Why Trump voters make up large part of rural electorate

Four years ago, cattle rancher JD Hill bucked his family’s Democratic tradition and voted for Donald Trump. Now a registered Republican, he’s going to do it again this year.

It’s not that Hill, a resident of Greenville, Kentucky, loves the New York real estate mogul and all he stands for. He’s well aware of Trump’s criminal problems and “I don’t like his rhetoric.”

But Hill, 57, believes the Democrats and Biden in particular simply haven’t paid enough attention to communities like his.

“Am I a huge Trump fan? No. But I just haven’t seen the country go in the right direction under Joe Biden,” said Hill, whose town in Muhlenberg County has a population of about 31,000. “Personally, I don’t think Biden is in touch with rural America.”

A new poll of likely rural voters suggests Americans living outside cities and suburbs favor Trump above all his competitors, both Republican and Democratic.

That support is lukewarm, though. Only a slim majority of rural Trump supporters polled said they would be “very happy” if he were at the top of the GOP ticket, according to the poll of 2,500 Americans conducted Jan. 5-10 by researchers at Maine’s Colby College. And, nearly a third of those Trump supporters say their vote is really against Biden, believing the president has ignored their issues during his time in office.

That matches Hill’s feelings.

“Look, I get that the electoral votes are in the larger states like Illinois, California and New York,” said Hill, who travels up to 4,000 miles a month as a national sales manager for an animal health supplement manufacturer. “But those in the flyover states are being looked over, the people who help feed this country and keep this country alive.”

Anxious for a new direction while still preserving a way of life

The Colby College poll suggests rural Republican voters like Hill have only seen the bad in Biden’s four years in office. Meanwhile, Trump has had resounding victories against his GOP primary contenders in both New Hampshire and Iowa, with particular strength in rural areas.

“We’ve been hearing that Trump’s ‘the Great Disruptor’ and rural Americans are anxious for a new direction,” said Dan Shea, a Colby professor who co-researched the poll. “Rural voters think more about the entire community and not just themselves. They think their community is in trouble and that the Democrats can’t provide solutions.”

That’s a sentiment shared by Hill, who didn’t participate in the Colby poll of anonymous respondents. He sides with Colby’s findings that, compared to urban residents, rural voters were more likely to say the economy is in horrible shape (27%), their specific communities are doing worse than America overall (39%), and they have yet to financially recover from the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I don’t feel like (Biden’s) leadership qualities are quite what this country needs right now,” Hill said.

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Hill’s neighbor, Cindy Hendricks, 69, agrees with nearly 45% of rural Trump voters surveyed that a second Biden presidency will hurt their community. That’s compared to 33% of Trump voters living in cities and suburbs who shared similar concerns about a Biden reelection.

A lifelong Republican, Hendricks said Trump cares more about “trying to ensure success for the businesses in America, big and small,” which is a difference-maker to her.

“He represents a symbol of strength and I‘m not just speaking for me, these are what my friends also share with me,” said Hendricks, adding that she thinks the former president would make America look more feared by international leaders.

Legal troubles are no problem for rural Trump supporters

Despite Trump’s legal troubles ‒ he is currently facing 91 felonies from four indictments ‒ any convictions will have a limited impact on his popularity with rural voters, the poll found. An overwhelming 92% of rural supporters, including Hendricks, said even a conviction would not change their vote.

“I’m not going to throw stones. I’d like to hear somebody in politics say, ‘I’ve never made a mistake,'” she said. “I think he can rise above it. I don’t he’s guilty or not guilty. I just think his good outweighs the bad.”

More than 60% of Trump supporters polled agreed with the statement that charges against Trump related to the Jan. 6 insurrection on the U.S. Capitol were “phony, made-up charges by the Democrats to keep him from office.” That is 13 percentage points higher than Trump voters who live outside of rural America.

Colby Professor Nicholas Jacobs, who co-researched the poll with Shea said in most rural voters’ minds, Trump continues pushing the boundaries of traditional government.

“They don’t believe in anybody else,” said Jacobs, co-author with Shea of the new book, The Rural Voter: The Politics of Place and the Disuniting of America.

Republicans have been resonating more with rural voters than Democrats since Ronald Regan won the presidency in 1980, Jacobs and Shea said. That support accelerated rapidly by 2010, the midway point of President Barack Obama’s first term.

Trump was able to win 65% of the rural vote in 2020, up from 59% in 2016, and more than Mitt Romney did in 2012, according to a 2021 Pew Research Center study. During the 2022 midterms, Republican candidates raked in 69% of the rural vote nationwide.

“It’s true that Trump has a unique approach, an in-your-face style that is popular in rural America but this movement with Republicans and rural voters predates Trump and probably will continue long afterward,” Shea said.

Regardless of the polls and perceptions, not everyone in rural America votes the same way, said Sam Van Wetter, a field organizer for the Rural Utah Project, a nonprofit that helps underrepresented communities have a voice in local and state politics. “It’s important to note that rural voters are not a monolith.”

Biden struggling to be heard in rural America

The Colby College poll showed that Biden’s messages aren’t being heard in rural America.

Only 35% of rural residents said they’ll likely vote for Biden in November’s general election and only 29% of those supporters are “very happy” he’s the nominee, the poll found.

The Colby poll asked rural voters if they are familiar with Biden’s infrastructure plans that have led to the launch of 32,000 projects across 4,500 communities totaling $220 billion. Just 23% of rural voters said yes, compared to 33% of their urban counterparts.

When asked about the Biden administration’s new investments in broadband internet, 41% of rural voters polled reported hearing “nothing at all.”

Hendricks, who is the secretary of the Republican Party of Muhlenberg County, said her neighbors haven’t yet reaped any benefits from Biden’s infrastructure plan.

“We haven’t seen or felt any of that ‘positive stuff,'” Hendricks said. “What we’ve felt are the effects of inflation and rising cost of living, I haven’t seen any of that good that he’s talking about.”

To win over rural voters, Biden needs to convince them in their wallets, their bank account and their gut, said Issac Wright, co-founder of the Rural Voter Institute, a nonprofit that works to help Democratic and progressive candidates better communicate with rural voters.

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“The economic angst in rural America and what small-town voters are feeling should not be ignored as there’s been a build-up of what has been going on for years,” Wright said. “It is serious, it is real, and it needs to be addressed.”

Wright cites an upcoming research study by the Rural Voter Institute that goes deeper into why Democrats are having a hard time connecting with rural and small-town voters. Among themes expressed by rural panelists in focus groups included a sense that “rural America and its values are being threatened.” Panelists said they are being “forgotten by politicians” at the state and federal levels and in overall general policy discussions.

“When factual positives and rhetoric about Democrats’ economic record were introduced, rural and small-town respondents rejected the positive information as fake news or false information, yielding a tepid response,” the Rural Voter Initiative study said.

For his part, Hill, the Kentucky cattle rancher, worries if Biden is reelected, the country could go into an economic depression.

“Our main staples, the farming, cattle and hog industries, are going to suffer,” Hill said. “I feel that strongly. I could be totally wrong about this, and I hope I am.”

He wants to use his vote to help improve his community and his nation.

“Whatever reservations I have, I know my vote, when I do it, I believe it will be for the good of the country,” Hill said.

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