The website Politico recently ran a story about how Democratic leaders are fretting that their presidential candidates aren’t connecting with rural voters in a way that will help them flip enough states to defeat President Trump in 2020.
And you are surprised how, exactly?
The Democrats’ disconnection from rural voters is one of the driving forces of a political realignment that has reshaped American politics over the past few decades. In many states this makes no difference whatsoever in presidential politics. In others, it does. If Hillary Clinton had done just a wee bit better with rural voters in North Carolina and Florida, she’d be president today.
There are signs that at least some of the party’s candidates understand this. Many have made a point of releasing policy papers on the rural economy — although the fact that the first state to pick convention delegates is Iowa may have something to do with that, too.
Of course, even the best policy paper doesn’t solve this fundamental disconnect: Democrats are a culturally liberal party that is moving further left; rural communities tend to be culturally conservative. That’s politics, though. We’re more concerned about policy (a quaint notion, we realize). We’ve taken it upon ourselves to read the rural policy papers the candidates have put out. Here’s what we’ve found:
1. Where the candidates fall on the ideological spectrum doesn’t really matter. Bernie Sanders is somewhere over there on the left, and Joe Biden is somewhere near the middle, but neither one has very much substantive to say.
2. The candidates with the best understanding of economic problems facing rural America are the ones that, at present, have the least chance to win the nomination. They are Pete Buttigieg, John Delaney and Amy Klobuchar. Each of those candidates has interesting ideas that the next president — be it a fellow Democrat or President Trump in his second term — should steal.
The reason those candidates’ plans stand out is that, for all the government programs they propose, they understand that ultimately private enterprise is what drives the economy. Their plans are all based on trying to get more private investment into rural and small-town America: This seems a completely foreign concept to some candidates, most notably Sanders and Elizabeth Warren.
Warren (unlike Sanders) has a substantive plan, to be sure, but it’s all based on what the government can spend. She seems to rely entirely on the blunt force instrument of the federal government. There’s scant recognition of the private sector. Her philosophical orientation seems to be to distrust private business. By contrast, Buttigieg, Delaney, and Klobuchar all talk about how to spur private business growth. Republicans may argue that they’re still wrong in how they do it, but there’s definitely a philosophical divide between Sanders/Warren and Buttigieg, Delaney and Klobuchar (and even Biden, whose plan is skimpy but still deals with private business growth). Other Democrats — notably Kamala Harris — have yet to put out a rural economic plan, at all.
Here’s a measure. It’s a rhetorical one, but may be insightful. Sanders and Warren never use the word “innovation” “or “innovator” or “innovative” in their rural plans. Biden uses the words four times. Klobuchar uses them eight times. Buttigieg uses them 16 times.
The overriding economic trend right now is what economists call “the great divergence.” Rural areas may have always lagged economically behind urban ones, but once they rose and fell together because their economies were connected. If auto factories in Detroit were humming, then they were burning coal from Appalachia, so jobs in one place translated into jobs in another. Now the economy has been disconnected. Silicon Valley isn’t buying algorithms from digit factories in Martinsville; it’s simply thinking them up on its own. As we’ve moved from an economy based on natural resources to one based on information, the cities with the best-educated workforces have prospered — and rural areas with fewer highly-educated workers have been left out of the economy. This is a completely new economic phenomenon, one that demands attention from both parties. President Trump isn’t addressing it, and neither are many of the Democratic candidates.
Warren’s rural plan was a frustrating read because she specifically acknowledges this rural-urban divide — but her only solution was more government spending in rural areas. Maybe she hopes that spending will spur private investment, but she doesn’t explicitly say so. Other candidates, do, though. Buttigieg says it the most, followed closely by Klobuchar, with Biden and Delaney further back.
Strangely, Warren denies there’s a skills gap. She thinks that’s a fiction invented by private employers. If Amazon needs software engineers, though, it’s more likely to find them in Arlington than in Appalachia. This seems so obvious we are slack-jawed by Warren’s contention that there is no such thing. Is it possible to grow new economy jobs in rural areas? If so, those rural areas will need a differently-trained workforce. That’s why Buttigieg and Klobuchar devote part of their plans talking about the importance of getting more students into community colleges. If we’re going to dramatically raise the skill level of the rural workforce, those institutions are the mostly likely places it will happen. These three candidates have three different ways of going about this, but the fine distinctions of policy probably aren’t as important as the fact they understand the problem and see community colleges as the best solution. Trump, it should be noted, once professed confusion at what community colleges actually do; Buttigieg and Klobuchar sure seem to know.
Delaney, meanwhile, has one of the most radical, yet practical, ideas: He’d encourage business growth in rural areas by giving priority in government contracting “to companies with a majority of employees in rural counties.” In effect, that’s an affirmative action plan for rural America – a “rural set-aside,” if you wish.
None of this may matter. Voters likely aren’t moved by policy. But it will matter if one of these Democrats becomes president. So far, based on their plans, Buttigieg seems to have the most sophisticated understanding of the rural economy, with Klobuchar and Delaney behind him. Of course, in the polls, they’re all far behind.