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.
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.