Can the Democrats Win Back Rural Voters?
The ability of Democrats to hold Congress in the 2022 midterm will depend heavily on turnout. The model is 2018, when Democrats were energized and their turnout far surpassed that of Republicans
But what generates turnout? In 2018, it was revulsion against Trump. Lately, most of the commentary and polling has been focused on issues, which increasingly play to Democratic advantage. But turnout is also a function of on-the-ground organizing, as the decade-long work of Stacey Abrams vividly showed.
On the issue front, the backlash against the Dobbs ruling, combined with Republican schisms over Trump, and a surprising string of Biden successes, is leading to an election where turnout now favors Democrats. This shift utterly reverses the conventional assumptions of early summer, of Democrats dispirited and Republicans on the march.
But as even a magazine that obsesses about policy needs to admit, people don’t turn out just based on issues. Potential voters need to be organized.
Among the most creative approaches I’ve seen to recruit activists and voters on the ground, especially in rural areas, is a group called Movement Labs, founded in 2017. Movement Labs provides data, technology, and strategy to help grassroots voter mobilization, especially in red and purple states and rural counties that Democrats tend to write off. One of their marquee projects is called Rural Power Lab.
A key technique is the strategic use of texting combined with grants to Democratic county chairs to build local parties and recruit volunteers. As anyone drowning in texts can confirm, texting in campaigns is often used in a scattershot way, typically for fundraising. This alienates people and gives texting a bad name as a political technique.
Movement Labs has refined how texts are used. Texts are a means, not an end—a means to facilitate live door-to-door voter engagement. The strategy begins with voter files of reliable Democrats. Activists then send texts to neighbors confirming their interest, asking them to meet live, recruiting them to come to political events. That turns others into activists.
This year, Movement Labs and affiliated campaigns will send out 250 million texts. Another key insight is that affinity for the Democratic Party may be depressed in many rural areas, but it is far from extinct, and can be rebuilt.
Ground zero for this effort is Wisconsin, the ultimate purple state. The Democratic governor, Tony Evers, who narrowly ousted Scott Walker in 2018, is up for re-election, and Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes is challenging another toxic far-right Republican, Ron Johnson. If Barnes can take out Johnson, the Democrats can increase their odds of holding the Senate or even increasing their margin by one or two seats. In April 2020, Jill Karofsky, a progressive, narrowly won election to the Wisconsin Supreme Court.
Wisconsin, as explained in persuasive detail by Katherine Cramer’s important book, The Politics of Resentment, epitomizes the Democrats’ loss of rural voters to worsened economic conditions, perceived cultural elitism, and the widespread feeling as expressed in Cramer’s interviews that Democrats have stopped caring about ordinary rural Wisconsinites. If this erosion can be reversed, two key factors will be the unusually creative state party chair, Ben Wikler, and some of the strategic techniques contributed by the Rural Power Lab.
This marriage of innovative techniques to deep civic commitment is a welcome contrast to so much of the conventional Democratic campaigning ecosystem.
Both are committed to strengthening county parties, not just in election years but for the long term, and demonstrating to voters that Democrats do care about ordinary people a lot more than Republicans do. Wikler, a former MoveOn Washington director and Elizabeth Warren ally, was elected Wisconsin party chair in 2019.
Ellen Holly, a schoolteacher, the party chair in Walworth County in Wisconsin’s southeast corner, credits both Wikler and Rural Power Lab with a more effective strategy. Both are committed to the proposition that Democrats must not write off any county, no matter how Republican, and must work year-round, and not just in election years, to rebuild voter trust.
“Before Wikler,” she says, “we were told that rural didn’t matter. And our politics was far too candidate-centered. Now we are more values-centered. We have a text bank. We’ve sent texts to 30,000 people. We call every strong and leaning Democrat in the county. A key difference is that we are not candidate-centered. We say, call us if you have a problem.”
And this strategy does bear fruit when elections come around. Holly now has a paid-up county party membership of more than 300 and an activist leadership of about 50. One of the party’s projects is to get out the early vote.
In Waushara County, the party chair is Bill Crawford, a retired fire chief. Crawford points out that this county in central Wisconsin turned more heavily Republican as good jobs disappeared and family-owned local dairy farmers (who tended to vote Democratic) were pushed out of business by California-based factory firms, at the rate of about 700 a year.
Rural Power Lab has helped with a $6,000 grant to the county party, which in turn helps defray the cost of part-time staff, office expenses, and radio ads. “This money is a godsend for us,” he says. Crawford has picked up on Movement Labs’ model of peer-to-peer texting, to enlist local people as paid-up party members and activists. He and his party members also engage neighbors, door-to-door. “We had 300 people at our picnic,” he told me. Paid-up party membership is up to 68 from almost nothing. Crawford is aiming for 100.
