Analysis & Comment

Opinion | America’s Small-Town Crisis

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From Bill Clinton’s first election through Barack Obama’s second, a Democrat won the western Ohio county that includes Dayton — Montgomery County — in all six presidential elections, including those that the party lost nationally.

But now the county has largely flipped to the Republicans. On Tuesday, Mike DeWine — Ohio’s governor-elect — won Montgomery narrowly, just as Donald Trump had two years ago. And the Dayton area’s drift is part of something much larger: Democrats are getting hammered outside of major metropolitan areas.

That’s the main reason Ohio has gone from being a swing state to a more clearly Republican one. (Trump won it by 8 percentage points in 2016.) It’s the main reason Democrats appear to have lost high-profile races this week in Florida, Georgia and Texas and why they also lost Senate seats in Indiana, Missouri and North Dakota.

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It’s a huge problem for the party. Democrats don’t need to win in most rural areas. But they do need to avoid losing by 50 or 60 percentage points, as they now often do in some of the counties near Dayton. And the party needs to win in more small and medium-sized cities and in more counties like Montgomery, which happens to be Ohio’s fifth most populated county.

If the party doesn’t do better in these places, it can still win presidential elections. But it will struggle mightily to retake the Senate, which next year could have as many as 54 Republican members. Without the Senate, ambitious federal legislation — to fight climate change, reduce inequality, expand voting rights and so on — will be impossible. Getting judges confirmed, including to the Supreme Court, will become very difficult.

The Democratic Party simply cannot write off nonmetropolitan America — and try to overwhelm it with a rising urban and suburban coalition.

So how can the party do better? For starters, it needs to try harder.

It should come up with a serious agenda to combat what Matt Stoller of the Open Markets Institute calls the “full-on crisis” in rural America. That crisis, he says, includes expensive health care, bad transportation options, job opportunities wrecked by chain stores, a struggling agriculture economy and, of course, the opioid epidemic. Tom Vilsack, the Democrat and former Iowa governor, has come up with a four-pillar rural strategy that’s based around agriculture, as Michael Tomasky pointed out in a Times Op-Ed this week.

Smaller cities don’t have all of these problems, but they do have many. I’d add one issue to these lists, which bedevils both rural America and smaller cities: educational opportunity. In a mini-essay about Ohio on Twitter yesterday, Alec MacGillis of ProPublica pointed out that the state’s investment in education has actually declined over the past decade.

“Ohio,” MacGillis writes, “has an astonishing array of these small cities and towns — all with handsome old courthouses, coherent downtowns and grand Victorians, and almost all of them in a condition that breaks your heart. And that’s not to mention the truly desperate rural areas of southern [and southeast] Ohio.”

It is possible for Democrats to do better in places like Dayton and in rural areas. On Tuesday night, they got to see a model — in Ohio. Senator Sherrod Brown won re-election with a populist, jobs-focused message that focuses on economic class, not cultural issues. He won Montgomery County by more than 11 percentage points. In Minnesota, Senator Amy Klobuchar, also a Democrat, won re-election by a landslide. In Iowa, Wisconsin and parts of the West, Democrats also figured out how to hold down their rural losses.

Labor unions played a role in many of these wins, as Slate’s Jamelle Bouie notes. “Midwestern campaigns capitalized on still-existing labor infrastructure to mobilize union members and bring them back into the Democratic fold,” he writes.

I understand why talk of rural America often frustrates progressives: Rural America — which is, of course, overwhelmingly white — already has outsize political power in this country, thanks to the Senate, the Electoral College and the privileged role that Iowa and New Hampshire play in presidential elections. But life in rural areas and small cities hasn’t exactly been easy in recent years. In virtually every measurable way — incomes, wealth, education, health, longevity — large metropolitan areas have done better.

Democrats should, by all means, continue fighting for the issues that matter to metropolitan America, like civil rights. But there is a clear moral case for devoting more attention to small-town America at the same time. There is also a self-interested political case for Democrats.

Related: Doing better outside of major metropolitan areas would also help the party win more seats in state legislatures — which, as Bryce Covert notes in The Times, is where a lot of policy gets made. Her list includes the minimum wage, paid leave, clean energy, voting rights, criminal justice, gun safety and education.

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David Leonhardt is a former Washington bureau chief for the Times, and was the founding editor of The Upshot and head of The 2020 Project, on the future of the Times newsroom. He won the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for commentary, for columns on the financial crisis. @DLeonhardt Facebook

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