New York Mayor Bill de Blasio officially entered the Democratic presidential race Thursday. The leader of the country’s largest city vowed to focus on “working Americans,” emphasizing how, as mayor, he increased the minimum wage, took steps to guarantee universal health care and expanded free early-childhood education.
“We built an agenda that puts working families first. We had to fight all over the city, all over the state to make sure people got a decent wage,” he said in his announcement video.
But will Democrats outside the biggest U.S. cities warm to de Blasio’s candidacy? While he isn’t the only Democratic candidate who built his career in large urban centers — Sen. Kamala D. Harris rose up in San Francisco, and Sen. Elizabeth Warren launched her political career in Boston — he is one of the only candidates without experience representing suburban or rural voters.
Making a case for them will be important. President Trump overwhelmingly carried rural voters in 2016, doing significantly better than Republican presidential nominees in the four previous elections. Even so, a third of all rural voters supported Hillary Clinton. In a tight election, a small increase in Democratic support in rural areas could make the difference in states like Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. As David Axelrod, who served as President Barack Obama’s chief strategist, told The Washington Post’s Holly Bailey: “Losing 70-30 is different than 80-20. When you look at how close those states were that we lost to Donald Trump, those votes can make a difference.”
To win over voters, Democrats like de Blasio will have to talk about the economy. Rural Americans often express concerns about the lack of jobs in their communities. Two-thirds of respondents to a Post survey rated local job opportunities as fair or poor. And de Blasio has entered the race the same week many rural Americans complained about the president’s trade policies and the impact they will have on farms.
De Blasio’s track record working on issues like a minimum wage hike, free preschool and free health care could also be attractive to rural voters. According to the Pew Research Center data, half of rural voters say the government should do more to solve problems.
There are reasons for caution, too. The most recent big city mayor to make a serious bid for the Oval Office also came through New York City: Rudolph W. Giuliani. The former mayor turned Trump’s personal lawyer did not have any strong primary showings when he ran in 2008 — especially in states with large numbers of rural voters. He finished sixth in Iowa, sixth in South Carolina and sixth in Nevada.
De Blasio may also struggle to convince rural voters he understands their needs. Nearly 7 in 10 rural residents say their values differ from people who live in big cities, according to a 2017 Washington Post-Kaiser Family Foundation survey.
That plays out in de Blasio’s own state. In New York, the urban-rural divide is a regular topic of conversation in statewide politics, so much so that following the 2018 midterm elections, Gerard T. Mundy, a philosophy professor in New York City, asked in the American Conservative: “With New York State increasingly divided between its dominant urban progressives and everyone else, is it time for it to split into smaller states?”
Given that, one of the most significant issues de Blasio may have to address is the perception that the Democratic Party is led by elite urbanists who are dismissive toward rural Americans. While most rural voters eventually gave their vote to a billionaire who lived on Park Avenue, it was in part because Trump was able to convince them that he had their best interest in mind in ways that Clinton did not.
A big city mayor might face that same challenge. The last Democrat to win rural voters was Bill Clinton, an Arkansas native. But things could shift in 2020.
Spenser Jorgensen, 32, who farms about 3,500 acres with his father and brother west of Adair, Iowa, told The Post he is looking at candidates on both sides of the aisle interested in improving the lives of those in rural America.
“It’s not just about me. I want someone with a vision for the industry, for the community . . . It doesn’t matter if they are Republican, Democrat, independent. I want someone who really gets what’s going on out here and who has the best plan for the future.”