The first political wisdom ever sent my way came from the gravelly throat of Everett Dirksen.
During Dirksen’s 1968 reelection stop in my southern Illinois hometown, I asked the white-maned Senate Minority Leader how he’d outflank Mayor Daley’s Chicago vote machine.
“Never fear,” croaked Dirksen while waving his ever-present cigarette, “The South will rise again and carry me to the Promised Land.”
Lethally accurate. Silver-tongued Ev was right – on both counts. His near-sweep of rural southern Illinois overwhelmed Daley’s Cook(ed) County total and he won reelection. The following September, he was dead.
Dirksen’s forecast came to mind as Republicans and Democrats spent the post- Nov. 2 week digesting election results.
The analysis was as predictable as the conversation around a poker table: The winners laughed and told jokes; the losers cried “Deal, deal!”
Overlooked was the fact that the Dems didn’t need more cards. They had five good ones – Iraq, budget deficits, job losses, free trade and health care reform – and they misplayed every one of them.
That was especially so with rural voters who single-handedly reelected President Bush and delivered bigger majorities to Congressional Republicans. The evidence for both rests in the state-by-state vote totals.
For example, George Bush claimed the White House when he won Ohio by a scant 136,503 votes. He pulled off the feat just as Old Ev had in 1968: Statewide, Bush carried Ohio’s rural counties by 164,000 votes.
Republicans gained in the Senate by banking huge rural majorities that overcame urban Democratic votes in states like North Carolina, South Carolina, Louisiana, Florida, Georgia.
All had one Democratic senator in the 108th Congress; all will have new Republican senators in the 109th. (Interestingly, the 11 southern states of the old Confederacy favored the president by a collective 4,937,000 votes.
Since Bush won the national popular vote by just 3,480,401 votes, Democrats could argue that Bush lost the other 39 states by 1,457,600 votes.)
After studying their belly buttons for a while, Dems rightly fingered rural voters as the group that sank ‘em. But Dems were dead wrong to blame their failure to win rural hearts and minds as a “metro versus retro” difference: Them hicks in the sticks aren’t sophisticated enough to vote their economic interests.
While dumbness played a role in the election, weez yokels wasn’t the stars. First, the rural vote was easing away from Bush and toward Kerry in the mid-October poll of rural voters by the Center for Rural Strategies. The spread always favored Bush, but his 13-point advantage in September had slipped to 12 in October.
Kerry took a walk. And there was room for it to skid more. In June, Bush’s rural advantage had been just nine points. But then, while George Bush was posing in front of hay bales, John Kerry was taking a 12-gauge for a walk.
With the election in the balance, Kerry made no effort to explain to rural voters how his jobs, budget, Iraq, health care and trade proposals would be better for farmers, ranchers and country dwellers than what they already had with Bush.
The Bush campaign saw the opening and – well aware of rural America’s cultural modesty – stepped into the void. In the final 10 days of the campaign, rural voters broke hard for the president.
Democrats were originators. Polling now suggests that Bush’s 11-point, 2000 win among rural voters ballooned to nearly 20 points in 2004. And it was easy. Rarely did Kerry and his surrogates point out to rural America that Democrats were the originators and defenders of programs farmers and rural communities depend on – commodity price supports, soil and water conservation, country of origin labeling, Social Security, Medicare, rural broadband and the like.
That left open the door for rural voters to move to perceived differences – core rural values like trust, faith and hope – as Nov. 2 approached.
Skating, slipping. Moreover, Bush and the Republicans didn’t have to defend their farm and rural development policies even once. How ironic, eh? In an election that pivoted on rural voters, neither candidate seriously discussed rural policy. One skated to victory while the other let it slip away.
(Alan Guebert’s Farm and Food File is published weekly in more than 75 newspapers in North America. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.)