How are rural people feeling about the future? What are they concerned about? What do they value? Pollster Celinda Lake talks with Center for Rural Strategies President Dee Davis about the findings of a soon-to-be-released poll that explores what’s on the mind of rural voters in 2023.
“We really asked questions to get beyond the surface, and we looked in-depth at concerns and values and then support for policies,” Lake says. “And what I loved about it was that the poll was really defying a lot of conventional wisdom.”
Top concerns: rising costs of food
Lake: When we looked at what people were really concerned about, the number one thing that they were concerned about was the cost of food and the rising cost of living in general, but particularly the rising cost of food. There was a time when concern was much more immediate about jobs, and now it’s really about wages and what those jobs pay and whether you can just meet the costs of living. Even if rising prices go down, will they go down to what they were before? Will wages keep up? And rural America is really pressed in that regard.
Top values: family and freedom
Lake: The number one value in rural America was family. And that’s not surprising. 35% of the voters said, “This is one of the two most important values to me.” But right behind it was freedom — 31%.
Values that cross partisan lines
Lake: What we saw was people really clustered around a set of orientations to improve life in their communities.
When you’ve got a crisis, when you’ve got a sick family member in rural America, when you’ve got a crisis and your barn burns down, people don’t ask each other, ‘Is that a Democratic family? Is that a Republican family?’ No, they cook the covered dish, take it over. They join and bring some wood, and re-raise the barn. They go look for the cattle that got out. And so I think that’s a really, really important piece of rural America is that they want to come together and solve these problems and work for problems that are affecting everyone.
We saw in the policies that things that people really wanted to join together on (were) they felt that they really needed to reduce inflation and make things more affordable, from gas to groceries, prescription drugs. The cost of living is just too expensive for rural families, and rural incomes are just not keeping up.
Dee Davis: Hi, today I’m here with my pal Celinda Lake, a real legendary pollster and one whose work I’ve followed for years. I don’t want to say how many years, but it’s really been so beneficial to us in our rural work, and in the past year, we decided to take on a project looking at perceptions of rural economy, how people in rural communities were feeling, what they were looking at in terms of values, ideas for policy, and we needed help. And so I reached out to Celinda, who’s been great and helpful in this process. And I would just like to say, first of all, welcome, Celinda. Thank you for-
Celinda Lake: Thank you.
Dee Davis: … being here. And also, I’d like to talk a little bit about the way we think of rural people, and the way rural people think of themselves. I know a lot of times I hear rural people described as looking backwards or nostalgic for time gone by or for some other era. And that seems different from what I see in my life and what I see in rural communities. What I see is people who are very much in the moment and are looking to make a contribution. They care about work, feeding their families, they care about their community. They think of themselves at those who feeding fuel the country, fight the wars, and they’re looking for ways to be of service. Now, maybe I’m romantic and maybe I’m nostalgic, but I find that it’s helpful occasionally to move past the romance and try to get some data. And you’ve been very helpful in getting this data in this most recent poll. We’ve begun to look at not just the politics of rural communities but also look at what people are valuing what and where they imagine that the trajectory for their communities.
Yeah, thank you, Dee. And it’s really exciting to work with you, and I want all your listeners to know that I share their commitment to rural America, having grown up on a ranch in Montana. And I think you’re exactly right. I think the romantic view is kind of laughable, actually, because people are working really hard. They’re working hard for their communities, they’re working hard for their families, they’re working hard for the future of their children. They’re working hard for the country. And what I love about this poll is that we really asked questions to get beyond the surface, and we looked in depth at concerns and values and then support for policies. And what I loved about it was that the poll was really defying a lot of conventional wisdom and a lot of these kinds of romantic-ness.
So when we looked at what people were really concerned about, the number one thing that they were concerned about was the cost of food and the rising cost of living in general, but particularly the rising cost of food.
And that’s really ironic because, of course, we’re talking about the people who produce the food for everybody else’s table. So there’s a certain irony here. It’s like oil drillers worrying about the price of gas. And so that was really interesting, and then, followed by a whole host of rising costs and gasoline, healthcare, which is a big issue in rural America, and people think that healthcare costs are going up. One of the things that I think is really, really interesting about rural America is that we have a time series now. We have data over time because (the Center for) Rural Strategies invested in looking at these voters over time. And there was a time when concern was much more immediate about jobs, and now it’s really about wages and what those jobs pay and whether you can just meet the costs of living. Even if rising prices go down, will they go down to what they were before? Will wages keep up? And rural America is really pressed in that regard.
