The Texas Democratic Party does not know rural voters. Even worse, it does not know how to get to know them. If TDP wants to make ground in rural Texas, the party and most of its candidates cannot apply the same tactics with rural voters that they do in urban/suburban areas. I offer this is a primer on key practical differences campaigns must be aware of before they ever venture to make rural voters part of any election strategy. My experience is in West Texas, so I cannot say that these observations would apply in all rural areas of the state, but I have seen them first hand for myself as a party official, volunteer, and local and congressional candidate. These observations are not based on any scientific analysis, but mostly come from anecdotal evidence and my own experience in real time.
Technology and Social Media Campaigns Have Limited Effect
Sophisticated technology and social medial campaigns do not have the same impact in rural areas they do in urban/suburban areas. This may change as time goes on and as access to technology and communications improves, but for now this is an unavoidable fact. I would say there are several reasons for this.
First, the average age of the population in rural areas is much higher than in urban. This does not mean that older rural voters do not use social media or technology. But it does mean that their use of technology and social media is limited. Email is not checked every day or, in some cases, frequently at all. Facebook is the best social medial platform to use as it has the widest possible reach in rural areas. Twitter, Instagram, Tik Tok or others are mostly ineffective. Even Facebook is not used all that often by many and most users are not familiar with all its features. It is only checked occasionally by many. People more frequently use it on their computer than a handheld device and few are checking it several times a day. Email, Facebook and other social media platforms are not reliable means of time-sensitive communication with a large group of followers in rural Texas. It is used more for keeping up with friends and family than for political engagement. It is not as effective of means of political engagement with rural voters as other tools. Many folks still prefer print-materials and regular U.S. Mail.
Second, the lack of high speed broadband internet access, and the spottiness of the service where it exists, means the reach of technology is limited in rural areas. People in town have better access than those out in the country, but even this is not very good in many places. Zoom and other apps that use streaming and video are often of little use or can be frustrating to use. People are also unfamiliar with many of them and hesitate to use them.
Third, people have not been trained in how to use the latest apps or social media as a tool for political organization and advocacy. They do not spend enough time on it. They do not use it every day and sometimes not for weeks. They do not understand the importance of growing an audience of followers. They may like posts from the party or candidates, but they never share or retweet them with their friends and followers. Rarely do most people create their own content about political issues or candidates.
Additionally, the state-wide and national campaigns that use social media to reach rural voters, never seem to target or adjust their message to a rural audience. Most of the posts are designed around highly publicized national or state-wide events or issues. They are mostly reactive to events, or efforts to raise money from rural voters and to spend it on a city focused campaign.
Social media and technology is not used to pro-actively build connections with and support from or within rural communities. The party and campaigns rarely bring national or state-wide issues down to a local context. A classic example is the problem of the uninsured and the connection between the failure to expand Medicaid and the pandemic of closure of rural hospitals. There has never been any rural focused messaging on this most critical issue for rural communities. We need campaigns that work with local candidates or parties to build better local political networks that can then expand to wider networks. Despite the views of many, in rural Texas all politics is really local.
With the vast distances and low population density in rural Texas, social media and technology is a tool that could be very effective but we will need to teach and train people how to use it for political engagement and activism. We are not maximizing its use. We may not be able to do much about rural broadband yet, but a real effort to train people to use social media effectively is probably the one thing we could do easily and inexpensively to grow Democrats reach and visible presence in rural Texas.
Traditional Canvassing Must Change
The number of volunteers to do traditional door to door canvassing in West Texas are very few. The design of rural communities, the low population density and the distances between residents make this an almost impossible task in rural areas. Aside from layout and distance, gates and houses set far back into private property make it difficult even if you try to walk. Then there are the dogs. Sometimes the difference between farm and ranch dogs and wild dogs is razor thin. Even in town, large dogs roam loose and large security fences and locked gates mean all you can do is leave a hanger on the gate that the owner may or may not ever go through. Additionally, as crazy as it sounds, most people out here still like and expect to see the candidate walking and knocking on the doors. But because of the large districts and distances, and the time it takes, few candidates above the County Precinct level can commit to do that on a large scale.
A key problem is the use of VAN and MiniVAN for canvassing. The information is often out of date or not accurate for rural areas, where people move frequently from one house to another. The MiniVAN app does not show the locations of houses correctly on the map and even changes in city streets are not reflected properly. I personally ran into this problem.
Canvassing for identified Democratic voters in Eden, Texas I could not find the street I was looking for though the app showed I was right on top of the voter’s residence. The owner flagged me down. (Driving is sometimes the preferable way to canvas out here because of distance.) I told him who I was trying to find and he said, “That’s me.” I apologized and told him I was looking for such and such street. He told me that used to be the streets name, but it had changed. I asked how long ago it was changed. He said about ten or fifteen years ago. The most effective way to canvass is with an active knowledgeable precinct chair, but there are so few of those that when you encounter one it is like finding the white buffalo. The party has allowed the most effective means of connecting with individual voters to atrophy in rural Texas.
