Former Gov. Mitt Romney has spent almost his entire life in big cities. But if he is to win the election for president this November, he will have to learn to connect with voters from the farms and small towns of America.
In a year when popular and Electoral College votes both figure to be close, momentum in rural areas could spell the difference in a variety of states. This is not lost on either campaign.
It's why Romney will embark today on his "Every Town Counts" bus tour—a five-day, six-state journey that will take him to rural localities in the battleground states of New Hampshire, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Wisconsin, Iowa, and Michigan.
Every little bit of face time with rural voters should help the former Massachusetts governor. President Barack Obama performed unusually well in rural areas in 2008. He lost to Republican Sen. John McCain by 8 percentage points—a huge step up after Sen. John Kerry lost to President George W. Bush by 19 points in 2004. President Obama's ability to carry key rural counties in Iowa, Colorado, and North Carolina helped lift him to victory.
Moreover, the president enjoyed uncommon success among white men—a key constituency in rural areas. He split the vote among white independents and claimed 43 percent of the total among white voters—levels of achievement not seen by Democrats since Jimmy Carter's election in 1976.
But things no longer look so bright for the president. Rural Americans, like their urban and suburban counterparts, said they voted based on the economy in 2008, and his policies have not helped them. Unemployment is at least a half-point higher in rural areas than urban areas. And, of the nation's more than 3,000 counties, about 30 percent now endure unemployment rates of 10 percent or higher and a good many of those are rural counties in 2012 battleground states such as North Carolina, Wisconsin, Michigan, Colorado, and Ohio.
Worse, President Obama carried the Tar Heel State by 14,000 votes in 2008—his smallest margin of victory in any state. But 50 of the counties with the worst unemployment rates in the nation are in rural North Carolina, and 15 of those counties went for President Obama in 2008.
Obama's disapproval ratings exceed his approval ratings in Iowa and North Carolina, and polling shows races tightening considerably in other rural battleground states, such as Michigan and Wisconsin. Thus, Democrats have begun to worry that if he can't alter his economic message and change his campaign strategy, he could find himself in real trouble come November.
Yet, Governor Romney also has some work to do among rural voters before he can start to measure the White House drapes. Former Sen. Rick Santorum defeated him soundly in nearly every contest that involved large rural populations. Romney was 11 points better in metro areas than nonmetro areas. The United States Department of Agriculture divides America into nine classifications—from most urban to most rural. In 2008, Romney captured the two most urban classifications against John McCain. McCain carried the other seven.
McCain lost in 2008 in large part not because rural areas went for Obama but because an unenthusiastic rural electorate stayed home. Romney's bus tour and subsequent appeals are designed to assure those voters turn out in 2012.
To do this, he must keep it simple. He must outline a cogent, understandable economic plan that rewards private initiative and limits government regulation. He must promise to nurture the domestic energy production boom—oil, coal, and natural gas—that has brought new wealth to North Dakota, north Louisiana, and elsewhere. He must connect to patriotism and the military—a significant number of rural families have members who serve or have served. And he must demonstrate his commitment will extend beyond Election Day and through all four years of his term.
If he can do these things, if he can connect with rural Americans, if he can run up the kind of margins George W. Bush did in 2004 and perhaps flip states such as Michigan, rural America could be a real "Electoral College game changer" says Mark Halperin of Time magazine.
If Romney succeeds, it could well be rural America that pushes him over the top and into the White House.