Obama's small-town outreach will crush McCain's

While Todd and Jerome were enjoying the scene in Denver, I was at home reading a piece by the Des Moines Register columnist David Yepsen warning that it would be perilous for the presidential candidates to ignore rural America at their parties' nominating conventions:

I'm not talking about pandering here.  Nor am I talking about just the "farm" vote.  I'm talking about the thousands of Americans who live on the countryside and in small towns.  Some are farmers.  Most aren't.

They face many of the same problems other Americans face - jobs, health care, senior issues and drug abuse.  They are patriotic Americans - many military people come out of these areas - yet because they live in the hinterlands they often feel ignored.

Lots of Americans feel that way these days but that's especially true in rural parts of the country, many of which are losing population and vitality.

It would be politically smart for each presidential candidate and party speakers to specifically address the concerns of rural Americans in their convention addresses.  Conventions aren't the place for "farm speeches" or big policy addresses.  But they are the place where messages and themes can be stressed.   Both parties should reach out to rural voters.

Why? Look at the battleground states.  Missouri, Ohio, Iowa, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania.  All are states with sizeable rural populations.  Yes, some have urban areas in them but the rural vote in each could prove pivotal in tipping their electoral votes.

I agree with Yepsen that rural and small-town voters are a critical swing bloc, and that was one reason I  thought John Edwards would have been a strong general election candidate. I recommend ManfromMiddletown's piece explaining why "rural voters are the key to the kingdom."

That said, it strikes me as odd to look to convention speeches for proof of whether the presidential candidates are ignoring rural America.

Let's examine what Barack Obama and John McCain are doing to reach Americans who do not live in major metropolitan areas.

There is no plan for rural America on the issues page of John McCain's website. There is only a page labeled "agricultural policies," which contains nine paragraphs about farming, trade and food policies.

Obama's website includes a comprehensive Plan to Support Rural Communities. It addresses not only agricultural policies but also economic opportunities, small business development, environmental protection, renewable energy, communications and transportation infrastructure, attracting teachers and health care providers to rural areas, and dealing with the methamphetamine crisis.

But anyone can slap a plan on a website, right? What are the candidates doing to reach out to those small-town voters who feel ignored?

Let's look at each of the battleground states Yepsen mentions in his column.

Obama had about 40 field offices before the Iowa caucuses and has established 30 offices in Iowa for the general election. His campaign has also organized canvassing in dozens of Iowa towns this summer (see here and here). In August, surrogates for Obama are holding
numerous "rural roundtables" across Iowa to focus on issues affecting small-town and rural residents.

John McCain has six field offices in Iowa, none of them in small towns. I haven't heard of a lot of campaign activity on his behalf in small towns either.

Obama has already opened 31 field offices in Missouri, which isn't even one of his campaign's top red state targets. McCain has six campaign offices in that state.

Let's turn to Ohio, a state McCain must hold if he is to have any chance of winning 270 electoral votes. McCain has nine campaign offices in Ohio (although there's no phone or e-mail contact information for these offices on the McCain Ohio website). Obama will have 56 offices supporting his field operation in Ohio, and 44 of those offices are already open.

I don't consider Minnesota much of a battleground state in light of recent polling. But since Yepsen mentioned it, and McCain may select Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty as his running mate, where do the candidates stand? Obama has 11 field offices in Minnesota, while McCain has seven.

It's more lopsided in Wisconsin: Obama has 31 field offices, while McCain has six.

Obama built a large campaign organization in Pennsylvania leading up to that state's primary and has opened 18 field offices there for the general election. The Pennsylvania page of McCain's website lists a "Pennsylvania & Ohio Regional Office" in Columbus, Ohio and just one local office in Harrisburg. Looks like McCain hardly plans any outreach in that state.

I could go on about Obama's 35 field offices in Virginia, 22 offices in North Carolina, 26 offices in Indiana and four offices in North Dakota, one of the most rural states.

But you get my point. Not only does Obama have a plan for rural America, he has a campaign presence in dozens of small towns where McCain does not. His staff and volunteers are making contact with thousands of voters who will only hear from McCain through their television sets.

I don't know how much Obama plans to speak about rural issues on Thursday night, but he certainly can't be accused of ignoring the concerns of voters outside cities and suburbs.

