Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney was in New Hampshire on Friday, back at the farm where he launched his presidential campaign one year ago.
“In the days ahead, we’ll be traveling on what are often called the backroads of America,” he said. “But I think our tour is going to take us along what I’ll call the backbone of America.”
It was the first stop on a five-day bus tour that will take him to small towns. The former Massachusetts governor’s campaign is calling it the “Every Town Counts” tour.
Even though rural communities appear solidly Republican these days, both presidential candidates are trying to win over voters there.
Romney and President Obama are both, let’s be honest, city slickers. That’s a big change for the American presidency, says Dee Davis, president of the Center for Rural Strategies.
“If it’s [Ronald] Reagan on a horse or [Bill] Clinton, the man from Hope [Ark.], there’s always been this kind of visual narrative or this story that to be president you had to be able to handle the wilderness, be comfortable outside of the city. It’s just part of the lore,” he says.
You’re not likely to see Romney or Obama in a cowboy hat very often. But both men are trying to appeal to the folks who live in small towns, traditionally Republican strongholds.
“It’s been an extraordinary priority and the proof of that is the fact that the president established the Rural Council,” says Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack.
The Rural Council, which Vilsack runs, is a group of Cabinet members that meets to talk about policies aimed specifically at rural America. This week the council put out a report documenting improvements in the agricultural economy.
“In that report is the plan, if you will, for revitalizing the rural economy. We haven’t had a plan in the past. We now do,” Vilsack explains.
The administration’s plan talks about increasing exports, producing biofuels and giving low-interest loans to small businesses in rural America. Exports are already way up over the last few years. Farmers are seeing record profits.
Vilsack says that’s a sign of Obama administration success at helping rural America.
Jim Talent, a former senator from Missouri who now advises the Romney campaign, disagrees. “Exports are up. That’s in part because of the weak dollar — and I guess the administration can claim some credit for that. I mean, the dollar’s weak because the economy’s weak,” Talent says.
Over these five days, Romney will visit six swing states that went for Obama four years ago.
But he’ll focus on the small towns in those states that went Republican last time, in hopes of tipping the whole state into the red column this time. Talent says during this bus tour Romney will lay out his ideas to help rural America — more oil and natural gas drilling, lower taxes and deficit reduction.
“Folks in rural America understand you can’t borrow your way to prosperity, and they know that for themselves, and they know it for the federal government as well,” says Talent.
During the primary season, Romney consistently underperformed in small towns. Republican rivals Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich often beat him in those areas. So Romney has some work to do in rural America.
So does the president.
According to Davis at the Center for Rural Strategies, in 2008, Obama lost rural counties by a smaller margin than past Democratic presidential candidates John Kerry or Al Gore did.
“Obama tightened the race,” says Davis. “He lost rural by about 7 percent in the swing states. If he could do that again this time, he would win in a walk. But at this point, rural looks pretty tough.”
Here’s why Davis says that: In 2008, rural districts in Congress were split about evenly between Democrats and Republicans. But in 2010, a Republican wave washed across those districts. Nationally, Republicans won 60 House seats in 2010. Two-thirds of those wins came from rural America.
So the small towns that Romney is visiting these next five days are red and getting redder. The Republican candidate just needs to keep that momentum going.
Obama has the more difficult task of moving the rural trend lines in the opposite direction.