WHITESBURG, Kentucky - September 22 - The rural vote is up for grabs, according to a poll of rural voters in contested congressional and Senate races released today by the Center for Rural Strategies.
And how well the parties do in rural America is likely to determine who controls Congress.
The poll of rural voters in 41 contested congressional districts with significant rural populations found Democratic and Republican candidates running a dead heat, with each party receiving 45 percent of the possible votes.
In six contested Senate races in states with significant rural populations, rural voters favored Republican candidates 47 to 43 percent, but the gap falls within the poll’s margin of error of 4.3 percentage points, making a statistical tie.
The most important issue on rural voters’ minds is the war in Iraq, followed closely by jobs and the economy and terrorism and national security, the poll found. Strikingly, nearly three-quarters of the respondents said they knew someone who has served in the armed forces in Iraq or Afghanistan.
Democratic analyst Anna Greenberg of Greenberg Quinlan Rosner said rural voters’ concern over the war and the economy could give Democrats the opportunity to gain ground in rural areas.
“These races are very tight, and a swing among rural voters could well tip the balance,” Greenberg said. “That means Democrats who can reach rural voters have a strong chance to win elections and perhaps gain majority control of the House.”
Republican analyst Bill Greener of Greener & Hook agreed that the rural vote is key to the outcome of the election.
“The Republicans can’t control the House of Representatives without holding onto rural voters, and I’m optimistic that we will,” Greener said. “The Congressional vote numbers in this survey are almost precisely what they were at this point in 2004. In recent years, the Republican vote in rural areas has surged in the last few weeks before the election.”
Rural voters were key to President Bush’s 2004 election, in which significant Republican victories in rural areas made up for a Democrat advantage in urban areas.
“Who wins rural matters,” said Dee Davis, president of the Center for Rural Strategies, which commissioned the poll. “And right now rural is in play. Our hope is that this translates into a full and vigorous discussion about issues that concern rural communities.”
The poll was conducted Sept. 17-19 among 529 likely voters living in rural parts of 41 contested congressional districts and six states with competitive Senate races.
The poll also found that rural voters are more optimistic than the national population about the president’s performance and the direction of the country. Forty-seven percent of voters in the rural battleground approve of the way Bush is handling his job, compared to 44 percent nationally. Thirty-five percent of rural respondents say the country is on the right track, while 32 percent of the nation does so.
Rural residents were evenly split over whether illegal immigrants should eventually be given the opportunity to become U.S. citizens. Illegal immigration was the least important issue voters cited as affecting their vote. Only 15 percent of respondents listed illegal immigration as the first or second most important issue in determining how they would vote. In comparison, 28 percent listed the war in Iraq, 27 percent jobs and economy and 26 terrorism and national security.
The Center for Rural Strategies will conduct one other poll of rural voters prior to the Nov. 7 election.