In North Carolina, progressive activists reach out to rural voters as an overlooked segment of the electorate.
November 24, 2021
It’s Nov. 1, and Precious Cogwell is canvassing in Alamance County, North Carolina, encouraging people to go to the polls the next day. No one answers Cogwell’s knock at the front door of a brick ranch house, but she spies a man around back and walks over, a stack of voter guides in her arms.
“Are you thinking of voting?” she asks.
He looks at her warily. “I might. I might be out of town—you know, I’m retired.”
He’s Black and so is Cogwell, and she shifts to a more familiar tone. “You know, turnout was a little low last time,” she says.
He gives her a long look, then acquiesces. “OK, I’ll do it. I’ll vote.”
Cogwell is working for Down Home North Carolina, a group based in five rural North Carolina counties that’s aiming to build support among poor and working-class communities to grow a multiracial, progressive coalition. This nonpartisan get-out-the-vote effort before the Nov. 2 municipal election is just one tool in its arsenal, but it matters.
Other election results around the United States were far more dispiriting. In Virginia, Republicans swept state and local elections, with particularly strong turnout in rural areas. The outcome portends poorly for Democrats in 2022, and kicked off a new cycle of hand-wringing about the party’s lack of popularity in rural regions. That’s due to many factors, but it’s partially the result of Democratic Party representatives’ diminished presence there, aside from the occasional visit during a campaign. The party’s ground operations have been receding from rural America for a decade, at least, while Republicans have courted residents consistently and year-round.
Down Home offers a potential model for how progressives might proceed in North Carolina. The organization was established in 2017 specifically as an antidote to the Democratic withdrawal problem. “We understood that huge swaths of the state haven’t had a complete democratic ecosystem for long periods. The progressive movement and [progressive] Democrats were not even competing for voters,” says Todd Zimmer, one of Down Home’s founders. “And we were also seeing that poor and working people were being very poorly served.”
Indeed, starting in 2012, Republicans have captured a majority of North Carolina’s county commission boards in each electoral cycle. And while the state leaned Democratic in local elections in the past, Democratic officials tended to be fairly conservative and were often more aligned politically with Republicans than with the national Democratic Party.
What’s also the case is that in many locales, especially rural counties, the Democratic Party doesn’t even field candidates for local offices, and Republicans run unopposed.
In response, Down Home began knocking on doors and talking to people in the parking lots of Walmarts and food banks and social services agencies across several counties. That type of one-on-one communication, often with people who haven’t been engaged in the political process before, is still a hallmark of its strategy. Down Home’s goal is to address tangible needs that residents themselves identify, as a way of bypassing some of the rhetoric and culture-war talking points. The objective, ultimately, is to elect more progressive candidates who will fight for poor and working people’s needs—though the organization emphasizes that it’s technically nonpartisan and therefore doesn’t affiliate with the Democratic Party.
The group tends to focus on bread-and-butter issues that affect lower-income people of all political persuasions. That includes big national initiatives, such as health care and a living wage, as well as explicitly local issues, such as the need for more substance abuse treatment centers rather than jails, or landfill fees that are too high.
Down Home isn’t just focused on White residents, even though the term “rural working class” tends to evoke images of just that. Like many other states, particularly in the South, rural areas are full of Black and Latino voters—and more than a few supported Donald Trump in the last presidential election. Down Home is betting that, despite a deep racial divide, it can bring Blacks and Whites into coalition together. “We think this is the only way to move the South and to build working-class power and have a real populist movement,” says Gwen Frisbie-Fulton, Down Home’s director of communications.
But it’s slow, incremental work, especially in a place like North Carolina, where 80 of the state’s 100 counties are rural and almost all of them supported Donald Trump last year. But in Alamance County, a former textile-producing region that’s lost thousands of jobs over the past two decades and has seen the rise of far-right movements, Down Home’s directors point to the election of the state’s first Latino legislator as one of the group’s successes.
More nebulous are the social and political changes. “When I joined Down Home in 2017, no one attended county commission meetings, no one paid attention to what was going on,” says Dreama Caldwell, one of Down Home’s co-directors and an Alamance County resident. These days, she says, far more citizens are politically active, and county commission meetings are often crowded. Plus, the group has helped to unite the area’s disparate political organizations. “It moved from being a competitive thing to a collaborative environment.”
But the lack of attention from the Democratic Party has allowed conservative positions to become deeply entrenched. Some observers say there’s no way a group like Down Home, working on a shoestring, can really change minds.
“You can talk to White rural voters who watch Fox, [but] you’re not going to convert them,” says Theda Skocpol, a Harvard political scientist and sociologist who recently released a study examining why some political movements in the South succeed while others don’t. “There’s a lot of romanticism on the Left that if you talk to people about things, you’ll change them. You’re not going to overcome the racial divide very easily.”
