Rural issues talk rare in presidential campaigns
ST. PAUL — As they campaign, presidential candidates Barack Obama and Mitt Romney pretty much ignore rural-specific issues.
It is not that they lack a chance to talk about such issues. Some of the major swing states are heavy on agriculture and candidates often stop there, with Iowa and Wisconsin two Midwestern cases in point.
For example, Romney announced his candidacy in June 2011 on a picturesque New Hampshire farm, but said nothing about rural issues during his 21-minute speech. Obama this summer stood in an Iowa farm museum, but only mentioned a nearby antique tractor and bales of hay stacked around him, fitting a couple of sentences about renewable fuels into his standard campaign speech.
“Neither really mentions rural policy in any meaningful way,” said David Flynn, University of North Dakota Economics Department chairman. “Both candidates clearly miss an opportunity to score some points by showing they understand.”
It is a trend that U.S. Rep. Collin Peterson, D-Minn., has seen for many years.
Still, Peterson said, it may not matter what they say.
“I think it is going to bring problems to us no matter who wins,” said Peterson, the top-ranking House Agriculture Committee Democrat. “We will just have to deal with it.”
For Peterson, the short of it is that former Massachusetts Gov. Romney, a Republican, wants to reduce regulations, something many rural residents strongly favor. But the congressman’s fellow Democrat, President Obama, does a better job of supporting the farm bill, which includes farmer disaster protection and a variety of rural development provisions.
Added Flynn: “You probably are not going to get everything you want from either candidate.”
With divisions like that, presidential campaign observers say that issues may be less important than party affiliation.
Rural voters are “forced” to back the candidate of their favorite parties, Flynn said, because neither delivers enough information for them to make good decisions.
“Neither candidate is laying out any specifics regarding rural-specific policies, even the consequences of other policy ideas such as energy on rural economies,” Flynn said. “There is no attention being paid to it. At some level, it is a disservice.”
A member of Romney’s Agriculture Advisory Team is not happy that rural America seldom receives the candidates’ notice.
“Agriculture is not a huge piece of the policy portfolio for either candidate,” said Ed Schafer, former North Dakota governor and U.S. agriculture secretary. “I think it is bad.”
In not discussing farming, he added, the candidates ignore facts such as the country has the largest, safest and most affordable food supply available and the only major part of the economy in which the United States exports more than it imports.
“It provides a tremendous strength to the state and to the nation,” Schafer said.
The Obama administration mostly focuses on renewable fuels when it comes to agriculture, Schafer said. That means, he added, if other parts of the farm sector have needs, they “can’t get an ear anywhere.”
Peterson said Obama has no rural experts in the White House, relying mostly on former Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack to represent rural America as agriculture secretary.
Rural America is not on the front burner for one main reason: votes.
“The challenges in front of rural America are not easy to solve now and the votes are in the urban area,” said Dee Davis, president of the Center for Rural Strategies, a national group that tracks rural issues.
The lack of discussion by candidates extended to the two campaigns, which despite repeated Forum Communications requests over several weeks did not produce representatives to discuss rural issues. Still, supporters, other observers and the candidates’ answers to questionnaires provide ideas about where they stand on rural matters.
In answers to questions submitted by the Farm Bureau and Keep America Fishing, Romney frequently discussed the need to improve the economy.
“The state of our economy is a very serious threat to our nation’s fisheries and recreational fishing,” Romney wrote about fishing issues. “Right now fishermen are concerned about how to pay their bills and what the future will hold for them and their families. The comfort of being out on the water is a little less relaxing for recreational fishermen when they are worried about the price at the pump.”
Being the incumbent, Obama could boast accomplishments.
“We kicked off the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, the largest investment in the Great Lakes in two decades, which is targeting ecological problems such as invasive species, toxic hot spots, polluted runoff from farms and cities and declining wildlife habitat,” the president said in response to a question about invasive species.
Many rural campaign watchers, including miners and farmers, turn to candidates’ environmental policy proposals as indicators of there they stand.
The two candidates showed differences, but not specifics, in answering a Farm Bureau questionnaire
Obama tried to assure rural Americans that rumored environmental rules will not materialize. For example, he promised not to expand water restrictions.
Romney, meanwhile, promoted “modernizing” environmental laws. In the first presidential debate, the Republican emphasized the need for relaxed federal regulations.
For some, despite lack of candidate attention, it is obvious who to support.
If Romney is elected, Minnesota Farmers Union President Doug Peterson said, “you would have Cargill running the country. ... It is all about venture capitalists.”
Rural residents do not like Romney’s investor background, the Farmers Union leader said.
Obama’s focus on renewable energy means other rural issues are ignored, Schafer said.
“You have a big dairy farmer some place that is struggling with some issue ... and they can’t get an ear anywhere,” Schafer said. “If you are in production agriculture that isn’t tied somehow with alternative or renewable fuels, there is no focus.”