We know Democrats have an electoral lock on urban residents while Republicans, especially under President Trump, dominate in rural areas. In suburbs outside major metropolitan centers, Democrats in 2018 had the advantage and, so long as Republicans stay on their anti-science, anti-immigration, anti-civility jag, that is unlikely to change. That leaves one geographic segment still up for grabs — and it happens to be the one where solid policy choices could produce positive results.
Donald Trump is nearly as unpopular in small towns as he is in suburban areas and cities, signaling potential trouble for his re-election prospects, according to a survey that highlights the Republican president’s vulnerabilities.
The latest Grinnell College National Poll also shows just less than a third of Americans say they definitely plan to vote for him in 2020, while 41 percent say they’re certain to cast a ballot for someone else.
In rural areas — not including those living in small towns — 46 percent say they’ll definitely vote for him for a second term. But in all other geographic areas, there’s much higher skepticism about a second Trump term. Just 33 percent of those in small towns definitely plan to vote for him, while 27 percent in suburbs and 24 percent in cities say they will.
That suggests an opening for Democrats to make headway, even in red states.
Certainly, part of the answer is to run geographically-appropriate candidates, as the Democratic Party did last month in suburban districts. That generally requires more centrist candidates. However, in order to make progress in these small towns, Democrats will need an agenda. Fortunately, there are plenty of good ideas out there — ones that will fit in well with the rest of an economic package designed to help those who have not prospered in the globalized economy.
Nathan Arnosti and Amy Liu, scholars at the Brookings Institution, write, “There are real economic challenges confronting small towns, many of which struggle to add jobs and retain population in today’s knowledge-driven economy.” One could try to induce more Americans to move to bigger cities, but that’s not realistic or desirable for many. Instead, Arnosti and Liu suggest:
A more strategic approach would aim to accelerate economic growth across mid-sized metro areas and micropolitan areas that are accessible to nearby rural areas. Imagine the state of Illinois not just anchored by the Chicago metro area, but by a network of other vibrant communities like Rockford, Peoria, Decatur, and Champaign-Urbana, which in turn offer opportunities for surrounding rural communities. Micropolitan areas like Traverse City, Mich., Corning, N.Y., and Kalispell, Mont., could serve as stronger centers of jobs, finance, and opportunities for rural households.
What kind of support would that entail? The authors recommend four approaches:
First, “to support economic growth in cities, these officials should provide additional flexibility and resources for smart, cross-sector economic planning at a local scale.” That means block grants rather than infrastructure or other development projects directed from Washington, D.C.
Second, while it’s not realistic for a small town to lure a major corporation to set up shop, “industry clusters” focused on small manufacturing and local supply chains can succeed.
Third, beefing up existing educational resources and adding new ones can increase the local talent pool. (“Digital skills are increasingly valued in today’s economy, and places that provide forward-looking educational opportunities to their students will help prepare them for jobs and launch new businesses. Furthermore, research institutions themselves are economic anchors that bring investment and workers into communities.”)
Finally, a range of programs to narrow the divide between huge urban centers and rural areas (including the small town within them) are needed. This includes “new digital skills training, renewed focus on closing broadband access and subscription divides, commuter subsidies, and . . . funding for existing programs that promote regional competitiveness, including federal R&D expenditures and the Manufacturing Extension Partnership.”
In other words, boosting the prospects of small towns both enriches them and the rural areas around them.
Democrats should keep in mind one additional advantage: Trump — not to mention his billionaire advisers, indicted cronies and former paramours — doesn’t remotely symbolize small-town values. Democrats would do well to make the case that they, not the Republicans, represent values such as empathy, community, family unity, self-discipline and hard work. Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) talks about the “dignity" of work; Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) is another Democrat who seems to channel the temperament and concerns of Americans who don’t live in big cities.
As in so many other arenas, Trump and the Republicans do a good job of talking about small-town America, but their “solutions” — xenophobia, bringing back coal, protectionism — are either useless or even counterproductive (as we saw with the president’s tariffs). Republicans still seem allergic to using government in positive ways to even help their own constituents. That may be in part why small towns — like the suburbs near big cities — have grown disenchanted with Trump. Democrats, therefore, have an opportunity to marry good policy and good politics.