Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack Says Democrats Could Win Back Rural Voters

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Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, Oct. 7, 2015. (Carolyn Kaster/AP)
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Democrats are trying to figure out how to win back white working-class voters after last month’s loss to Donald Trump, and at least one member of President Barack Obama’s cabinet has a few ideas.

Tom Vilsack has served as agriculture secretary for the entirety of Obama’s administration, and as a former governor of Iowa, he has urged his fellow Democrats for years that their party needs to reach out to rural voters.

Here & Now‘s Peter O’Dowd spoke with Vilsack about rural politics, where the Democratic party goes from here and how international trade impacts U.S. farmers.

Interview Highlights

On his reaction to Trump’s win

“I wouldn’t say that I saw it coming, but I had some concerns about how accurate the polls were, based on my travels throughout rural America for the last several years. And it’s not just this campaign, I think this has been a situation that has been developing over a period of many years, and I think it finally came to a head in this election.”

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On how President Obama’s approach to rural areas in 2008 and 2012 compared to Clinton’s in 2016

“The president’s right — he did in fact go to Iowa, he did in fact spend a lot of time in the small towns, and I think that made a big difference. There was one difference though. When the president ran the first time, in 2008, [Iowa] had a Democratic governor, a Democratic legislature and a Democratic voting registration edge. All of that has dissipated over the period of the last six or seven, eight years. So [in 2016] we had a Republican governor, a Republican house, and all of the Republicans in Iowa — in leadership positions — were forcefully behind Donald Trump.

“Having said that, I think that, if you look at state legislative races, you look at Congressional races, you look at Senate races, and now you look at the presidential race, the Democratic Party needs to spend some time, some resource and some effort in rural areas, because the president is absolutely correct — you cannot afford to lose those places 90/10, 80/20, 75/25, as has happened in far too many elections in the last couple of cycles.”

On the Democratic Party’s message

“I think that there’s an understandable desire to focus on the future, and to focus on increasing and expanding populations in the country, and that’s all well and good. I think the reality is you have to do both. I think you have to have a strategy that, essentially, speaks to the entirety of America. Because we have a message that I believe will sell, and we have taken steps to provide help and assistance, we just haven’t marketed as aggressively and as well as I think we should have.”

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