For those of us who read polls like tea leaves, hoping to discern a pattern that will give us insight into what Americans will do in the next election, the recent Rural America poll sponsored by NPR was a shocker. Generally, reading polls is like reading tea leaves--and about as accurate. You may be able to perceive opinion trends, but how these correlate to what people do in the election booth, that's an iffier prospect. But this latest poll is dramatically at odds with conventional wisdom that it looks like it may actually mean something.
Forty-six percent of the survey respondents indicated they'd vote for an un-named Democratic candidate for president if the election were held today; 43 percent favored a Republican.... The numbers reflect a plunge in Republican support among rural voters. Exit polls from the 2000 presidential election had Republican George Bush beating Democrat Al Gore by 22 per cent in rural areas. In 2004, the actual vote tally showed President Bush outpolling his Democratic challenger, Sen. John Kerry, by 19 percent among rural voters.
NPR credits the war in Iraq as the main cause for the shift, and it's clearly a factor; they note that "three-fourths of those surveyed know someone who is serving or has served in the wars in Iraq or Afghanistan." But digging a little deeper, I notice a trend that should be a lot more alarming for Republicans. When compared with average Americans, rural voters feel far less prosperous and see themselves as having far worse prospects in the future.
Pollsters asked respondents to describe whether certain words applied to rural America and then whether it applied to the country as a whole. Seventy percent believed "prosperous" applied to the country, but only 42% thought it applied to rural America. Similarly, 64% thought "increasing opportunity" applied to the country, but only 39% to rural America.
More predictably, they believed rural America was more strongly oriented toward "traditional values" (80%-56%) and "strong family values" (85%-62%) than the country as a whole. These are the elements the GOP has highlighted for decades, but it apparently they are no longer enough to keep rural voters reliably loyal.
There are three statewide races in '08 (attorney general, secretary of state, treasurer), in addition to Gordon Smith's Senate seat. Conventional wisdom holds that it's the swing districts in Clackamas and Washington County where the real race is. But this assumes that Republicans have the rural districts sewn up. Perhaps that assumption isn't accurate.
Historically, Democrats did a lot better in rural America exactly because they focused on economic fairness issues. We don't know whether these results would be mirrored in Oregon. (Western politics tend not to line up like rural/urban politics of the South and NE.) And yet, the economic concerns are surely as dire in rural Oregon. So, could we be at one of those historic moments when traditional political coalitions collapse and regroup? Maybe the polls are telling us something. It's definitely worth keeping an eye on in 2008.