Even if a campaign can afford to pay legions of canvassers, other than in a few core urban areas, their impact will be limited unless they are intensely focused. The work necessary to do this sort of micro-targeted canvassing takes months if not years of advance work. It cannot be done effectively on the fly. Even the urban areas are hard to walk and have lo density population, and there is a deep sense of mistrust of people walking some areas. It will take long term investment in data gathering, demographic study, polling and other sophisticated work over years and years of elections to get it right. Unless we invest in the infrastructure to make this happen, canvassing will be nothing more than busy work for a campaign with little to show for it.
The importance of the Post Office and Cafe
I know this is hard for city folks to believe, but many rural areas do not have mail or package delivery to their homes. In many places all mail is delivered only to a P.O. Box. If you do not have a P.O. Box you are not going to receive any U.S. Mail. This also means that the local post office is the one place in a rural community that everyone goes to every day or every few days. Letter and postcard writing may seem outdated as a campaign tool in the 21st Century, but it is incredibly effective when used properly in rural Texas. The rural post office is sometimes a better way to reach folks than email or social media. Other such places are the local cafe, cotton gin or livestock sale barn and of course high school football games. Those are where people congregate. You cannot expect them to come to your event. You have to go to them. We have to use this localized knowledge to reach voters.
Advertising in Rural Areas
The areas we campaign in out here are so huge, and the media markets so many and with such broad coverage, using TV to reach voters is incredibly expensive. Many candidates cannot afford that. Rural radio stations however draw huge listening audiences from all over the region and the opportunity to use these either by interviews on the radio or paid advertising should not be overlooked. Local newspapers also still have a large following and readership.
Micro-targeted digital advertising has the potential to be a significant game changer for Democrats in rural areas. It is the cheapest of all the alternatives and the cost to advertise in small rural counties themselves is just pennies. But to be effective, this too relies on our building the long term infrastructure for the micro-targeted canvassing I mentioned above. We have just begun to touch the surface of its potential for rural Texas. If we were to truly put an effort into building the data analysis, specifically designed and modeled for rural areas, and with a properly funded budget, this could make a significant impact.
Phone-banking and Texting
People hate calling on the phone or being called on the phone. People don’t mind being texted or receiving one text, but they hate being texted over and over with the same text. West Texans prefer texting people to phone-banking. But once again, we need to lay out the proper infrastructure over a long period of time to target the audience and do micro-targeting.
Phone bank and text lists from VAN are mostly worthless, incorrect and out of date. Doing my own phone-banking I came across my own contact. It had several numbers listed for me, several of which I have never had in my life and which were not even an area code used in the State of Texas. Whoever TDP is buying their lists from are ripping them off. When local parties use VAN lists for calling or texting large numbers of strong Republican voters are on those lists. All this texting to Republican voters made people angry and perhaps more motivated to go vote against our candidates. The targeting and modeling through VAN is not accurate for rural areas and does not give a realistic picture of the situation on the ground. Again creating the infrastructure with our own modeling and lists will be crucial to success in rural areas because the TDP has failed to supply the political infrastructure we need.
National and statewide campaigns flood rural voters with text messages asking the same questions over and over again. How many texts do I have to answer for M.J. Hegar that I was voting for her? And it not just from campaigns. The party and every group within the party reach out this way, repeatedly, sending the same person hundreds if not thousands of texts. It has a tendency to make even die-hard yellow dog Democrats want to change their cell numbers. Also, large numbers of call and texts to seniors in rural areas become confusing and make elderly voters suspicious of who is contacting them and why they keep contacting them. Is it a Republican disinformation effort, is it one of the scammers their kids tell them to beware of?
Again, the solution to this is undertaking our own data collection, analysis and creating our own lists and information — creating the political infrastructure we need to be successful.
Perhaps the most important thing the party and campaigns can do is make a determined effort to move away from overly centralized decision making. We need to give people the freedom to develop ideas of how to reach people in their communities on their own and then turn them loose to do it. Many campaigns and party organizations are too focused on controlling every aspect of their campaign. Centralization of control will not work in a rural campaign. The area is decentralized, the people are scattered and decentralized and they won’t put up with campaign staff that are hard to deal with and who want to micro-manage an effort in a County that is 400 miles away.
In other words, we need a complete change of mindset in order to have a chance in improving the Democratic vote in West Texas.
Jon Mark Hogg is a lawyer in San Angelo, Texas and a former Democratic Candidate for U.S. Congress.