The second thing we looked at, which I love, is values. And the number one value in rural America was family. And that’s not surprising. 35% of the voters said, “This is one of the two most important values to me.” But right behind it was freedom — 31%. And having grown up in Montana, we’re definitely freedom-oriented voters. I love the fact that people … It used to be that freedom was very politicized, and a lot of progressives and Democrats didn’t talk about the value of freedom. And now we’re all talking about freedom and recognizing that there’s a lot of policies out there. If you’ve got CEOs in another state determining the prices of commodities or the shipping rates, you don’t have the freedom to thrive for your family. If you’ve got ideologues deciding whether or not what healthcare policies are, you don’t have the freedom to make your own personal healthcare decisions.
If you’ve got people banning books, you don’t have the freedom to say, “I want my kids to learn the good and the bad of our history. I want my kids to be prepared for the future.” So we’ve really taken back freedom, and that’s the second top value. At a distant third is faith. And I think that faith is a very, very important value in rural America. It is interesting that it has been become partisanly polarized. So a lot of independents and Democrats don’t mention faith as much, even though I think people really… faith is very important. And my dad used to say on the ranch, “You always believe in the power of prayer when you’re in a foxhole or when you’re looking at a thunderstorm on the horizon, and you try to cut that hay and get in before that thunder or hail hits that hay.”
So I think that it’s too bad that that value has become more partisanly polarized, and I hope we see some of the trends that we’ve seen with freedom where everybody gets to own that value. Also important of personal responsibility and safety, and security, but family and freedom are really dominating, and they’re dominating for every group of people. Let me pause there because there’s also some really cool data on the policies that people support it but there’s a lot of richness to what we’ve discussed already, and I want to make sure that your listeners get all their questions answered and what you’re thinking about.
Dee Davis: So yeah, on this idea of partisanship, I know in speaking to Deb and Jim Fallows about their Our Town work, it was interesting that they said that if they began by asking people what political camp they were in, that the communities just put on their uniforms, divided up in these camps, but if they talked about what work the community needed done where the community had problems or had issues or where they could be of service, then you had a different conversation and people came together. I’m just interested in, we know, in the last 20 years, rural communities have become more Republican, where Clinton and Gore won rural voters. We seem now more and more Republican votes, but I’m interested in those values or indicators that go beyond partisan lines. Can you tell me what you saw there?
Celinda Lake: Yeah, so what we saw was people really clustered around a set of orientations to improve life in their communities. And I often laugh that, as people on this listening to this program now, when you’ve got a crisis, when you’ve got a sick family member in rural America, when you’ve got a crisis and your barn burns down, people don’t ask each other, ‘Is that a Democratic family? Is that a Republican family?’ No, they cook the covered dish, take it over. They join and bring some wood, and re-raise the barn. They go look for the cattle that got out. And so I think that’s a really, really important piece of rural America is that they want to come together and solve these problems and work for problems that are affecting everyone. We saw in the policies that things that people really wanted to join together on, they felt that they really needed to reduce inflation and make things more affordable, from gas to groceries, prescription drugs. The cost of living is just too expensive for rural families, and rural incomes are just not keeping up.
And that’s true even though people have added multiple jobs. I mean, you’ve got people on the farm now doing the phone bank for the credit card company and everything else. And in Montana, where I’m from, we were number two in the country, not in people who had two jobs but people who had three jobs. And so it’s a lucky person that’s only got one job in rural America and doesn’t have a couple of side hustles and an Etsy account. So I think that people really… the incomes is really… and the opportunities really aren’t keeping up, and people are worried about what’s going to happen for their kids.
We also saw that there was a real populism in rural America, and of course that has a really long tradition. And people felt very strongly that wealthy corporations are not paying their fair share or what they owe and that they have rigged the system against small town in rural America. And when you’ve got Amazon and Bezos paying zero taxes, that’s really a problem. They need to pay what they owe so that we have the money to invest in our schools. And rural America has long in our healthcare systems and our veterans programs and our seniors, rural America has long paid what they voted and invested that money. I went to a public school in rural America where half the kids that I went to school with did not go on to college. And I think I got one of the best educations in America, that prepared me for Ivy League schools.
