Agriculture Secretary and former Iowa Governor Tom Vilsack has a message for Democrats: Don’t take the rural vote for granted.
"If the Democrats are interested in winning statewide races, winning presidential races, winning gubernatorial races, winning congressional seats, they can’t get crushed in rural areas," Vilsack said in an interview. "And what’s really frustrating is, they’ve got a pretty good message, if they delivered it."
Vilsack’s decades-long ties with Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton made him a finalist for her vice-presidential pick this year, although she ultimately selected Virginia Senator Tim Kaine.
Rural voters backed Donald Trump over Clinton 62 percent to 34 percent in the presidential contest, according to exit polls. That compares with 61 percent for Republican businessman Mitt Romney and 37 percent for President Barack Obama in 2012. The proportion of rural voters in the electorate also increased, as depressed urban turnout contrasted with greater enthusiasm in smaller towns. That helped give Trump the narrow margins in Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania that eked his way into the White House.
Since then, how to appeal to small-town, predominantly white working-class voters has become a theme of Democratic Party soul-searching. The life and career of Vilsack, who grew up in western Pennsylvania and served two terms as Iowa governor, spans the region that flipped to Trump this year.
In the interview, Vilsack pointed to several accomplishments during his eight years serving the Obama administration. Poverty rates fell in rural areas. Population declines in those areas stopped, too. And there was federal support for programs that help workers and families adjust to a transitioning economy.
But Vilsack gave two reasons for Democrats’ struggles: The uncomfortable fit some rural voters feel in today’s party, and the relative weakness of pro-government to anti-government lobbies.
"People in my party don’t know how to talk to folks in rural areas," said Vilsack who briefly ran for the 2008 presidential nomination before bowing out in support of Clinton. "It’s hard for us to articulate a message that crosses the different silos of a diverse party. We’ve got a message for this group, and that group, and this group, but if you’re not a part of that group, asking what’s in it for me, you don’t quite get it."
Meanwhile, labor unions and other constituencies that have helped Democrats for decades have become weaker than their counterparts.
"If you had to have someone on your side in a political campaign, setting aside whether you agree with them or not, would you want to have the Sierra Club or the NRA?" he said, referring to the pro-gun National Rifle Association. "Those institutions that are supportive of government are not as strong, not as tough, not as disciplined as those who sort of protect people against government."
Losses in traditionally Democratic Rust Belt states have prompted Representative Tim Ryan of Youngstown, Ohio, to challenge House Minority Leader Representative Nancy Pelosi for her position. Former Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean has also said he’ll try to regain that party post, in part to re-implement a "50-state strategy" for nationwide appeal he says the party has ignored.
Vilsack, the only member of Obama’s cabinet who served throughout his administration, said he doesn’t know what he’ll do after the president’s term ends. But bringing rural areas back to the forefront of political discussion is a crucial task -- for Democrats, and for the nation, he said.
"It requires more than the voice of the Secretary of Agriculture," he said. "Hopefully there will be more attention paid to rural parts of the country."