If you are planning to volunteer for Obama in a small town, take some time to become familiar with the Plan to Support Rural Communities. AlanF has good advice for canvassers in this diary, and Pete Mohanty lays out the reasons that canvassing is an effective campaign tool in this research paper. 

Tags: 2008 elections, Barack Obama, GOTV, Iowa, John McCain, Minnesota, Missouri, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Rural Voters, Wisconsin (all tags)



Are you at the convention?

by Al Rodgers 2008-08-27 07:15AM | 0 recs
no, I try to avoid overnight travel

apart from my two young kids. My older one just started kindergarten, so it wouldn't be a good time for me to be away.

Looks like people are having a good time in Denver, though.

by desmoinesdem 2008-08-27 07:18AM | 0 recs
hard to tell

not to many bloggers are posting photos.

by Al Rodgers 2008-08-27 07:22AM | 0 recs
He's done it before...

This is a nation-wide implementation of the same strategy Obama used in his 2004 Senate campaign.

He worked the entire state very hard in the primary - and yes, he lost - and lost big - in most rural Illinois precincts, but he tamped down the margins enough so that together with his big showing in Dan Hynes' (and Obama's own) Chicago backyard, he still hit a majority (54%) in a crowded primary.

After the primary - and I say this as someone who was a volunteer in that campaign - they pivoted immediately to go after their softest midstate and downstate areas of support.   For the brief 3 months when the GE was a somewhat real race against Jack Ryan (though - Ryan never got within 10 pts of Obama) -- Obama barnstormed downstate, midstate, small towns, and rural settings.

Even before Keyes made the race a laugher - Obama didn't rest on his laurels - and he could have coasted on the strength of his Chicago vote and decent suburban showing, the campaign made a very explicit point of targeting the areas a Chicago Democrat traditionally just ignores and hopes for the best in a statewide election.

This most certainly was not a simple matter of tossing rural red meat into speeches, either.  

Every aspect of the Obama senate campaign was considered and reconsidered to reach out to the large swaths of Illinois that are quite foreign to Chicago.   The campaign was extremely well-studied on downstate issues that are usually afterthoughts to Chicago-based politicians.  They crafted answers to address thorny social issues with a respectful agree to disagree message.  

They cared about and developed a platform to address agricultural issues... and as much as some environmentalists (like myself) may have had to grit our teeth and bear it, they spoke to the downstate coal producing areas on terms and issues that really do matter to them.  They proposed clean coal research programs.  They talked about saving industries through transformation that could be saved, and creating alternate opportunities for those that couldn't.

After the March primary - we in Chicago didn't see all that much of Obama... he was in Rockford... in Peoria... in Moline... in Carbondale.

His entire campaign apparatus followed suit.  When you called or stopped by Chicago offices to volunteer - the prospect and possibility of being deployed to areas outside of Chicago and the Chicago suburbs and exurbs was always raised... Could you travel Woodstock?  Do you have any family and friends in Buckley... in Chatham... whereever.  Can you spend a weekend downstate?  If you can, here are the issues you need to know... here are the Obama policies we're pushing...

Then - following the foregone conclusion of his election, he made certain to cement those downstate ties by embarking on a "thank you tour" of the entire state... hitting communities up and down the state, big and small.

by zonk 2008-08-27 07:28AM | 0 recs
How did you end up supporting Hill?

by Al Rodgers 2008-08-27 07:30AM | 0 recs
Re: How did you end up supporting Hill?


I didn't - I've been been an Obama backer in the confines of the primary all year... though, I was originally in the "embarrassment of riches" camp.

by zonk 2008-08-27 07:34AM | 0 recs
my bad

I misread your handle, thought you were zane

by Al Rodgers 2008-08-27 07:38AM | 0 recs
Re: my bad

Heh... no worries... was gonna say - I've still got the 'warning scars' from primary season to prove it :-)

by zonk 2008-08-27 07:40AM | 0 recs
In New Mexico

In New Mexico we are opening a new office in Hatch: pop. < 2000.  There are a lot of getable voters there, many Hispanics, and many people who are still trying to put their lives back together after 2006 flooding.