So I think that people are really wanting to come together, wanting to look for community investments, wanting to look for the things that promote real freedom in real thriving families and real freedom. And we saw just a number of things that are really, really strong with people.
Dee Davis: It seems to me that in the earlier polling that we did about a year ago, we saw some despair. Some people just worried about not just their kids or the community, but themselves. Usually, when you do these kinds of polls, people say, “I’m okay, but I worry about my kids.” But in what we’ve done in following up, it seems like there’s some of this policy response that is more hopeful, that’s more communitarian, is more about where rural can go from here.
Celinda Lake: Yeah, we really saw that, and I think I, like you, Dee, really, really felt positive about that. The despair before was really unnerving. I mean, it was depressing to read the polling data, and people were really feeling there weren’t opportunities and things, they were on the edge. Now people feel the possibility of moving forward, and they think there are policies that will move their communities forward and their families forward. And they’re frustrated with a political system that isn’t responsive enough, but they can see a future. And we have a saying at home, “They can see the light at the end of the tunnel, and it’s not a train coming your way.” So in terms of policies, it was really interesting. People really want to create manufacturing jobs, and there was a time when people thought manufacturing jobs are not coming to small towns. They’re not coming to rural America, now people think they could be.
And they really got some optimism about it, and particularly in small towns and creating manufacturing jobs in America and in small towns, the people thought it was their number one policy, and they didn’t just like it a little bit. They were like at 60 and 70%, thinking that this is doable. This is a top policy. This is something I want to see. People were adamant about lowering prescription drug prices and the insulin piece. Of course, rural America has fought for a long time, high diabetes rates, and the price of insulin was always very salient in rural America and in rural states like South Dakota, one of the highest states in America for diabetes. So that getting that price down, and there are a lot of rural communities that are along that Canadian border, and I know coming from Montana, you could drive across the border and get these drugs at one 10th of price, that something’s wrong when that’s happening.
People have long in rural communities known that the VA was negotiating lower prices, and they wanted Medicare to negotiate lower prices too. Of course, a lot of veterans coming out of rural America, and so their families are aware that you can use the cloud of joining together to negotiate lower prices. People really want to improve their local schools. I think rural America, it’s not well understood if you’re not from small town or rural America. Rural America has always invested in their schools. They have always thought, “If our kids can’t stay here, we’re going to make sure they’re well prepared if they have to leave.” And so people really, really want to improve local schools and people of color in rural America. And rural America is white, but there is a very significant population of people of color. They really, really want to improve the schools. Cracking down on price gouging. Rural America’s populist from hating the banks to hating the railroads to hating the conglomerates.
And people know that there’s price gouging out there. There is price fixing, there’s monopoly behavior. Rural America has always had a very sophisticated understanding of how the economy works and about how monopolies and oligopolies work, and the little guy in that, and they want to crack down on price gouging. They also want to close tax loopholes. They’re worried about government spending, but they’re worried about taxes going up. Taxes is real money in rural America as it is in urban America, and people want to make sure that everybody’s paying what they owe. Everybody’s paying their fair share.
Dee Davis: So people might not like big shots, but they kind of like each other, right?
Celinda Lake: Yeah, they do. Yeah, they do. Although it’s really funny, the Democrats and independents think they’re completely surrounded by Republicans, so they may keep the yard signs down, but they do like each other and they do like their neighbors, and they like them, and they go root for them together at the girls’ basketball game, and they go coach them together in the baseball game in the spring, and they have the 4th of July parade where they cheer everyone’s kid who’s dressed up and waving a flag, and then cook a hamburger together. So yeah, they do like each other, and they also don’t… I think in rural America there’s a lot of, we should look for common ground, and there is a lot of common ground. And we should stay out of each other’s business.
Dee Davis: So I had a buddy who… his philosophy in life was that God’s in heaven and he’s watching down and he’s watching a lot of people shoot pool, and over and over he sees people go up and shoot that straight in. But once in a great while, he sees somebody have that straight in and pass it up for a three-rail bank. And I’m just wondering, you’ve seen a lot of polls, were there some surprises? Were there some three-rail banks here that you weren’t expecting?