Indeed, Anthony Flaccavento, a resident of rural Virginia who established the Rural Progressive Platform and ran for Congress in 2018, chalks up his loss to the deep partisan divide. “I think people thought, ‘I can’t take a chance on a Democrat,'” he explains. “The polarization is so extreme.” But Flaccavento himself doesn’t believe rural America is a lost cause for progressive ideas. He’s created a new organization, the Rural Urban Bridge Initiative, that trains liberal organizations in communicating with rural residents.
Down Home’s organizers are true believers too. And they’ve got a couple of tools in their box that might give them an advantage.
Getting Deep Into Outreach and Canvassing
It’s a few days after the election, and a Down Home employee, working from home in Winston-Salem, is cold-calling rural residents around the state to ask how they’re doing and what kind of concerns they currently have.
“Hi, this is Jillian with Down Home,” the caller says. “We’re just calling neighbors to see how you and folks you care about were impacted by the pandemic.”
Before the coronavirus pandemic broke out, Down Home took pride in its face-to-face door-knocking campaigns. These days, it often connects with people over the phone. But the upshot is the same: conversations with rural residents that aim to connect on an emotional level, as a way to find common ground. It’s called deep canvassing, and it’s a technique Down Home has been employing since the organization’s 2017 launch. Sometimes, deep canvassing campaigns—like this one, conducted by Jillian and her colleagues—are largely about listening. Often, though, the goal is to change minds.
Does it actually work? “All the time,” says Bonnie Dobson, one of Down Home’s deep-canvassing trainers.
“The whole thing about deep canvassing is that people are conflicted about certain things. It’s cognitive dissonance,” she says. For example, someone on the phone might say, “We don’t need government—people should be taking care of themselves.” Dobson might sympathetically respond with her own story, and then add that she’s been grateful for the school buses that delivered meals to kids in her town during the pandemic.
And that might nudge the other person to begin thinking—and talking—about a time when they got help that didn’t look like the stereotypical “government assistance” they’d had in mind. The level of listening and respect used by Down Home’s callers, who are themselves working-class rural residents, helps keep people from becoming defensive and digging into their positions.
During the 2020 presidential race, People’s Action—a national network of progressive groups, including Down Home, with roots in community organizing—employed deep canvassing (PDF) in 280,000 conversations around the country. Researchers found that the model decreased Trump’s vote margin with women by 4.9%, and with all voters by 3.1%. Use of the technique was estimated to be over 100 times more effective per person than the average electoral persuasion strategy in presidential races. And the shift in support persisted for at least four months following the canvassing.
Still, Down Home’s leaders admit that the racial divide that Skocpol referenced is formidable. “We know that conservative politicians have long used racial dog whistles to attract White working-class voters, and we know that dog-whistle politics work,” says Dan Bayer, a longtime deep canvasser with the organization. “So, you run into people who’d probably support a program, except for these stereotypes they had of ‘lazy minorities’ taking advantage of it.”
“The main message,” says Bayer, “is, whether we’re White, Brown, or Black, we all want safe communities and a shot at a decent life. But those in power use racism to distract us while they pass huge tax cuts for themselves or large subsidies for their businesses. Don’t you think we should work together?”
López and his research partners have found that a race-class message works, empirically. After all, if racism is the main reason low-income Black and White residents haven’t come together in solidarity—what López has called “the holy grail of progressive organizing”—then it’s critical to call it out for what it is, rather than hoping it’ll go away, as Democrats tend to do, says López. “Nobody wins in sports or politics by leaving the other side’s best player unguarded,” he quips.
George Goehl, director of People’s Action and a longtime community organizer, has come to strongly support deep canvassing, especially used in tandem with the race-class narrative. “If you want to advance a progressive agenda on economics, race, gender—I don’t think it’s possible unless we dramatically expand how many people we’re in conversation with that don’t agree with us on some things,” he says.
Down Home has big plans for the coming year. The organization hopes to scale up and expand across the state. That’ll begin with another major listening canvass so the group’s leaders can grasp citizens’ concerns and develop a statewide issue mandate. One item will most certainly be Medicaid expansion, but the rest will be determined by citizens’ needs.
Shifting the balance of power in the state won’t be easy. North Carolina’s electoral districts are deeply gerrymandered in favor of Republicans, and polarization means only 15% of the state’s 2,700 precincts are competitive. Down Home’s chance of influencing legislative and Congressional elections is slim. But Trump won the state in 2020 by only 1.4 percentage points, the smallest margin of any state. If Down Home works quickly, the group could have a real opportunity to impact the 2024 presidential election.
But winning elections wouldn’t be the only important accomplishment. For a group introducing progressive ideas to rural areas after years of inattention, success might just look like losing by a little less.
This article was written for YES! Magazine, a national, nonprofit media organization that fuses powerful ideas and practical actions. Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 License.
Amanda is a freelance journalist based in Durham, North Carolina. Learn more about her at amandaannabrams.com.