The poll was conducted for the Center for Rural Strategies, a Kentucky-based group trying to bring attention to rural issues, on Sept. 16-18, by the pollsters, Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research. It consisted of a telephone survey of 742 likely voters living in rural areas in the battleground states of New Hampshire, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin, Iowa, Minnesota, Missouri, Florida, Virginia, Colorado, New Mexico and Nevada. The survey carries a margin of error of +/-3.75 percentage points at a 95 percent confidence level.
A new survey of rural voters shows that Republican presidential hopeful John McCain has a 10-point lead among this key group. But 10 points in the nation's least populated and most remote places may not be enough to overcome Democrat Barack Obama's expected margins in the nation's cities.
The poll of 742 likely voters in rural counties in 13 tightly contested states has McCain ahead 51 percent to 41 percent.
"In this rural poll, you have McCain only winning by 10 points. That's a recipe for Obama winning this election," says Anna Greenberg, a Democratic pollster who was part of the bipartisan team that conducted the survey. "If you look at the national polls, Obama now has about an average of a two-point lead. Part of the reason that he has that lead is McCain isn't doing better in rural areas."
Republican political consultant William Greener, who also helped conduct the bipartisan survey, agrees that McCain needs a bigger rural margin to win the election in November.
"We are not where we need to be on Election Day, but we're moving in that direction," Greener contends. He points out that President Bush had similar rural support in a similar rural poll at this time in 2004, but still won rural counties by 20 percentage points on Election Day.
Results Similar To '04?
The results of the new poll are "entirely comparable to where we were in 2004," Greener notes. "And more important than that, if you look at some of the questions, you can see that all the movement is favorable toward Senator McCain."
That's a reference to a survey question about which candidate "would do a better job" with a variety of issues. Fifty-one percent of the respondents cited the economy and jobs as the top issue for Congress and the president. Forty-six percent said McCain would better handle that issue, compared to 43 percent for Obama. That's essentially even, given the poll's margin of error of plus or minus 3.75 percentage points, but it's a leap of 11 points for McCain compared to a rural battleground poll conducted in May 2008.
The rural voters in the new survey showed similar leaps in confidence in McCain's handling of other issues. Half also said they were more likely to support McCain with Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin as his running mate.
"If you look at number after number after number [in this poll]," says Greener, "the movement is in the direction of Sen. McCain."
But Democratic pollster Greenberg notes that the increased confidence on some issues and enthusiasm for running mate Palin don't translate into increased support. The May rural survey had McCain and Obama with the same levels of support shown in the new poll. "It didn't move the vote," says Greenberg. "At the moment, I think this could go either way."
Looking For A Decisive Margin
Rural voters are considered key to a Republican victory in November. Big margins in rural counties are credited with putting President Bush in the White House in 2000 and keeping him there in 2004.
In 2004, "Urban areas voted overwhelmingly Democratic, and rural areas voted overwhelmingly Republican," says Bill Bishop, author of The Big Sort, which compares 30 years of demographic data and election returns. Four years ago, rural counties gave President Bush a margin of 4.1 million votes. That was enough to overcome John Kerry's margin of 3.7 million votes in urban counties.
Bishop says the question now is, "Will the Republican Party be able to maintain those [rural] margins to offset what clearly will be a strong vote for Barack Obama [in cities]?"
The survey was sponsored by the nonpartisan Center for Rural Strategies, a Kentucky-based group trying to attract attention to rural issues. Polling was conducted Sept. 16-18 in rural counties in Florida, Virginia, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin, Iowa, Minnesota, Missouri, Colorado, New Mexico and Nevada, which are considered battleground states.
Poll Responses: The Issues
The economy and jobs rated as the top issue among the rural voters polled: 51 percent listed it as the concern that deserves the most attention from the president and Congress; energy and gas prices followed at 25 percent; the war in Iraq was named by 21 percent of respondents.
More of the voters polled said McCain would do a better job than Obama with the economy, but only slightly more. The difference is within the poll's margin of error.
The same is true for the issue of energy and gas prices. But McCain fares 19 points higher on who would do better at handling "the situation in Iraq."