Celinda Lake: I was really surprised, although in retrospect I should have known it, but I was surprised that freedom tied with family for the top value. I’ve known that. But I was really surprised to see that data because family is super important in rural America. I was flabbergasted at the high numbers for the policies. I was just floored because these are a lot of policies that people say, “Well, those are socialist policies, those are democratic policies.” And rural America thinks they’re just sound policies for the future of the country. And I was surprised. I was so pleased and surprised that, from really being so despairing, that people were like, “We can see our way clear on this. We can see our way forward. Let’s join together. Let’s get some of these policies passed.” We all agree on this stuff.
Dee Davis: Right now we talk a lot about, and I mean everybody’s talking a lot about, the health of democracy, democracy in peril. Then we’re seeing issues like school bathrooms and what library books, and a lot of these kind of weaponized, nationalized issues. I’m interested in, are there values and policies that you see here from this poll that would be helpful to people working in locales as a way to build common purpose?
Celinda Lake: I think first of all, the desire to have good schools. People do not want to undermine their schools in rural America. They really want their kids to have a good shot. The second thing I think is that people do not like this. We don’t know from your quote, but we know it from others. People do not like banning books in rural America at all. And they have fought for that freedom, not to have books banned. People have always felt, you can make the choice for your kid. Sure, you don’t want your kid to read that book. Sure, opt out. Don’t check it out of the library. But no, don’t tell my kid what I want them to read. I may want my kid to read something different. And people know their teachers in rural America; they know their librarians. It’s hard to vilify them because they’re the people that really help out. And the teacher may be married to the rancher next door. In rural America, a lot of the early homesteaders were teachers. And one of the funnier quotes we heard when we were talking about taking books out of libraries, and this one person said from rural America in another project we were doing, “How radical can a librarian be? Don’t they usually just go around and tell you to read a book and be quiet?”
These are not communists sitting in the middle of rural America. They’re telling you to be quiet and read the book or helping you find a book when you’re really excited about books. And I think most rural Americans remember when they went. I remember when I went to town and got my first library card. I was prouder of that than almost anything, including my college diploma. So I think that people want, and they really want their kids to have a good start. They really want their kids to have opportunities, so they don’t have to leave rural America. If they choose to leave, that’s one thing, but they don’t have to leave.
And the other thing I think is that people think it is a lot bigger problem. It’s like our governor in Montana said decades ago when we were talking about marriage equality, and he once said on a statewide radio address, he said, “Aren’t you a lot more worried about the price of grain on the high line than who marries whom in your next door neighbors? And it’s like, “Yeah, good point. I’m a lot more worried about the price of grain on the high line.” So I just think that obviously people have values and they want their values respected, but this stuff is, I think people think is really out of control. And we know that talking about economic issues beats these wedge cultural issues because this is not a big problem.
Dee Davis: So I once read someone talking about science is standing in the light and reaching into the darkness. So now that you’ve gotten a chance to look at this data, where would you want to go next? What is it now that you’ve seen these responses, you’ve seen the value, you’ve seen people thinking about what policies would work? Is there a part that you now say, “Gosh, I wish I could explore that”?
Celinda Lake: Yeah, and you asked the right question. These policies, I believe, are way more popular than these cultural wedge issues. And I would love to see a little… an experiment done where we put up the economic message, we put up the youth opportunity message against some of these wedge messages, and my bet is we beat them overwhelmingly, including with conservative folks. And I think, so that’s number one. Number two, I would like to ask the underneath question like, “Okay, you don’t like X, Y, or Z, but how much of a problem is that in your community? Do you like your local librarian? How much of a problem is she?” And didn’t your teacher, one dad in a focus group said to me when I was exploring with him, “What book your kid reads?” And he goes, “I just don’t have this problem. My kid’s teacher constantly keeps me informed of what book my kid is reading. And frankly, my concern is, I want to get the kid off the phone and reading a book. I just want them to read something. That’s my problem. And the teachers helping me with that. They’re not making this a problem.”
Dee Davis: Well, now you made me remember going to the library for the first time and checking out Buzzy Plays Midget League Football. I think that was one of the highlights of my childhood. Well, Celinda, I want to thank you. This is wonderful to get a chance to talk to you, and I do want to find ways that we can share the story circles, the focus groups that we’ve done, and I hope that we get a chance to do more of this exploration to really look at how these kind of policy aspirations can be presented in a way and can be lifted up. So maybe we can do that together. It’s fun working with you.
Celinda Lake: It’s wonderful working with you. Thank you for your leadership. Thank you for your vision, and thanks to all your listeners for the wonderful things that they do to support our country.
Whitney Kimball Coe:
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