Against Their Own Interest:
Why the Rural Poor
Vote Republican

Romney campain sign.

The $250 million man, Mitt Romney, apparently has friends in trailer parks. Once the election has past, will these folks be even a blip on his radar screen?

A recent poll has Romney with a 5 point lead over Obama in Maine’s 2nd District, which encompasses the poorer, less educated, more rural, northern parts of the state.

A CNN poll showed that nationally, in the last midterm election, 41% of those earning below $30,000 voted Republican.

In 2012, the rural vote seems to be trending  strongly toward the Republicans on a nationwide basis.  One recent nonpartisan poll  shows Romney leading Obama 59 percent to 37 percent  among rural voters in battleground states.

How can this be?

How is it that so many of the rural poor cast their votes for Republican candidates who differentiate themselves from their Democratic rivals primarily by their promises to shrink the social safety net and reduce taxes on the rich?

Thomas Frank’s book, What’s the Matter With Kansas? takes on this question, and  returns the answer that conservatives have co-opted the votes of the poor largely by focusing campaigns on hot-button social issues such as abortion and gay marriage.

Conservatives have been very successful at propagating the words that the media and ultimately the public use to talk about issues.  Being a beneficiary of government programs is “dependency.”  Taxes are “job-killers.”  The wealthy are “job creators.”  Any step toward government intervention is “socialism.”  The word “government” itself has been assigned a negative connotation.  The previously accepted citizen duty to pay taxes is an imposition on ones “personal freedom.”  The repetition of these terms, especially in the conservative media, undoubtedly influences how people think — and, unfortunately, the less educated the person, the more compelling the language.

A  factor contributing to the present “unpopularity” of government social programs is a lack of understanding of what those programs are.  According to a New York Times article, “Many beneficiaries of government programs seem confused about their own place in the system. According to the article, 44 percent of Social Security recipients, 43 percent of those receiving unemployment benefits, and 40 percent of those on Medicare say that they “have not used a government program.”

The irony, of course, is that many who state they are opposed to government programs are actually beneficiaries of government support — they just don’t think of it that way.

This is overstatement, of course, but it also contains some truth. The question is, “Why do so many of the poor and working poor vote against their own economic best interest?”

Another factor that helps conservative candidates  attract less educated voters is that their ideology tends to fall on the less nuanced, more straightforward, more gut-response side of issues.  “Protect the unborn!”  “Eliminate the death tax!”  “Defend Israel no matter what.” “Welfare creates dependency.”    “Illegal aliens should self-deport.”  On some levels, it is difficult to present arguments against this kind of thinking.

Rural people in general and rural Mainers in particular tend to be independent-minded and skeptical of government.  The bigger and more distant the government, the higher the degree of skepticism.  This plays well into support for conservatives due to the Republican mantra of “smaller government.”

It is also important to acknowledge the role that the church plays in shoring up the rural conservative vote.  Especially for people with few social outlets, the church and the worldview offered within its walls can play a compelling role.  Adding to this, the rural poor attend church at a higher rate than other groups. A 2008 study found  church attendance in poor rural communities to be nearly double that in wealthier, more urban communities.  Not all rural churches are conservative-leaning, of course, but — for whatever reason — it seems the vast majority of them are.

It’s disheartening to think of so many of America’s downtrodden voting for candidates whose plan for the poor consists of (1) trickle down; and (2) admonitions to get up off the couch.  Unfortunately, there may not be much Democrats can do to change this between now and November 6 — so we just have to hope that the poor are smarter than  conservatives think.

Paul LePage Drops Out: National Governor’s Association Not Worth His Time

Like a dog in a library . . .

Paul LePage recently announced that he is withdrawing Maine from membership in the National Governor’s Association.  According to LePage, he is doing so because the $0.04-per-Maine-citizen cost is excessive, considering that he isn’t “getting anything out of it.”

As we know from the mural reversal and other issues, LePage is not always forthcoming about his motivations.   Therefore, we should take his stated reason for pulling out of the National Governor’s Association with a grain of salt.

Since we can’t take LePage’s word for it, we can only speculate.  The real reason for LePage’s action is almost certainly one of the following:

(1) It just might be true, as LePage has stated, that there is little value to be gained from spending time with the top governorial minds in America.  However, to the uninitiated at least,  the organization seems to offer some value. The mission of the NGA, as stated on their website, reads “. . .  the bipartisan organization of the nation’s governors—promotes visionary state leadership, shares best practices and speaks with a collective voice on national policy.”    Current areas of focus include providing job opportunities for the disabled, developing policy for funding pensions, and reducing expenditures for inmate healthcare.  Sounds to us like practical stuff — and that the $60,000 could potentially be recouped in a hurry.  But then, on the other hand, LePage seems to get plenty of advice from the American Legislative Exchange Council for free.

(2) It may be that the NGA meetings actually offer a great deal of value but that LePage, like a dog in a library, is not able to access that value.  For a man whose talent in political discourse often is limited to three word sentences such as, “Kiss my butt,” participating in more sophisticated discourse may be a stretch.  When a student drops of out college, it generally tells us more about the student than about the college, and that probably is true in this case.

(3) It could likely be that LePage, with his “looked-down-upon Maine education” simply feels out of his league.  Being around dozens of brighter minds undoubtedly makes him feel inferior.  Besides some of the words other governors use likely have more than six letters in them, and they don’t all lace their conversation with profanity or tell old jokes about nuns.

(4) It may be that LePage hopes that dropping out out of a national bi-partisan organization during campaign season sends a political message and heightens his cred as a tough guy who is minding the bottom line.  (No matter that that the state owes millions for medicaid overpayments).  What we would say to that is that true courage involves sitting down with your political enemies and opening your mind to ideas that do not conform to your worldview.  LePage, however, has never shown any interest in doing this.

On the government level, there has been little flap about the governor’s decision.  Even Emily Cain, perhaps eager for an opportunity to support SOMETHING the governor does, seemed to approve of the decision.  However, a closer look at her remarks shows that her fingers are not necessarily being pointed at the NGA.  “You should always be asking, ‘Am I getting something out of this that benefits the people of Maine and the state of Maine?’” she said.  The subtext of her response seems to be that if LePage isn’t getting anything out of the meetings — and if he is going to skip out early as he did last year — there is really no point to sending him.