Reaching out to rural voters comes down to one thing, progressive political organizers say: sincerity.
"It's personal," said Dom Holmes, state canvassing manager for Pennsylvania Stands Up, a Democrat-supporting grassroots campaign. "If you disengage, you disappear after you get what you want, you win the election, you go away, people don't trust you any more."
Holmes and other rural policy and political organizers spoke about the lessons learned from the 2020 election during a Dec. 16 webinar hosted by the Rural Democracy Initiative, which focuses on progressive organizing and communications efforts in small cities and rural communities. Some participants in the webinar were non-partisan and some were partisan.
Rural votes will be "mission critical" during upcoming elections, said Sarah Jaynes, the initiative director.
According to the organization, the path to political power nationally runs through the Senate, and the path to the Senate runs through rural America.
By 2040, 70% of the population will be concentrated in 16 states, leaving 30% distributed across 34 states controlling 68 Senate seats — a supermajority.
In 2022 and 2024, rural votes will determine which parties will control the Senate, according to the initiative.
One in five rural residents are people of color, and across the Southeast and Southwest, Black, Hispanic, and Indigenous people are heavily represented in most counties. Nearly 40% of rural population growth nationally is from new immigrants, according to the organization.
Roughly 90% of urban and rural Black voters voted for President-elect Joe Biden. Nearly 70% of urban and rural Hispanic voters voted for Biden. About 63% of American Indian urban voters voted for Biden, compared to 58% of rural American Indian voters who voted for Biden.
About 55% of urban white voters voted for President Donald Trump, and 64% of rural white voters voted for Trump.
Both Republicans and Democrats saw "wave turnout" in the 2020 election, said Matt Hildreth, executive director of RuralOrganizing.org.
He said there's no one definition of a typical rural voter.
"There's a lot to be learned from people who felt they had something to lose or have lost something," he said. "Many rural voters have not recovered from the economic recession in 2008."
It's not about Republicans or Democrats as much as it's about who will help the working class, Holmes said.
"In a lot of these communities, people have been hurting for a while. They no longer trust the political establishment on either side," he said. "I think a lot of these folks would vote for an independent if they said the right things."
Communicating with rural voters requires a sustained effort, not a phone call near election day, said Julie Bomar, executive director of the Wisconsin Farmers Union.
In the final days of the election, some people were sick of getting hundreds of calls a week and didn't answer calls, she noted.
"When it all comes at one moment, right before an election, it's really hard to have people pick up the phone," Bomar said. "We need to have those kinds of calls happen all the time, and not just the last few months of an election season."