Big Sort

Rural Voters in Battleground States Love Palin, Back McCain

Rural voters in battleground states support John McCain by about the same percentage that they backed George Bush at this point in the 2004 election. In September 2004, Bush held a 13-point lead over John Kerry among rural voters in battleground states. This September, McCain holds a 10-point lead over Sen. Barack Obama.

Despite wars in two countries and a worldwide financial collapse, the 2008 election is static, locked in the divisions, rhetoric, and tactics of 2000 and 2004. The divide between rural and urban voters was among the most dramatic signs of geographic partisanship in 2004. George Bush came out of the nation’s cities running 3.7 million votes behind John Kerry. He won rural counties by 4.1 million and then padded his margin in exurbia.

The poll of rural voters is just a bit more evidence that the talk about change and mavericks and a new kind of post-partisan politics is more than overheated. Americans are settling quite naturally into the voting patterns of the past two presidential elections.

The poll surveyed likely voters last week in 13 closely contested states. (They are Colorado, Florida, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nevada, New  Hampshire, New Mexico, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and Wisconsin.) Greenberg Quinlan Rosner interviewed 742 likely voters living in rural communities. The poll was commissioned by the Center for Rural Strategies , a nonpartisan rural-advocacy group in Whitesburg, Ky. (As editor of the Daily Yonder , I am an employee of Rural Strategies.)

Greenberg Quinlan Rosner works exclusively for Democratic candidates. Bill Greener, a Republican strategist, helped shape the poll. The full poll can be found here .

Rural voters were clearly enamored with the selection of Gov. Sarah Palin for the Republican ticket, even if they were less certain she was ready to take over the presidency. More than half said the choice of the Alaskan governor made them more likely to vote for McCain. Thirty-one percent said they were less likely to vote for McCain because of Palin.

Rural voters liked Gov. Palin personally more than they were impressed by her qualifications. Some 65 percent of those polled said the Alaskan “represents the values of rural communities.” Fewer, 54 percent, said she was “ready to be vice president and assume the presidency if need be.”

Rural voters have warmed considerably to McCain since the spring. When asked who would do a “better job” on a range of issues, rural voters were increasingly likely to name McCain.

For example, in May rural voters thought Obama would do a better job than McCain on the nation’s economy by a 44 percent to 36 percent margin. In this poll, however, rural voters now say McCain would do better with the economy by a 46 percent to 43 percent margin.

In September, Obama held a 10-point edge over McCain on the question of who would do a better job of “bringing the right kind of change.” Now the two candidates are tied.

McCain moved up on every question—who is “on your side,” who shares your values, who would do better in Iraq—while Obama lost ground or stayed the same since the May survey.

Fifty-three percent of those polled said their neighbors and their communities were “ready for a black president.” Twenty-four percent said their neighbors and the people of their communities were not ready for a black president. A quite large number, 23 percent, answered this question by saying they didn’t know, refused to answer, or that neither option was appropriate.

The poll was taken during the economic turmoil of last week, and rural voters named the “economy and jobs” as the most pressing issues facing them. When asked to compare the importance of the economy and values, 61 percent of those polled said the economy was the “most important thing” in the election. Only 36 percent said it was most important that the next president “reflects my values.”

Pollster Anna Greenberg said she was surprised McCain’s lead wasn’t larger. She said the sample in this poll was slightly more Republican than the rural poll taken in May. And although rural voters were seeing McCain more favorably, that was not translating into decisions to vote for the Republican.

Republican Greener interpreted the poll as more evidence that Democrats have been unable to cross the cultural division that has been defined by the geography of rural and urban America. “When Sen. Obama says that people living in small towns cling to their guns and religion due to bitterness, or his supporters attack Gov. Palin for not being qualified to serve by making light of her background as the mayor of a small city, this all contributes to separating the Democrats from voters in rural areas,” Greener said.

Democrats have told themselves that they were able to win U.S. Senate seats in Montana, Missouri, and Virginia in 2006 because they put up candidates who could attract votes in rural areas. (Missouri’s Claire McCaskill, Virginia’s Jim Webb, and Jon Tester from Montana were nicknamed the “redneck caucus.”) When you look at the county-by-county results, however, these races were won because Democrats increased their turnout in the cities.

Obama has been hustling in rural places, but this poll shows that over the past four months, rural voters in swing states have not moved his way. They have, however, found more to like in John McCain.

George Bush won in 2004 because he was able to turn out voters in rural and exurban communities. The tactical question this year may be whether Obama can pull the same trick in the cities.