McCain Holds Lead With Rural Voters: Is It Enough? A new survey of rural voters shows Republican presidential nominee John McCain with a 10-point lead among this key group. But this may not be enough to overcome Democrat Barack Obama's expected margins in the nation's cities.

McCain Holds Lead With Rural Voters: Is It Enough?

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

This is All Things Considered from NPR News. I'm Michele Norris,

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

And I'm Melissa Block. John McCain has not gained ground with a voter group considered critical to a Republican victory in November. A new survey of rural voters puts McCain 10 points ahead of Barack Obama. But that's not enough according to political consultants from both parties, who say a bigger margin is necessary for McCain to win. NPR's Howard Berkes explains.

HOWARD BERKES: The significance of the rural vote is due to 30 years of demographic shifts, says writer Bill Bishop in his book, "The Big Sort."

Mr. BILL BISHOP (Author, "The Big Sort"; Journalist, Center for Rural Strategies): There's been a gap that's grown between rural areas and urban areas in terms of how they vote. So by 2004, urban areas voted overwhelmingly Democratic, and rural areas voted overwhelmingly Republican.

BERKES: Bishop now works for the Center for Rural Strategies, the nonpartisan group that sponsored last week's rural poll. More than 700 likely voters were surveyed in rural counties in 13 states considered competitive for both candidates.

Mr. BISHOP: What's happened in the last two elections is that votes out of rural areas elected George Bush. So the question in this race is will the Republican Party be able to maintain those margins to offset what clearly will be a strong vote for Barack Obama out of the city?

BERKES: And the answer today is no, based on the responses to last week's rural poll. In it McCain leads Obama 51 to 41 percent in the rural battleground.

Ms. ANNA GREENBERG (Democratic Pollster): In this rural poll, you have McCain only winning by 10 points. That's a recipe for Obama winning this election.

BERKES: Anna Greenberg is the Democratic pollster in the bipartisan team that conducted and analyzed the rural survey.

Ms. GREENBERG: At the moment, if you look at the national polls, Obama now has about an average of a two-point lead. Part of the reason why he has that lead is that McCain isn't doing better in rural areas.

BERKES: Four years ago, President Bush needed a 20-point rural margin to overcome Democrat John Kerry's big lead in the cities. But here's the good news for McCain. At this point in 2004, President Bush did not have the margin he needed yet either. A similar survey in September 2004 had the president only 13 points ahead. That encourages Republican political consultant Bill Greener, who was also part of the rural polling team.

Mr. BILL GREEANER (Republican Political Consultant): It is entirely comparable to where we were in 2004. And more important than that, if you look at some of the specific questions, you can see that all the movement is favorable toward Senator McCain. And we are not were we need to be on Election Day, but we're moving in that direction.

BERKES: The momentum comes from comparing this poll to another just like it four months ago. McCain gained big since then when rated on issues including the economy and change. In the new poll, he's about even with Obama on those key concerns, but he scores higher on taxes, values, and resolving the war in Iraq. And half of those surveyed said they are more likely to support McCain with Sarah Palin on the ticket. More than half said Palin shared their rural values and is ready to be vice president.

Ms. GREENBERG: But what I come back to, what I find interesting, is that even though there is this enthusiasm for Sarah Palin, it didn't move the vote.

BERKES: And neither did that the increased confidence in McCain on key issues, notes Democratic pollster Anna Greenberg. Back in May, she says, McCain and Obama had the same rural support they have in this poll.

Ms. GREENBERG: That makes it sort of wide open for either of them to, you know, either Obama to sort of keep the margin of victory lower for McCain, or for McCain to just sort of take it away from Obama.

BERKES: Both have committed supporters in the rural battleground, but gaining ground is a challenge given what some of the respondents in the rural poll say. Republican Dan Goldsmith is an environmental compliance manager in Kane, Pennsylvania.

Mr. DAN GOLDSMITH (Environmental Compliance Manager): I'm interested in Obama because I'm definitely interested in change. We're hardworking folks 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.

BERKES: And Democrat Penelope Couvillion is a college professor in Concord, New Hampshire, who was hoping to have Hillary Clinton on the ballot.

Professor PENELOPE COUVILLION (College Professor): You know, it's hard. I don't agree with so much of McCain's views, but at the same time, I'm frightened by the lack of experience of Obama. I just feel as though there isn't a record to look at. And McCain, he has certainly a history of bipartisan support, and he was a maverick earlier on, so I'm considering him where normally I wouldn't consider a Republican at all.

BERKES: Another rural battleground poll is scheduled next month to gauge whether either candidate is getting the movement he needs within this key voter group. Howard Berkes, NPR News.

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