The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Why rural voters don’t vote Democratic anymore

Rep. Collin C. Peterson (D-Minn.) gestures in this 2008 file photo.

U.S. Rep. Collin C. Peterson of Minnesota is one of the last members of a dying breed: the rural conservative Democrat. He has represented Minnesota's 7th Congressional District for a quarter-century, since 1991. The district encompasses most of the western half of the state. It's farm country, a broad swath of fields and open prairie running from the South Dakota border all the way up to Canada.

The people Peterson represents are overwhelmingly white and moderately conservative. According to the Cook Political Report, Peterson was one of nine Democrats sent to Congress from a district that voted for Romney in 2012.

Most counties in Peterson's district swung hard toward Trump this year, by margins of 20, 30, 40 percentage points or more. But Peterson himself still earned 52.5 percent of the vote, enough to head to Congress for a 14th term.

In a conversation with The Washington Post, Peterson said that Donald Trump owes his victory to rural voters who feel they've been abandoned by a Democratic Party that has become increasingly urban and liberal. That abandonment has happened in part because of Republican efforts to gerrymander Democratic voters into tightly packed urban districts, he said. Few Democratic lawmakers now represent rural districts such as Peterson's, where voters care more about agricultural policy and trade than they do about gun control, LGBT issues or questions about minority representation.

Unless Democrats are able to regain control of governorships and statehouses before the 2020 Census to “un-gerrymander” the districts, that dynamic's not likely to change, no matter what policy proposals Democrats put on the table.

The following transcript has been edited for length and clarity, and links have been added for context.

The Washington Post: What kind of things had you been hearing from voters in this district in the run-up to the election? What issues and policies were people concerned about? 

Collin Peterson: They talked to me about farm programs and farm prices. Different specific issues that deal with agriculture. But I could tell something was going on. Just the amount of Trump signs that were out there.

TWP: More than usual?

CP: Way more. It was clear that [the number] just kept growing, and there were no Clinton signs. People were fed up. It was kind of interesting: They didn't really want to talk about it too much. And then after the election, it's kind of like they've been unleashed.

TWP: What do you mean by “unleashed”?

CP: A lot of it is backlash against all this political correctness that's going on. That's what I hear from people, and I was hearing that before the election, too.

They don't like the government telling them what to do or telling them how to live their lives. They think [the government is] coddling people, like when people's feelings are hurt at the colleges and they send somebody in to make them feel better. Stuff like that drives [voters here] crazy.

I heard a lot about the Affordable Care Act, too. About how people in the individual market were getting clobbered with all these increases, which is a legitimate issue. You know what the economics are like in Red Lake County. There's no way a family can pay $15,000, $20,000 a year for health insurance and make it work. You just can't do it. It's got to change.

I always run ahead of the ticket [compared to Democratic presidential candidates]. But this time there were a lot of people that just voted party line, a lot more than usual.

There's no question that Trump got elected because of rural America. And our party still is in denial. They don't get it.

TWP: So what does the Democratic Party need to do to 'get it'? What do they need to start talking about to win these voters back?

CP: Well, I don't know if they can. What's happened is the Republicans have been smart. They've spent a lot of money redistricting and everything, getting control of these governorships and statehouses.

So they packed all the Democrats into districts, very Democratic districts. What that's done is made our party urban, more liberal, and so those people are doing what their constituents want. But that's not what my constituents want.

I don't know how you change that. There's hardly anybody left like me in the Democratic Party in Congress. These districts have been so gerrymandered that, in most of them, a Democrat can't win. Somebody like me trying to start off today, he'd never get endorsed. Because I'm too conservative.

So it's a problem. Pushing gun control drives people [in my district] crazy, gay marriage, abortion, deficit spending, you name it. All of that stuff adds up to be a problem for Democrats.

TWP: Trade's been a big issue in the campaign. Do you hear a lot about that from voters out here?

CP: Yeah, that was clearly a factor. That was a complete reversal of where things are normally at. Usually Republicans are all for free trade. Sanders tapped into that; that was part of his support. And then when he didn't make it, some of those Sanders people went to Trump.

I agree with Trump: These trade agreements have not been good deals for America, and they need to be fixed. I fought NAFTA when it passed; it has been a big disaster for us, in my opinion. If we can renegotiate that, it would be wonderful.

TWP: What have you heard from voters up here about how they've been affected by NAFTA or how they'd be affected by the Trans-Pacific Partnership [TPP]?

CP: Well, the sugar guys have been dealing with NAFTA ever since it passed. Now we've got Mexico dumping sugar that's subsidized by the Mexican government into our market in violation of the World Trade Organization, because NAFTA gave them open access to our sugar market. They claim they're not subsidized, but the government owns half the industry in Mexico.

NAFTA's been a big problem for sugar. And when it [NAFTA] was sold, we were supposed to get two or three times more exports to Canada or Mexico than they exported to us. It's been the exact opposite.

TWP: So there's a big discussion happening within the Democratic coalition right now, about how the focus on issues of plurality and diversity and minority rights are essentially shutting rural voters out of the discussion. What do you make of that?

CP: I think that's unfortunately true. We have become a party of assembling all these different groups, the women's caucus and the black caucus and the Hispanic caucus and the lesbian-gay-transgender caucus and so forth, and that doesn't relate to people out in rural America. The party's become an urban party, and they don't get rural America. They don't get agriculture.

TWP: From a purely practical standpoint, is there anything Democrats can do policy-wise to reach out to these rural voters, or do they essentially have to write them off?

Well, they have written them off. Some of the people in my caucus, some of the people in the state party in Minnesota have basically said, “We don't want to deal with these guys because they're too conservative,” or “We don't agree with them on social issues.”

But you can't have a majority party in Minnesota or throughout the country without [support from] the people in these [rural] districts. Given the position [the Democratic Party] has taken, it's very hard to see how you can do that.

The only thing I can think to do is if the Democratic Party can do what the Republicans have done, which is go in there and take control of these legislatures and governors' areas. Try to un-gerrymander these districts so that you're not packing all the Democrats into one district, so you've got districts that are competitive, so that you've got a shot at electing Democrats. But that's more a long-term proposition, if it can even be done.

TWP: So in your view, gerrymandering is the cause of the increasing urbanization of the Democratic Party?

CP: There's no question about it. If you look at the map, there's hardly any [Democrats representing rural districts]. There's me, [Rick] Nolan, [Tim] Walz, [Dave] Loebsack and Cheri Bustos. So that's five. And all the rest of them are in urban cities. That's a problem.

If everybody in our caucus had a 50/50 [Democrat/Republican] district, we'd have a lot different discussion. But if they have a 90 percent Democratic district, they don't ever talk to a Republican, they don't have to and they don't want to.

TWP: If you were to have readers in cities like D.C. understand one thing about voters in your district, what would it be?

They have a different view of the world than people do in these urban centers. They have a different lifestyle, and they don't want to change it. They're happy with the way things are. It's causing the party political problems.