U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack

With a cardboard cutout of Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton in front of him, U.S. Agriculture Secretary and former Iowa governor Tom Vilsack speaks Sunday at the Central Iowa Democrats' fundraiser at Iowa State University's Hansen Agriculture Student Learning Center in Ames.

ERIN MURPHY, TIMES BUREAU

DES MOINES -- Rural Iowa shifted its political direction in 2016 and caught Democrats off guard.

The conversation of how to earn back those votes is dominating the conversation among Democrats these days. 

It was the focus by speakers at a recent fundraiser held by Democrats from Polk County, which is dominated by the city of Des Moines and its suburbs, as they talked about the party’s need to reach voters outside the state’s biggest cities.

This week in Des Moines, Democrats gathered again to discuss the need to regain the trust of rural voters at an event organized by a new national advocacy group formed for the sole purpose of having that conversation.

“We have to make our argument with courage, and we have to make it everywhere,” said Jason Kander, a former Missouri secretary of state and Democratic candidate for U.S. Senate in 2016.

Kander was one of the speakers at the event in Des Moines hosted by New Democracy, an advocacy group formed to help expand Democrats’ appeal in the Midwest, the region that Democrats’ losses took the biggest hit in the 2016 elections. Formerly blue states like Iowa, Wisconsin, Michigan, Ohio and Pennsylvania all flipped to Republicans in the presidential election.

That swing was magnified in Iowa, a state that went twice for Democrat Barack Obama but in 2016 went for Republican Donald Trump by almost 10 percentage points.

From the 2012 to 2016 elections, the state swung nearly 15 points from the Democratic candidate to the Republican.

Obama won 38 counties in 2012; 32 of those went for Trump in 2016.

Most of those 32 counties that swung away from Democrats were in rural areas, particularly in eastern Iowa.

“(The 2016 election) brought home a reality that we were dimly aware of, but were not focused on,” said Will Marshall, who formed New Democracy. “We have to expand the party and we have to expand in all directions, reaching beyond our core partisans and engaging voters who are not now Democrats or are not now voting for us.”

Marshall added, “We have to go everywhere and build real, winning coalitions and majorities again.”

So how do Democrats earn the support of rural voters?

“Before the Democrats can win over the folks you mention, they have to get these folks to be willing to listen to them,” said Dennis Goldford, a political science professor at Drake University and author of a book on Iowa’s first-in-the-nation presidential caucuses. “You don’t do that with a list of policy proposals; you do that by presenting an overarching vision for the country that respects them and includes them.”

“Calling them delplorables or focusing on an identity politics that speaks to every group that’s not them will not accomplish that,” Goldford said.

That message seems to be getting through to Democrats. 

“What happened in Iowa (in 2016) unfortunately and tragically has happened all over the United States. Because our party, for whatever reason, stopped showing up and stopped competing effectively in rural areas,” said Tom Vilsack, the former two-term Iowa governor and U.S. ag secretary for all eight years of the Obama administration. “We stopped understanding the hopes, the dreams, the aspirations, and yes the frustration and anger of those who live, work and raise their families in rural areas. We forgot how to talk to folks, and when we did we often talked down.”

How Democrats talk to rural voters is a problem, said John Anzalone, a Democratic pollster. The website for the polling firm ALG Research, in which Anzalone is a partner, believes he has helped beat more incumbent Republicans and take back more Republican seats than any other polling firm in the nation.

Anzalone said Democrats can get trapped by holding hard-core stances on issues like immigration, and by holding contempt for voters who don’t agree 100 percent with their stance on the issue.

“The problem is is that ... we, generally, as Democrats, if they have those feelings, we kind of treat them like idiots. We condescend, literally treat them like idiots in elections,” Anzalone said. “And I think that this is a really big problem that we have to figure out, to understand that their values and their concerns aren’t ones that we can just dismiss, in small towns or big towns. Because a lot of what I’m talking about is actually in suburbia, in a place like West Des Moines.”

Anzalone said, when that happens, as Goldford alluded to, voters will tune out Democrats regardless of whether they are talking about the right issues.

Many Democrats have said they must shift their message in 2018 and beyond to focus on jobs and the economy. But, Anzalone said, none of that will matter unless Democrats first learn how to talk to voters on issues with which they may not perfectly align with Democrats.

“We want to talk about believing that there is a magic fairy dust on our economic message,” Anzalone said. 

Democrats can do that simply by being genuine, multiple leaders say.

Kander said, while there is a debate within the party about which direction it should go ideologically -- more to the left or more to the center -- he feels it’s more important for Democrats to be genuine and honest, and that voters will respond better to that regardless of the candidate’s ideology.

Kansas City mayor Sly James said it’s about listening, not pandering.

“It’s not about putting on overalls, sitting on a tractor and acting like you know what it’s about,” James said. “That ain’t what it’s about. It’s about listening to them.”

If Democrats do that -- simply listen -- they may begin to win back those rural voters they have lost, said Matt McCoy, an Iowa state senator from Des Moines.

“Our future is not how we talk to rural Iowa,” McCoy said, “but rather how we listen.”

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