answered in the affirmative, while only 15 percent said they opposed the expansion. But unless you live in Oklahoma, the really interesting thing in this poll was how CHS & Associates posed the question to the other half of the sample. The pollster told them that 'part of the federal infrastructure plan unveiled by President Biden [emphasis mine] will increase Amtrak passenger rail service in Oklahoma by having a train run from Oklahoma City north to connect with other existing lines in Kansas as well as increasing frequency of service to Ft. Worth.' Among this half of the sample, only 57% said they were in favor, while 29 percent were opposed. In other words, associating the policy with Biden decreased support for it by 14 percentage points. The poll is another reminder of how partisan identity (Oklahoma is a very red state) can be so strong that it actually drives policy preferences, not the other way around. Case in point, it’s not unusual for red states to enact liberal policies via ballot measure-- in fact, Oklahoma voted to expand Medicaid just last year-- but, thanks to our increasingly nationalized politics, voters in these states almost never elect the politicians who support these policies."

This afternoon, Grayson told me that "In the 1984 Democratic Convention, which I watched on TV, Jesse Jackson said: 'My constituency is the desperate, the damned, the disinherited, the disrespected, and the despised.' To that list, we can add the forgotten. In our political system, people who live in the countryside, who walk with dirt and not asphalt under their feet, who see a wild animal from time to time-- they are forgotten. Marco Rubio and the GOP will never remember them, because they never knew them in the first place. The Democratic Party-- the party of the Tennessee Valley Authority; the party of Social Security and Medicare; the party of clean air, clean water and national parks; the party of universal healthcare, no matter where you enjoy life... we remember."

Please click on the ActBlue thermometer above and contribute to Grayson's campaign to replace Marco Rubio in the U.S. Senate, whether you live in a city, in the suburbs or a rural community-- and whether you live in Florida or in one of the other states (including Puerto Rico and DC, the two states the GOP refuses to admit to the Union).

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