I've never seen anything like this as far as a national candidate's attention to detail, and New Mexico has been quite the swing state for a while now.

by NMMatt 2008-08-27 07:42AM | 0 recs
Re: Obama's small-town outreach will crush McCain'

I haven't seen many people talking about Mark Warner here. I actually liked his speech and thought it was great he talked about rural communities so much. Ground game is going to win this thing for Obama even if it is close in the polls.

by Lolis 2008-08-27 07:43AM | 0 recs
Re: Obama's small-town outreach will crush McCain'

My wife is my resident small-town expert.  She tells me that Democrats always lose in the rural area she grew up in because they come around talking about national issues like the war in Iraq or corruption or whatever and it just doesn't seem very relevant to anyone's daily life.

All politics is local, but I'm not sure how you convey a localized message in the context of a presidential election.  Outreach is certainly important, you need to ask people for their votes if they want to be competitive.  But in terms of sending a concrete message to people in small towns - "here is how the Democratic Party will make your life better" - it's really not so easy.

by Steve M 2008-08-27 08:08AM | 0 recs
Re: Obama's small-town outreach will crush McCain'

But, as zonk points out above, he dosen't need to win rural areas, he just needs to reduce the margins.  A concise message would go a long way, though - something akin to '92's "it's the economy, stupid".

by NewOaklandDem 2008-08-27 08:55AM | 0 recs
Re: Obama's small-town outreach

I have a hunch that Obama will outperform Gore and Kerry in the Rural West, Upper Great Lakes and Northern Plains. The South will be a mixed bag depending on demographics, but I do not have high hopes in Appalachia. My question mark will be farm country across Missouri, Indiana and Ohio as well as Central Pennsylvania. Anyone have an idea?

by RandyMI 2008-08-27 08:52AM | 0 recs
Re: Obama's small-town outreach

If he/the campaign hits the areas - and I think he will, most certainly - I say he'll play very strong.

Sample size caveats and all, but I would take a closer look at the Indiana primary results, county by county.

Yes - Obama kept it close by running up the margins in should be and were Obama strongholds... Lake (Gary), Marion (Indianapolis), Monroe (IU), etc.

But check the "bleed" in bordering counties he came up just a few points short...  Except for possibly Indy - there really aren't any real 'suburban/exurban' counties... Unlike, say, Chicago -- where you could argue the metro 'area' extends outside of Cook into DuPake, Will, Lake, etc -- once you get outside of St Joe county, you ARE in farm country.... Once you get outside of Monroe/IU you ARE in farm country.

Yes - he still lost counties like White, Carroll, Steuben, and Putnam.... but he didn't get buried by 30-40 pts, like he did in SE Indiana, places he didn't hit, and didn't get any bleed from campaign strongholds (and volunteer centers).

What's more -- take a look at Elkhart county... No, it's not a thoroughly rural county... but it's certainly not an urban county that should have been an Obama stronghold.  Elkhart is actually one of the wingnuttier areas of Indiana, probably on par with the SE corner of the state.   Yet - Obama actually won Elkhart outright, by 18 pts at that.


He paid a visit to Elkhart the day before the Indiana primary...

Never underestimate that personal touch - I said on primary day, and still maintain that his visit alone swung that county 25 pts... because demographically it SHOULD have been a 5-10 pt HRC county.

Obviously, a GE electorate is going to differ from a primary electorate, but I think the precept still holds true.

What I hope - and as I said above, what I EXPECT - Obama to do is spend one hell of a lot of time in small town America for the next 2 months.   He locked up his "base" - those urban centers - in the primary... to have any chance, that's exactly what he had to do.  

I know many folks were mystified when it seemed that Obama just didn't really seem to 'try' in western NC/VA... in southern OH... but in reality, his only chance was to run up the margins in urban precincts, snag a better delegate split in target rich environments, and hope the campaign would do what it could elsewhere.

Now?  The calculus of the race changes... the parameters of the race change...   He isn't going to be facing a fellow Democrat.   He can rest on his urban laurels...  There's no need to hit up Chicago... or New York... or Atlanta... or St. Louis... or whatever.

He can devote his time to the places he's already started doing that... the bus tour in VA/NC... last night in Billings...

Obviously - he cannot hit them all.  But expect him to build some 'centers of support' in places you wouldn't expect, and expect the campaign effectively bleed that support into bordering zones.

On a county-by-county basis - the map on 11/4 is still going to look awfully red... but I can guarantee that if you mouseover those red maps, you're going to see a lot of spreads under 20 pts in places where Kerry lost by 30 or more.

by zonk 2008-08-27 09:26AM | 0 recs


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