Democrats Have Opportunity With Rural Voters

I recently put up a post discussing how Trump’s policies were adversely effecting rural voters and that this created an opening for Democratic candidates in 2020. Tariffs have crippled certain agricultural exports to China and Mexico, two of American farmers’ largest export venues. As opposed to the Republican party, farmers also see and feel the dramatic effects of climate change, as illustrated by the fact that the spring planting season for corn and certain grains has been severely constrained by the massive flooding in the Midwest. That flooding has also disrupted farmers’ supply chains because the Mississippi has been unpassable. Farm income is in serious decline and farm bankruptcies are rising.

In addition, a quarter of America’s rural hospitals are in danger of closing while the GOP refuses to address any issue related to health care that doesn’t involve undermining or eliminating the ACA. And Trump’s latest ban on the Chinese technology firms like Huawei may seriously impact rural broadband providers who rely on their cheaper technology.

Surprisingly and disappointingly, many of the comments on that piece basically said that these rural voters are getting what they voted for. That is one way to look at it. But the more effective alternative is to exploit the opening that Trump’s policies have created. And the latest Morning Consult poll on Trump’s approval rating by state is eye-opening, especially in a number of largely rural states.

In Iowa, for instance, Trump’s net approval is -12; in Indiana and Texas, it’s only +3, Nebraska +2, Kansas and North Dakota +1; even in the Mountain West, it’s just +3 in Montana and +2 in Utah. And in the critical swing states of Michigan and Wisconsin, it’s -12 and -13 respectively. For Democrats, there is an opening with rural voters who may be willing to listen to a Democratic candidate that actually has policies to address the crises they are facing. And, in fact, there are a number of existing progressive polices that speak directly to some of the issues facing rural voters.

One of the biggest applause lines for both Warren and Klobuchar at the Heartland Forum in Iowa back in March was their promise to break up the Big Ag monopolies. Bernie Sanders had success in Midwestern farm states in 2016 with a similar message. Farmers are basically stuck in the middle of monopolies on both their supply and demand sides. There is the seed and fertilizer monopoly that farmers are forced to buy from and the grain and livestock monopolies who they are forced to sell to. Seed and fertilizer monopolies push prices higher and the grain and livestock monopolies drive prices lower. Today, just four companies dominate the agricultural seed and chemical market, BASF, Bayer-Monsanto, ChemChina-Syngenta, and Corteva, a spinoff from the merger of Dow and Dupont. Together they control 60% of the global seed market. In the US, the penetration for these companies is often higher. In 2015, these four firms or their predecessors controlled 85% of the US corn seed market and 76% of the market in soybean seeds. Meanwhile, seed prices keep on rising, up over 300% for both corn and soybean from 1994 to 2015. From 2007 to 2017, seed costs per bushel of corn have risen from about $.40 to over $.50 and from around $1.00 to $1.20 for soybeans. Those same four conglomerates also control nearly 70% of the use nitrogen fertilizer market as well.

There is similar concentration on the processing side. Four mega-firms, Cargill, Archer-Daniels Midland, Bunge, and Louis Dreyfus, actually control close to 90% of the world’s grains trading business. Four poultry processing firms control over 50% of the US market. Four beef processing firms control 85% of the US market. The four largest hog processing firms control over two-thirds of the US market and their large operations have driven over 70% of hog farmers out of business since the 1990s. These oligopolies have, in same cases, just divvied up the country, leaving farmers in certain areas with just one or two buyers of the their merchandise. These processing monopolies have kept the prices they pay farmers static while increasing prices for the consumer, pocketing enormous profits by doing so.

But farmers have heard the “break up the Big Ag monopolies” line from Democrats before. It’s shocking to remember that Obama won Indiana in 2008 but part of his success with rural voters was his explicit promise to break up those monopolies. Instead, the administration basically did nothing and farmers felt betrayed, much as they feel betrayed by Trump now heading into 2020. So any Democrat that is really going to make inroads with rural voters needs to show they have something close to a feasible plan, not just a campaign slogan. And the Big Ag lobby in Congress is a powerful force.

While strong anti-trust enforcement is probably the most important message Democrats can take to rural voters, there are other, smaller initiatives that might also resonate. Democrats now largely own the healthcare issue. Focusing on ways to keep those rural hospitals open and providing the services to help deal with the opioid crisis and mental health issues is another avenue for inroads with rural voters. Climate change is another issue that the GOP refuses to confront and Democrats have an advantage, but capitalizing on that requires strategies that mitigate the negative impacts of not only climate change but also the efforts to combat it on rural communities. Expanding air service and breaking the monopolies on freight rail services are other smaller bore initiatives. Rural broadband is also an important issue, not so rural voters can learn to code, but so that they can most effectively use the advanced technology that can make farming more efficient. New high technology farm products and vehicles can allow farmers to use less water and pesticides and plow, plant, weed, and harvest more efficiently and with less manpower. It is also important not to let these technologies be absorbed into the farm machinery monopoly and pass “right to repair” laws that would bar those monopolies from forcing farmers to use their services for equipment repair.

Finally, Democrats simply need to show up and make their case to rural voters. That is true both at the national level but at the state and local level as well. Democrats already made some progress in Iowa and Kansas in 2018. Yes, the election will come probably come down to Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin, and Democrats are focused on winning back the disaffected industrial labor force in those states. But it would also seem worthwhile to see a leading Democratic presidential contender taking a bus tour through rural Wisconsin, Minnesota, Iowa, Nebraska, and Kansas, connecting with local candidates along the way.

It may be that chasing rural voters is a fool’s errand and that cultural issues will, forgive my phrasing, trump anything the Democrats could offer. But it appears that Trump’s unpopularity has given Democrats a chance to actually be heard by rural voters. It would be a shame if they wasted that opportunity.

Thoughtful discussions on politics and economics with some sidelights in photography and astronomy.

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