LIANE HANSEN, host:
In presidential elections even the smallest places have big impact. That happened in the last two campaigns where huge Republican margins in rural areas helped overcome Democratic dominance of cities. A new survey indicates rural voters are poised to play a big role again, but not in the way Republicans might expect.
NPR's Howard Berkes explains why.
HOWARD BERKES: The survey reveals a topsy-turvy body politick where some in the reddest counties on the political map are defying past behavior. These are rural places President Bush won by double digits in 2000 and 2004. But this year there are rural Republicans leaning Democratic, including Betsy Rowe, an attorney, college fundraiser and church-going mom in Pella, Iowa.
Ms. BETSY ROWE (Attorney, College Fundraiser): Normally I would consider myself a moderate Republican.
BERKES: How did you vote in the last two presidential elections.
Ms. ROWE: I voted Republican, but between Obama and McCain, I believe Obama has a better chance for bringing us together as a country.
BERKES: There are also rural Democrats leaning Republican. Mary Goshee(ph) is also a churchgoing mom and substitute teacher in Finley, Ohio, who voted for Barack Obama when living in Illinois, but she doesn't think she can do that now.
Ms. MARY GOSHEE (Substitute Teacher): I've never even really thought I would ever vote for a Republican, but I just don't know if he really has the experience that I'm looking for. He's such a fresh new face and, yes, change would be nice but we also need somebody who has a little more background.
BERKES: Both Goshee and Rowe responded to the survey, which shows an even split if it's Hillary Clinton against John McCain. That's a stunning upgrade for Clinton, who was as unpopular as illegal immigrants in a similar rural poll last year.
Many consider Barack Obama the likely Democratic nominee and he's nine points behind in a survey. But that turns out to be bad news for Republican McCain, says Alan Abramowitz, a political scientist at Emory University.
Mr. ALAN ABRAMOWITZ (Political Scientist, Emory University): The Republicans need to take a big polarity out from that vote. I think they need more than a ten-point margin with rural voters if they're going to carry most of those swing states.
BERKES: The survey was conducted last week in rural counties in 13 battleground states from Florida to New Hampshire and Pennsylvania to Nevada. Close to 700 likely voters responded. The Center for Rural Strategy sponsored the survey. Questions about issues showed John McCain perceived as strong on values and weak on the economy, notes Bill Greener, a Republican political consultant involved in the survey.
Mr. BILL GREENER (Republican Political Consultant): The challenge is to continue to build upon the matter of values while at the same time demonstrating the ability to address and solve the economic challenges that confront rural America and indeed all Americans.
BERKES: More than half of those surveyed agreed with the statement that Barack Obama does not share their values. In the last two elections it was family and social values, issues like gay marriage and abortion and gun ownership, that motivated many rural voters to go Republican.
But in this election so far, gas prices, food costs and the economy loom as major issues. Close to half of those surveyed in this rural poll agreed that John McCain does not understand their economic problems. Alan Abramowitz of Emory University.
Mr. ABRAMOWITZ: If the Democrats can't capitalize on that, particularly among these white working-class voters, they may as well pack up their bags and go home.
BERKES: The poll indicates there's a potentially receptive audience among rural voters. Close to half describe themselves as Democratic or leaning Democratic. More than half describe themselves as moderate or liberal. But there's a key question the survey doesn't answer, notes Anna Greenberg, the Democratic pollster who conducted the polling.
Ms. ANNA GREENBERG (Democratic Pollster): Is there a set of Democratic voters in rural areas who simply will not vote for Barack Obama because of his race or other issues, or once they know him better and understand how problematic John McCain is, can they be persuaded to vote for Barack Obama, and I think that's the big question.
BERKES: The survey team plans to track these rural trends for both Democratic and Republican candidates in at least two more polls before the November election.
Howard Berkes, NPR News.
HANSEN: You can analyze this rural poll yourself by going to our Web site at NPR.org.
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