Trump's Rural Stress Test

There are many fascinating and paradoxical aspects to President Trump’s style and appeal.

For example, someone whose life has hardly reflected that of a choirboy and who uses language not often heard from a pulpit registered a 74 percent approval rating among white evangelicals included in the May 11-14 Fox News poll of 1,008 registered voters. Comparatively, his overall approval was 46 percent, with 53 percent disapproving.

In a Pew Research Center poll conducted during the government shutdown in January, 69 percent of white evangelical Protestants approved of the job he was doing, 21 points above his approval rating among white mainline Protestants.

For someone who has lived all but a handful of his years in New York City, most recently in a 58-floor high-rise, his strong support in small-town and rural America has been really quite something. One could make the case that farmers are more dependent upon free trade than just about any other major occupation, and many of them have a need for low-cost farmworkers who are often undocumented. Trump’s immigration and trade policies have set many agriculture leaders to grinding their teeth, albeit through a forced smile. Yet his support has been steadfast. Could any of it ever cost Trump some of his support among farmers and across small-town and rural America? After all, soybean prices, to cite one example, are lower than they have been in 10 years, since the 2008 recession, and are now less than half of what they were in 2012.

But fewer people are voting their perceived economic self-interest than at any time in history. We are in a period of tribal politics; the actions of those we see as in our tribe are viewed one way, and those of someone in another tribe are viewed very differently. A landmark book about American politics published last year, Identity Crisis: The 2016 Presidential Campaign and the Battle for the Meaning of America, delved into this quite persuasively.

There could be a limit. Not to declare a trend, but we have recently seen some intriguing data. In October 2015, the Purdue University Center for Commercial Agriculture began a monthly survey of farmers whose production is valued at $500,000 or more a year—so this would mean full-time farmers, not necessarily those who have jobs in town but grow some crops on the side. The survey asks a series of questions about perceptions of current and future economic conditions for farmers, price expectations, and land values, among other things like whether it is a good or bad time to make major equipment purchases. It is the farming equivalent of the monthly consumer-confidence surveys conducted by The Conference Board and the University of Michigan.

Confidence among farmers has now dropped three months in a row, and six of the last seven months. The up month was just after the Trump administration made a compensation payment to farmers hurt by the current trade war. The April drop was the fourth largest in the three and a half years of the survey. The numbers for the May Purdue survey will be released on June 4.

Is there something going on? Keeping in mind that "rural" and "farmer" are not synonymous and that rural subsamples of normal national public opinion polls represent fewer than 1 in 5 interviews of the total sample, there is a larger margin of error. In the new Fox News Poll, Trump’s approval rating among voters in rural areas was 51 percent, a bit lower than in the four previous Fox polls this calendar year, when approval was in the 53 to 55 percent range. His disapproval was 47 percent, higher than the 40 to 45 percent in the four prior surveys.

In the most recent NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll in April, Trump’s approval rating was 55 percent among adults in rural areas, below the 66 percent measured in January, 59 percent in February, and 65 percent in March; while disapproval was 43 percent, higher than the 29 percent in January, 36 percent in February, and 31 percent in March. Again, it is important to emphasize that the margin of error in subgroups is large and this is way too early to declare it a trend.

If any Democrat is entertaining the thought of attracting meaningful rural votes, my advice is not to hold your breath. In small-town and rural America—like Southern Arkansas, where my parents grew up—the Democratic Party projects a very urban-oriented and secular value structure that is anathema to the views of many beyond the suburbs.

Still, Trump’s backers should worry about the level of erosion of enthusiasm toward him in rural America. Trump’s 7/10ths-of-1-point victory in Pennsylvania did not come from significant support in Philadelphia or Pittsburgh and their suburbs. Nor was his Wisconsin win by the same margin due to big numbers out of Milwaukee and Madison and their suburbs, or his Michigan 2/10ths-of-a-percent upset thanks to votes out of Detroit and its suburbs, Ann Arbor, or Lansing.

It was with unprecedented turnout in small towns and rural areas. Right now, Trump is stress-testing one key element of his base. They aren’t likely to defect in meaningful numbers, but will they enthusiastically turn out for him in November 2020? That is an increasingly interesting question.

This story was originally published on nationaljournal.com on May 17, 2019