Rural Blog: New book explores media’s failure to recognize rural voter impact on 2016 election

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A new book published by Routledge — The Trump Presidency, Journalism and Democracy — includes a chapter about Donald Trump, rural America, its issues and the national news media’s failure to recognize the power Trump drew from rural voters.

Written by Al Cross, director of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, publisher of The Rural Blog, the chapter digs deep into the issues at play in rural America and how some of them influenced rural Americans to vote for Trump. Rural America has a declining population, a slow rebound from the Great Recession, higher divorce rates, poorer health, and higher mortality rates — especially from drug overdoses, suicide and alcohol. “Also in rural America, there is a documented resentment of urban elites, including the news media, reflecting a feeling that rural areas aren’t getting a fair shake from government and its trade deals, and that they are looked down upon,” Cross writes. And rural voters resent feeling like city folks view them as ignorant racists.

By validating this rural resentment, Trump captured the hearts of rural Americans to an extent that Cross, a columnist and former political writer for the Louisville Courier-Journal, says he hadn’t seen in 40 years of covering politics. Trump got 39 percent more of the working-class vote than Hillary Clinton, and he did best in the rural areas where people were the worst off. Cross dives into polling data and anecdotal signposts to divine what attracted voters to Trump.

Research showed that Trump voters were more likely motivated by issues of race, ethnicity and immigration than economics. A poll showed that Trump voters were much more likely to agree that white people can’t find jobs because employers are hiring people of color; another poll showed that rural voters were worried that they’re losing their culture because of immigrants.

But economics was important for some Trump voters: 60 percent of working-class Americans believe that free-trade agreements are mostly harmful because they send jobs overseas and drive down wages. Another poll showed that jobs were not likely to be a big motivator for supporting Trump.

Respect for an authoritarian leader was the biggest indicator of support for Trump. That especially applies to white evangelical Christians, who tend to view the world through an authoritarian religious lens, and white working-class Americans who don’t have a college degree. Trump won 81 percent of the votes of white evangelicals.

Trump also picked up a lot of pro-gun votes, as well as a much-needed $30 million from the National Rifle Association. In addition to campaign money, the NRA helped Trump by stoking voters’ fears that gun rights were in peril.

Rural outreach and media dominance was another big reason for the vote turnout. Clinton dedicated little time or resources to rural outreach, though she issued a relatively detailed rural policy platform. But Trump won out on the rural media battle with anti-elite talking points and a huge media push on rural-centric RFD-TV in the last weeks before the election. His campaign also made a deal with the conservative Sinclair Broadcast Group, which is the nation’s largest owner of TV stations: in exchange for more access to Trump and his campaign, Sinclair agreed to shoot and distribute extended interviews with Trump to other stations, often rural, to run without commentary. Sinclair said Clinton declined the same deal. 

National news media were slow to realize the extent of Trump’s rural dominance, though it was a major source of navel-gazing on election night and afterward. Chuck Todd of NBC News looked at a map of counties going red and said, “Rural America is basically screaming at us, ‘Stop overlooking us!'” Some major media outlets have responded with a variety of efforts to take the pulse of rural America.

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The Rural Blog is a digest of events, trends, issues, ideas and journalism from and about rural America, from the IRJCI, based at the University of Kentucky. The Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues is an extension program for rural journalists and news outlets. It takes no positions on issues and advocates only for strong news coverage, responsible commentary and things that make them possible, such as open-government laws. For more information see www.RuralJournalism.org.

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