The interaction of issue organizing and voter mobilization is critical. “Since the abortion decision, our Facebook traffic has doubled,” Crawford said.
Historically, rural counties like these voted Republican, but by much narrower margins. If they can rebuild Democratic strength, it will help Democrats win statewide.
For example in 2000, Al Gore carried Wisconsin by an even smaller margin than Biden narrowly won in the state in 2020—less than 6,000 votes to Biden’s 21,000. Waushara went for Trump over Biden by a blowout 67-33 in 2020, but favored Bush over Gore by a narrower 54-41 in 2000. Similarly, Walworth voted for the Republican by 20 points in 2020, compared to ten points in 2000.
Democrats need to get these voters back. Movement Labs is active in 27 states, and its Rural Power Lab project focuses on Wisconsin, Michigan, Virginia, Arizona, Kansas, and Montana.
The project is the brainchild of Yoni Landau, a longtime organizer who is still in his thirties. Landau got his start as a student radical at Berkeley. Among other achievements, in 2011 he organized the Berkeley Student Food Collective and blocked a fast-food franchise, Panda Express, from getting a contract to provide food in the student union.
In 2017, as groups were organizing to resist Trump, Landau created the forerunner of Movement Labs in a campaign called Rapid Resist, to help progressives win seats on the Modesto City Council. He and one colleague used thousands of texts to help recruit both candidates and voters. This grew into both the general texting strategy helping other resistance groups such as Swing Left and local Indivisible affiliates, and a project called Contest Every Race.
“In 2021, we recruited 20,000 perspective candidates for 3,000 offices like school board and county supervisors,” Landau reports. “We recruited people to file for otherwise uncontested races.”
George Goehl, director of People’s Action, who pioneered the strategy of deep canvassing to find out what’s on the minds of alienated voters and win trust, tells me he’s a huge fan of Landau and Movement Labs. Likewise Heather Booth, a widely respected veteran organizer who has long been working with Democratic Party groups.
“Movement Labs just has a lot more flexibility to try new things and see what works,” Landau says. “If the DNC or a state party tries something new and gets it wrong, there can be real negative consequences for the career of the person who made the decision.”
This marriage of innovative techniques to deep civic commitment is a welcome contrast to so much of the conventional Democratic campaigning ecosystem. Far too much money and effort is typically expended only in election years and is overly candidate-centered, which fails to build for the long term. Too much money is also spent on TV spots, many of them not very good, often driven by campaign consultants who have conflicts of interest in that they take 15 percent of every ad buy. This spending comes at the expense of direct voter contact.
Unlike conventional campaign consultants, Movement Labs with a staff of 38 is a nonprofit, and salaries of all its people including Landau are capped. Much of its $6 million budget is regranted to county Democratic parties.
This general approach of long-term party-building and voter engagement in red areas as well as blue had been in the air for a couple of decades, but Movement Labs takes it to a new level. Among recent chairs of the Democratic National Committee, the person who grasped this reality best was Howard Dean, DNC chair during the George W. Bush presidency who pioneered a 50-state strategy of party-building. One beneficiary of this strategy was Barack Obama, who basically became the 2008 nominee by sweeping primaries and caucuses in red states. (Obama rewarded Dean by promptly firing him.) The current DNC chair, Jaime Harrison, describes himself as a Dean protégé.
Much of this strategy, plus the texting, is basic smart retail politics. As Chloe Maxmin, a progressive state senator who represents a Republican-leaning district in rural Maine, told The Washington Post, “I can’t even tell you how many times I’ve showed up at a house and just the simple fact that I drove down someone’s dirt driveway, knocked on their door, left my cell phone number—it’s just that basic act of showing up wins votes,” she said.
However for progressives, the Woody Allen theory of politics—90 percent of success is just showing up—is limited by the credibility of the national party. Local candidates can be believable on local issues, but they would be even more credible if Democrats were delivering more for rural voters.
On that front, Democrats have made some important concrete initiatives such as rural broadband and other infrastructure programs that will produce tangible results as well as ribbon-cutting opportunities. But their ability to deliver more is limited by Republicans and corporate Democrats in Congress.
In the meantime, local rural Democrats must rely on their own energy, helped by innovative campaigning techniques, and by Republican views on social issues that are far outside the national mainstream. It also helps to point out that Republicans deliver even less for rural America.