This is Part III of Blue Jersey’s series on rural progressivism in New Jersey. Part I laid out the groundworks for rural progressivism’s importance to New Jersey, including maps that show sharp urban/rural divides in the state. Part II lays out the intellectual foundations of rural progressivism, focusing on its use in Oklahoma. Today, in Part III, I’ll going to lay out some potential strategies in New Jersey districts (let me know what districts or races you want me to include in Part IV).
The presidential election showed how clearly the concentration of Democrats in urban and suburban areas makes electoral maps and electoral politics more difficult. Richard Ojeda gets to the heart of the argument in a recent article in The Hill:
For years, Democrats have depended on heavily populated areas within their districts to carry them and have ignored rural communities. This is unacceptable. All Americans deserve to see, speak to and hear from our candidates. No county is insignificant, no community too small, and each person’s vote is important.
That argument is not just about where Democrats live, it’s about how Democratic values are conveyed and policies are prioritized, and how this too often capture rural life in a compelling way. Groups such as Rural Progressive Politics and Family Farm Action are doing the hard work of putting together language, principles and policies that speak to rural life.
In many ways that is a long-term strategy — it’s about reaching into parts of the country where progressive is a bad name and finding commonality to start building credibility and relationship, and doing it by first trying to understand the ways life in these communities work. Think of it as a version of Dean’s 50-state strategy — a long-term gambit to reach new voters and strengthen a coalition, and in doing so, remake the party to better reflect the values of those communities.
But it’s also about elections now. So I want to talk about two different ways to actualize a rural progressivism in current New Jersey races. For the stats below I’m using 2014 election numbers rather than 2016 — that’s the most recent midterm elections, and since turnout is presidential years is so much higher, midterms tend to be more predictive of future midterms. Obviously, the current political climate and results in special elections indicate some of those rules may be changing — but we’ll stick with 2014 for now.
Rural analysis of NJ7: How much potential for Democrats exists in rural communities?
In that race, 13% of the electorate came from communities of less than 5,000 people. That included 3% from pure rural districts (townships of less than 2,500 people), and another 10% from what we’ll call here “middle” districts of between 2,500-500 residents.* **
13% rural voters starts to put some context into the opportunity (and limits to that opportunity) of appealing to rural voters.
Interestingly, rural voters in NJ7 vote in lockstep with the more populated areas of the district. For example, the district was split 60/39, populated areas 60/39, middle areas 59/38, and rural areas 58/39. The breakdowns of votes look almost identical for the parties and the district as a whole — in the charts below you can see that 87% of each parties’ votes come from populated areas, 10% from areas with populations between 2.5k-6k residents, and 3% from areas with less than 2.5k residents.
The big question is, what does that mean for candidates? In part, it means that there is a latent Democratic support in areas that have not traditionally been targeted either through messaging or GOTV efforts. This is quite different than what we saw in Virginia or Alabama, where rural areas still voted overwhelmingly for Republicans (just with lower turnout than the general). It represents an opportunity. In the primary candidates can potentially to separate themselves from the pack by specifically reaching these voters. In the general, it means there is a core group of oft-unacknowledged supporters that raise turnout in their communities.
Rural analysis of NJ2: Rural progressivism as a “David Strategy” to get oxygen
First, a quick recap: in 2014, Frank Lobiondo (R) beat William Hughes (D) 61%-38%.
In that race, 15% of the electorate came from communities of less than 5,000 people. That included 6% from pure rural districts (townships of less than 2,500 people), and another 9% from what we’ll call here “middle” districts of between 2,500-500 residents — a bit of a shift towards a more traditional understanding of a rural district.***
In contrast with NJ7, NJ2 saw wide urban/rural splits. The district was split 61/38, populated areas 59/39, middle areas 68/31, and rural areas 70/29. The data on the where each party’s vote came from reflects that:
So why spend Democratic resources in rural communities when they vote so heavily against Democratic candidates?
The first reason is that it’s a long-term play. But there’s another reason, particularly for the primary, to consider a rural component to electoral strategy.
Until LoBiondo announced his retirement, only two candidates were in the Democratic primary: Tanzie Youngblood and Sean Thom. Both were running campaigns that focused on battling LoBiondo, hoping to ride the wave of Democratic turnout into office. That’s no longer possible, as Jeff Van Drew entered the race and immediately soaked up party support.
These two candidates now need what Gladwell calls “David strategies” — they are facing a tremendous uphill climb. At the center of that climb is oxygen — so long as they are seen as unlikely to win, they will struggle to attract volunteers, endorsements, and most critically, donors. It’s almost impossible to put together a professional campaign this way, and getting enough oxygen to win elements of the “invisible primary” is central to running a competitive campaign.
The “David strategy” being used across the country now is to appeal to Bernie voters — but that’s problematic in NJ2 where there was not huge Bernie support. And it’s a difficult play with rural voters often culturally skeptical of Bernie-style progressives, while also not exactly matching up with urban voters who provided lukewarm support to Bernie in the 2016 primaries (though those dynamics shifted during the race, and may continue to do so). Further, another recasting of the Bernie v. Hillary race — in a small congressional primary unlikely to see an upset — isn’t likely to capture national attention.
