Trump’s Rural Edge Shrinks With Enthusiasm Fading in Key States

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The big margin of support among rural voters that helped Donald Trump secure victory four years ago is looking less firm in 2020 with the potential to shift the outcomes in key battleground states.

Joe Biden, the Democratic nominee, is nowhere near winning the rural areas of the country, where roads are lined with Trump-Pence lawn signs and barn banners and campaign flags flutter from pickup trucks.

But polls leading to Election Day show that enthusiasm for the incumbent has waned compared to 2016. In a race where the margin of victory may be slim and turn on the result in just a handful of states, even a slight dip for either candidate in a core constituency can mean the difference between winning and losing.

With the coronavirus spreading more than 60% faster in non-metro areas than the rest of the nation, Trump’s support has slipped. While the president has deployed agricultural subsidies to help cushion the blow, the farming sector had already suffered before Covid-19 from the trade war Trump launched with China. The bonanza of Chinese purchases Trump promised after his January trade deal have yet to materialize.

Trump’s Rural Edge Shrinks With Enthusiasm Fading in Key States

Cut in Half

That helps explain why Trump’s 28 percentage point margin among rural voters in 2016 exit polls has shrunk to a 15 point lead (56% to 41%) among rural likely voters in a Survey USA poll taken Oct. 16-19, the most recent poll where the breakdown is available. His latest reading is also below the 20-point advantage in 2012 for Republican Mitt Romney, who lost his bid for the White House. Other polls have shown similar drops.

The president’s job approval among rural and small town residents dropped in a Gallup Poll Sept. 30-Oct. 15 to 55% from 62% as recently as May.

Any erosion of that rural base could prove particularly dangerous for Trump in the three battlegrounds he dramatically flipped in 2016 to secure an Electoral College triumph: Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania. With suburban voters in those states, which have been traditionally blue in presidential elections, turning back toward the Democrats, it’s all the more urgent for Trump to shore up his rural backing.

The president has been devoting precious campaign time to revving up support among these crucial constituencies, traveling last weekend to Muskegon, Michigan, and Janesville, Wisconsin -- both small cities in mostly rural areas. He returned to Wisconsin this weekend, along with stops in Ohio and North Carolina, two other states he won in 2016 that also are in play this year.

Trump’s Rural Edge Shrinks With Enthusiasm Fading in Key States

On the Democratic side, the party’s main focus is to crank up turnout in historically Democratic districts where Hillary Clinton underperformed in 2016. But Biden is also making more of an effort than Clinton to contest the rural vote.

Biden hired a rural coordinator and sought to gain favor among Midwest corn farmers by accusing Trump of showing tepid support for the gasoline additive ethanol. Almost 40% of corn grown in the U.S. is used for ethanol.

The former vice president is also actively deploying surrogates including Tom Vilsack, a former Iowa governor and U.S. Agriculture secretary, onetime presidential candidate and former mayor of South Bend, Indiana, Pete Buttigieg and Heidi Heitkamp, a former North Dakota senator.

It may be helping.

Keystone States

In Wisconsin, Trump’s lead over Biden among rural residents is 50% to 45%, according to a New York Times/Siena College poll of likely voters taken earlier this month. That compares with his 62% to 35% margin over Clinton in exit polls from 2016, when he carried the state by just 0.8 percentage points.

In Pennsylvania, rural residents back the president by 59% to 32%, according to a Siena poll -- a giant margin, but not quite so giant as Trump’s 71% to 26% romp in 2016. He won the state’s total vote by a slim 0.7 points in 2016.

In Michigan, Trump’s rural support has been more enduring, though he has even less of a margin to spare: he won the state by 0.2 points in 2016. A Siena poll showed him at 52% to 34% in early October, versus a 56% to 38% margin over Clinton among rural voters.

The RealClearPolitics average of recent polls shows Biden leading overall in Wisconsin by 4.6 points, Michigan by 7.8 points and Pennsylvania by 5.1 points.

New Voters?

As both sides mount get-out-the-vote drives in the final push before Nov. 3, Trump does have one advantage: There were more eligible voters who did not cast ballots in 2016 who are more likely to support him than Biden.

Among 2016 nonvoters in Michigan, there were more than half a million more white, non-college educated people than nonwhites and college-educated combined, according to analysis from lobbying firm Mehlman Castagnetti Rosen & Thomas cited by Evercore ISI this month. In Pennsylvania, the margin was about 992,000, while in Wisconsin it was 353,000.

And then there are backers like Derek Orth in Lancaster, Wisconsin, who are sticking by the president. Orth, a 34-year-old dairy farmer, appreciates the financial help Trump has channeled to the agriculture industry.

“I can’t think of a single close friend in agriculture that is voting for Biden,” Orth said this month. An active follower of social media posts who doesn’t have cable television, he worries that Biden would institute socialism.

Tough Times

Yet evidence from other areas shows that some people are tiring of the accumulation of uncertainties from the trade conflict with China, the recession and the pandemic, according to Dawn Riley, a former Agriculture Department official in the George W. Bush administration and a one-time aide to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.

Read More: Meat, Ethanol Producers at Risk If No Aid Soon, Peterson Warns

The pandemic lockdowns delivered a blow to corn demand as Americans stopped driving and the ethanol biofuel market plunged. The loss of restaurant sales and outbreaks that shut down slaughterhouses devastated hog and cattle producers.

Since early August, rural counties have been adding new Covid-19 cases at a higher rate than the national average. By the week ended Oct. 17, rural counties accounted for more than 21% of new U.S. cases, though they comprise only 14% of the nation’s population, according to an analysis by the Daily Yonder, which covers rural issues.

“On a daily basis that really starts to drag people down,” said Riley, now a Kentucky-based agriculture consultant who recently joined a group of former Bush administration officials in endorsing Biden.

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