President Donald Trump, down in the polls, is hoping to draw in the same strong support from rural voters in Midwestern battleground states that propelled him into the White House in 2016 and stunned Democrats.
But this time, he has to defend a first-term record, which includes tariff fights and biofuel policies that have had painful results for the rural economy, as well as his handling of a pandemic that is hitting small towns and rural regions especially hard.
At the Republican National Convention this week, the party has lined up prominent farm-state officials to make the case for Trump. Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds spoke Tuesday night and Sen. Joni Ernst is speaking Wednesday. The president has also enlisted a coalition of familiar faces to help sell his record to rural voters over the next 10 weeks.
Charles Herbster, Trump’s top agricultural adviser in 2016, is back as chairman of the Farmers and Ranchers for Trump committee. The 19-member group also includes Sam Clovis, Trump’s chief policy adviser in 2016 and the president’s ex-nominee for chief scientist at USDA; Texas Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller, an early and avid Trump supporter; and former Nebraska Gov. Dave Heineman, another 2016 campaign agriculture adviser.
Trump’s most important rural ambassador remains Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue. The former Georgia governor has visited all 50 states as secretary, repeatedly vouched for the president’s affinity for farmers, and promoted billions of dollars in taxpayer-financed aid programs that helped producers stay afloat amid Trump’s bruising trade wars.
Randy Poskin, a corn and soybean farmer in Illinois, said the USDA chief was a key reason that many in the industry feel most comfortable with Trump in the White House. “We’ve got an ear right into the administration through him,” he said of Perdue.
Still, convincing farm-state voters to give Trump another four years could be trickier in 2020. Unlike other industries upended by the coronavirus, agriculture has been in a downturn for years.
Trump’s fate in November could largely depend on how much backlash he faces in key states like Pennsylvania and Wisconsin from voters feeling the ripple effects from weakness in agriculture and the economy at large.
There are several black marks on Trump’s record for crucial states in the Midwest, especially the administration’s heavy use of biofuel blending waivers for oil refiners that has enraged corn growers and ethanol producers.
The U.S. is also struggling to manage the public health crisis, which is particularly acute in many rural communities that have fewer resources to cope with hot spots. And Trump’s recent moves to undermine the U.S. Postal Service could backfire with rural voters who depend on mail carriers to receive their bills, paychecks and medications.
Even a tiny drop in rural enthusiasm could make all the difference in swing states that were decided by the thinnest margins in 2016. Meanwhile, Joe Biden’s campaign is making a concerted push to chip away at Trump’s rural support.
So far, the Trump campaign is finding success in hanging onto that base by pitching farmers and ranchers on the administration’s deregulatory record. It has also been making the case that Biden’s policies, such as his plans to combat climate change, are bad for their bottom lines.
That messaging alone could be enough to keep many farmers in Trump’s corner.
“I’m not a huge fan of the guy as a person, but the Democratic Party just scares the bejesus out of us,” said Poskin, the Illinois farmer, citing Democratic climate policies like the progressive Green New Deal. “People aren’t entirely pleased, but they have nowhere else to go.”
Gregory Wawro, a political science professor at Columbia University, said massive rural turnout will be even more critical for Trump this year to offset the likely dropoff in support from suburban voters that he’s alienated.
“A lot of rural voters who supported him in 2016 support him even more strongly now,” Wawro said. “The question is, are there enough individuals in these rural regions to make up for whatever losses he might experience in the suburbs?”
When he delivers his convention speech Thursday night, the president can safely tout his popularity among those in agriculture, who remain a fiercely loyal voting bloc for Trump. He can also point to his new trade deal with Canada and Mexico that included some modest wins for dairy producers, wheat growers and other sectors, as well as his dismantling of the Obama administration’s Waters of the U.S. rule that was widely despised in farm country.
The campaign is also gambling that most voters in farming regions won’t blame Trump for the downturn — and instead will credit the president for the unprecedented bailout checks he’s steered to farm states to help stem their losses. Trump has frequently cited those payments as his most precious gift to agriculture.
“Nobody else, no other president would have done that,” he said at an event with North Carolina farmers and food distributors on Monday.
At the event, Trump’s top rural ambassador suggested that the president is shoring up support among his base partly through the farm relief programs USDA has implemented, like a food box program aimed at distributing surplus food to those in need during the pandemic, which they were there to tout.
Perdue hailed Trump as an advocate for the “forgotten people that voted for you in 2016,” vowing that “they and many others are going to vote for you for four more years in 2020.”
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