But a campaign that focusing on tying urban voters, people of color, and rural voters into a coalition is almost sure to get oxygen in a media that has been obsessed with rural voters since the 2016 election. Rural progressivism is getting notice in The Hill, the Nation, and beyond. There have been a panoply of pieces trying to get to know and understand rural voters. A rural progressive element of a campaign can take advantage of that hunger to get much-needed oxygen in the short-run (while building good-will in communities where Republican typically dominate in the long-run).
Imagine what that would look like. Imagine a stump speech that makes use of rural progressive framing that focuses on the land, and being able to say an honest day’s work on the land deserves a fair shot in our economy, whether that be a family farm that wants to sell its good locally, or a migrant worker that wants to put a days work toward ensuring local crops are harvested.
The play for rural progressivism in NJ2 is a “David strategy” that has the benefit of reaping short-term oxygen, while sowing long-term opportunities in rural communities that may be ripe for a politics frame to them and their challenges. It’s also a potential path out of the Van Drew approach to purple districts, which is to give up core Democratic values in an attempt to move to the center and attract voters there.
Rural progressivism isn’t a panacea. In districts such as NJ7 and NJ2 it’s an opportunity to reach 12-15% of voters that are not traditionally spoken to directly and change the frame of voters in rural communities. Deep divides remain — particularly around social issues. But, in 2016 we saw primary challengers that started to change coalitions. Trump shifted the Republican coalition through an ugly nativism. Bernie did the same with Democrats through economic populism. Rural progressivism has the potential to reach new voters and change coalitions by applying progressive principles in ways that resonate with rural voters with deep held beliefs around land, likelihood and community.
I’ll be continuing this analysis after the holidays — so please let me know what you want to see. I’m working on posts diving into other races (not all congressional!), interviews both in Oklahoma and New Jersey, and a post on the challenges of campaigning in rural communities. I’d love more suggestions, thoughts and responses. We’ve already had an amazing post about lessons from the LD23’s race, and I’m hopeful for more!
* I’m using definitions for these communities from the United States Department of Agriculture — it’s a little messy in New Jersey where there are also townships that are small for historical reasons but not rural.
** List of classifications in NJ7:
rural (<2.5k population): Millstone borough, Stockton borough, Rocky Hill borough, Bloomsbury borough, Far Hills borough, Califon borough, Milford borough, Hampton borough, Frenchtown borough, Winfield township, Chester borough, Lebanon borough, Glen Gardner borough, Alpha borough,
middle (>2.5k<5k): Harmony township, Peapack and Gladstone boro, Clinton town, West Amwell township, Franklin township, Franklin township, Netcong borough, Pohatcong township, High Bridge borough, Mine Hill township, Kingwood township, Lambertville city, Bethlehem township, East Amwell township, Garwood borough, Delaware township, Flemington borough, Alexandria township
“urban” (>5k): Holland township, Mount Arlington borough, Greenwich township, Union township, Tewksbury township, Watchung borough, Lebanon township, Wharton borough, Mountainside borough, Green Brook township, Raritan borough, Bernardsville borough, Chester township, Kenilworth borough, Bedminster township, Lopatcong township, Long Hill township, Somerville borough, New Providence borough, Clinton township, Berkeley Heights township, Phillipsburg town, Branchburg township, Clark township, Readington township, Warren township, Springfield township, Dover town, Washington township, Summit city, Raritan township, North Plainfield borough, Montgomery township, Cranford township, Roxbury township, Scotch Plains township, Bernards township, Mount Olive township, Westfield town, Hillsborough township, Bridgewater township, Union township, Millburn township
***** List of classifications in NJ2:
rural (<2.5k population): Cape May Point borough, Harvey Cedars borough, Corbin City, Shiloh borough, West Wildwood borough, Barnegat Light borough, Washington township, Greenwich township, Stone Harbor borough, Longport borough, West Cape May borough, Port Republic city, Ship Bottom borough, Beach Haven borough, Surf City borough Avalon borough, Stow Creek township, Bass River township, Downe township Newfield borough, Eagleswood township, Estell Manor city, Folsom borough, Sea Isle City city, Woodbine borough
middle (>2.5k<5k): Swedesboro borough, Weymouth township, Long Beach township, Deerfield township, South Harrison township, Wildwood Crest borough, Lawrence township, Tuckerton borough, Cape May city, North Wildwood city, Elk township, Egg Harbor City, Hopewell township, Buena borough
“urban” (>5k): Commercial township, Wildwood city, Mullica township, Margate City, Dennis township, Fairfield township, Linwood city, Maurice River township, Buena Vista township, Upper Deerfield township, Clayton borough, Absecon city, Northfield city, Pitman borough, Brigantine city, East Greenwich township, Ventnor City, Somers Point city, Waterford township Ocean City, Upper township, Woolwich township, Harrison township, Hammonton town, Mantua township, Franklin township, Middle township, Little Egg Harbor township, Pleasantville city, Lower township, Bridgeton city, Stafford township, Hamilton township, Millville city, Galloway township, Atlantic City, Egg Harbor township, Vineland city