McCain and Obama were also statistically even on the question of who would bring "the right kind of change." One of the voters surveyed identifies himself as a Republican, but he has difficulty viewing McCain as an agent of change.
"I'm interested in Obama, because I'm definitely interested in change," says Dan Goldsmith, an environmental compliance manager in Kane, Pa. "We're hard-working folk here, and we're definitely losing ground. I did vote for President Bush, but I'm a little dissatisfied with the current state of affairs. And I don't see Mr. McCain being able to take us in a new direction."
In the past two elections, "values" rated high among rural voters and helped move them toward President Bush. McCain lead 52 percent to 38 percent when the respondents were asked which candidate would do a better job with "sharing your values." But only 9 percent named "moral values" as a top concern, and 61 percent indicated that the economy is more important than values in this election.
Factoring In Palin
Sarah Palin is a clear plus among the respondents to this poll. Half said they were more likely to support McCain with Palin as the vice presidential candidate. Only one-third said they were less likely to support McCain with Palin on the ticket.
Two-thirds believe Palin, a former small-town mayor, "represents the values of rural communities," and 54 percent said Palin is "ready to be vice president and assume the presidency" if needed. (Forty-three percent do not consider Palin ready.)
Two of the poll respondents who spoke with NPR are among those enthusiastic about Palin, but they also say that doesn't sway their choice for president.
"I believe that being a rural American like myself, that she would have some sympathies toward folks like us," says Goldsmith, who is leaning toward Obama. "It's a presidential ticket. You're voting for the president."
Sandra Lou Pool, 70, of Naturita, Colo., is excited about a woman on the Republican ticket. A former uranium miner and race car driver, Pool boasts that she "did a lot of things in my younger years that weren't exactly ladylike. I think a woman can do as good a job as a man."
But Pool says Palin has no effect on her vote. "It's more about the president," she says. She's leaning toward McCain. "Obama's awful young and some of his ideas — I just don't see how he's going to back them up."
A woman who hoped to have Hillary Clinton on the ballot and is a lifelong Democrat is thinking about voting for McCain, but not because Palin is his running mate.
"I'm pleased that he's chosen a female running mate, but I don't agree with her views on most everything," says Penelope Couvillion, a college professor in Concord, N.H. Couvillion adds that she also doesn't agree with many of McCain's views, "but, at the same time, I'm frightened by the lack of experience of Obama. And McCain has a history of bipartisan support, and he was a maverick earlier on."
The Role Of Race
Pollsters find it difficult to discern the role of race in a voter's choice. When asked directly about whether race, gender or religion are factors in their voting, people tend to give the socially desirable response. They seem to know better than to say they won't vote for Obama because he's African-American.
Still, the rural poll tried to get at the issue of race by asking the question indirectly. The poll's respondents, 88 percent of whom are white, were asked to respond to a pair of statements:
"My neighbors and the people in my community ARE ready for a black president OR my neighbors and the people in my community ARE NOT ready for a black president." Fifty-three percent agreed with the first statement; 24 percent agreed with the statement that their communities are not ready. That's consistent with the responses to the same question asked in national polls.
This is an important question among rural voters because of anecdotal evidence that race seemed to hurt Barack Obama in some rural areas during the primaries.
"Barack Obama has some challenges with white, older, blue-collar voters. There are a lot of those voters in rural areas," says Greenberg. "And some piece of that is racial attitudes, and you see that in this survey. But it's not a surprise, and it's not different from these voters who live in other places. It's just that there are more of them there."
When NPR spoke with survey participant Pool about her resistance to Obama, she volunteered this, without any prompting: "I know people around here who are affected by the racial part of it."
Pool noted her own mixed-race background, saying, "I have Indians and all kinds of critters in my background." She said she was more concerned about Obama's youthfulness and experience.
But this is what Pool hears from other people she knows: "They think he's doing it to prove that his race is better, and he would be picking on whites and favoring the black people. I don't think I've had anybody tell me that they were going to vote for Obama."
That's clearly not representative of the rural people polled. More than 40 percent say they favor Obama. But the views of some of Pool's neighbors indicate that Obama will have difficulty overcoming some of the resistance among some rural voters.