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How Do You Flip Rural Trump Voters? Talk to Them.

In 2016, establishment Democrats all but ignored rural communities. Groups like People’s Action are changing that, one conversation at a time.

A rural home with "Trump 2020" yard signs in Schuylkill County, Pennsylvania, a swing state in the 2020 election. (Photo by Andrew Lichtenstein/Corbis via Getty images)

A rural home with "Trump 2020" yard signs in Schuylkill County, Pennsylvania, a swing state in the 2020 election. (Photo by Andrew Lichtenstein/Corbis via Getty images)

Much ink was spilled over ​“Trump Coun­try” in the wake of 2016. Rur­al coun­ties that helped elect Pres­i­dent Barack Oba­ma in 2008 and 2012 had seem­ing­ly switched over to Trump in 2016. At People’s Action, the grass­roots orga­ni­za­tion I direct, many of us grew up in or live in rur­al com­mu­ni­ties, and we had a gut instinct about what had hap­pened: The Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty (and orga­ni­za­tions in its orbit) retreat­ed from rur­al America. 

We want­ed to under­stand what moti­vat­ed peo­ple in those coun­ties to swing so dra­mat­i­cal­ly—up to 25 points. What were they feel­ing and search­ing for? And what about all the folks who didn’t vote? 

Cer­tain that poll­sters were not going to find those answers for us, we start­ed orga­niz­ing. And the best orga­niz­ing begins with listening. 

From the Iron Range in Min­neso­ta to the Pied­mont of North Car­oli­na, we had thou­sands of con­ver­sa­tions in rur­al com­mu­ni­ties and small towns across 10 states, start­ing in 2017: Alaba­ma, Iowa, Maine, Michi­gan, Min­neso­ta, Mis­souri, New Hamp­shire, North Car­oli­na, Penn­syl­va­nia and Wis­con­sin. We learned what we already knew: Peo­ple are strug­gling and try­ing to make sense of those struggles. 

Our lis­ten­ing cam­paign start­ed with People’s Action affil­i­ate Down Home North Car­oli­na going door-to-door to talk with work­ing-class peo­ple in the back­yard of grow­ing neo-Con­fed­er­ate and white nation­al­ist groups. In the hills of Appalachia or on (for­mer) fam­i­ly farms in the Mid­west, we heard the same refrain: ​“No one ever asked me.” 

With few excep­tions, there was no pro­gres­sive infra­struc­ture where we went knock­ing. The pow­er of orga­nized labor had weak­ened, local Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty offices had closed and much pro­gres­sive phil­an­thropy had direct­ed its dol­lars to urban enclaves. 

The unwill­ing­ness of main­line Democ­rats and cor­po­rate media to name the true caus­es of rur­al people’s pain left folks feel­ing alien­at­ed. Run­away cor­po­rate eco­nom­ic pow­er, mixed with racism as a tool of divi­sion, cre­at­ed a vac­u­um. Trump and his fel­low white nation­al­ists sim­ply filled it. 

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These con­ver­sa­tions informed our work on the issues peo­ple told us were most impor­tant — access to health­care, qual­i­ty jobs, clean air, clean water and addic­tion. By orga­niz­ing on these issues, we came togeth­er in mul­ti-racial orga­ni­za­tions and have won real tan­gi­ble changes — Med­ic­aid expan­sion, a rur­al liv­ing wage, fac­to­ry farm mora­to­ri­ums and more. From there, the trust and rela­tion­ships grew into tough con­ver­sa­tions about racism — as a sys­tem that cre­ates dif­fer­ent out­comes for peo­ple based on race, and as a tac­tic that sows divi­sion to block pow­er­ful majori­ties. Racism cre­ates incred­i­ble pain, suf­fer­ing and loss of life for peo­ple of col­or, but the 15 mil­lion white Amer­i­cans who live in pover­ty — often in rur­al com­mu­ni­ties in so-called red states — are rarely its beneficiaries. 

Still, we kept run­ning into one sub­ject that seemed a bridge too far: a more wel­com­ing immi­gra­tion pol­i­cy. We launched a deep can­vass pro­gram in North Car­oli­na, Penn­syl­va­nia and Michi­gan, hop­ing to learn more about how peo­ple under­stood the chang­ing demo­graph­ics of the coun­try and their eco­nom­ic realities. 

Caitlin Hom­rich-Kniel­ing, a can­vass­er with People’s Action affil­i­ate Michi­gan Unit­ed, describes deep can­vass­ing — which she has prac­ticed in small towns sur­round­ed by corn and soy like Imlay City (pop. 3,577) and Emmett (252) — as rela­tion­ship-build­ing. “[We’re] strangers, [we’re] start­ing with a blank slate,” she says. ​“And in that con­ver­sa­tion, we … real­ly hon­or their sto­ry and their wis­dom and their dignity.” 

Most peo­ple wel­comed the oppor­tu­ni­ty to explore a com­pli­cat­ed issue in a non-dog­mat­ic and non-judg­men­tal way. In many cas­es, it was as if we can­vassers had offered a gift — a chance to final­ly be lis­tened to. Often, peo­ple would acknowl­edge they didn’t have much lived expe­ri­ence of undoc­u­ment­ed immi­grants, that they were informed by tele­vi­sion. These con­ver­sa­tions, dri­ven by sin­cere curios­i­ty, opened up a space to reex­am­ine things. 

Our deep can­vass effort was extreme­ly effec­tive, with a 15% increase in sup­port to include undoc­u­ment­ed immi­grants in pub­lic ben­e­fits — which has last­ed at least 4.5 months, the most recent time we measured. 

Down Home North Car­oli­na, Michi­gan Unit­ed, Iowa Cit­i­zens for Com­mu­ni­ty Improve­ment, New Jer­sey Orga­niz­ing Project, Penn­syl­va­nia Stands Up and Hoosier Action have all, in dif­fer­ent ways, mod­eled what mul­ti-racial, mul­ti-gen­er­a­tional orga­ni­za­tions and move­ments can look like. In Michi­gan, we are deep can­vass­ing around immi­gra­tion. In Iowa, we are fight­ing for clean water. In the Pied­mont of North Car­oli­na, peo­ple are stand­ing down white suprema­cy. On the South Jer­sey shore, folks are com­ing togeth­er on wind ener­gy. In my home of south­ern Indi­ana, peo­ple are fight­ing a pitched bat­tle with addic­tion and learn­ing to be vul­ner­a­ble, to see each oth­er and to build the pow­er need­ed to win. 

We’ve learned the hard way that, if we are not present, oth­ers will be. That is not a les­son we need to learn again.

George Goehl

George Goehl

George Goehl is co-executive director of People's Action and People's Action Institute, a national organization of a million people in 30 states fighting for economic, environmental, racial, and gender justice.

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