The Corner

Country Folk, Another View

Ryan Lizza reports on some new findings by Stan Greenberg. Among them is the finding that Bush is down among those he calls “Country Folk” — i.e. rural voters. Here’s the nut graf:

These rural voters, referred to as “Country Folk,” represent 21 percent of the electorate. In 2000, 63 percent of Country Folk backed Bush. Yet today, only 58 percent support him and only 51 percent want to continue in Bush’s direction; 47 percent want to go in a “significantly different direction.”

An overall drop of 5 points in the Republican presidential vote among these voters may not seem like a major shift, but in a country at parity it could provide the margin of victory. This impact is amplified by where the Country Folk live: they are concentrated in the battleground states, like Iowa, Missouri, Louisiana, New Hampshire and Minnesota.

Andrew Sullivan looks at this and writes:

My own hunch is that these voters do not like a massive increase in government spending, a huge jump in public debt, and a post-war policy in Iraq that seemed blindsided by reality. But here’s my other belief, and it’s about Abu Ghraib. The images from that prison shamed America in deep and inchoate ways.

Our own Bruce Bartlett looks at similar poll data — though not, it seems Greenberg’s — and concludes it must be Bush’s apostasy on campaign finance “reform,” Medicare, trade, the NEA etc.

Meanwhile Greenberg’s conclusion which Lizza passes along uncritically is “that to win these voters back, Bush’s only option may be to start emphasizing culture war issues like gay marriage and abortion. That’s a trend to keep an eye on.”

I have a more hopeful reading of all of this. If in fact a significant amount of Bush’s slippage is among white, rural voters in battleground states maybe it’s like, um, the economy, stupid? None of these guys are stupid of course, but none of them mention the economy either, which is odd given its pride of place as political motivators. I’m pretty sure the economy’s rebound hasn’t been reflected in most polls, particularly in some key battleground states. At least that’s what a pollster-analyst type was telling me the other day. It always takes time for people to realize the economy is going great guns. This might be particularly true in rural areas where the industrial sector takes longer to pick-up than the economy as a whole and job-retraining takes some time to pay-off.

In other words, Bush’s slippage — among rural conservatives — might not be because of Abu Ghraib or campaign finance “reform” but because of bread-and-butter issues. The Abu Ghraib theory doesn’t wash with me simply because rural conservatives are the folks most likely to rally around the flag and the president during a scandal like this. That’s what happened during My Lai, after all. And while Abu Ghraib or Bruce’s list of small-government transgressions may explain some conservative slippage over all, I’m not sure they get to the heart of rural voters.

One other issue that might, however, is the course of the war. Everything I hear — mostly from whining NPR stories — is that rural whites are “over-represented” in the military. This means that rural conservatives are more likely to know or rely on someone in the military. As reservists and the like continue to have their deployments extended at the same moment the war is being (unfairly) cast as a disaster you could see how a drop of 5% among rural conservatives would make sense, particularly among wives and small employers left holding the bag for men overseas. Indeed, I wish Greenberg’s data broke out Bush’s slippage among country-folk women (It’s 6:30 in the morning and I read through it very quickly and couldn’t find it). But Greenberg does say that Bush has a bigger problem with older women who believe he should concentrate more on the economy.

In short, the conventional wisdom has always been that if the economy was going good (and seen to be going good) and Iraq was seen as a success (however that’s defined) by election day Bush would win. If not, he would lose. It seems to me the conventional wisdom is still right and, this week at least, that seems like cause for optimism.

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